photography from the ground up

Landscapes

Black and White, Toning, and Split Toning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Shiprock-The Big Plug

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

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

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

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


Treading On Sacred Ground

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

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

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

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

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


Give Me A Dramatic Sky

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

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

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

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

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


In Praise Of Ruins

One of the nice things about living in a dry climate is: things are preserved. They are not washed back to the earth as quickly as they might be in a wetter climate. The desert southwest is famous for its ruins, not only those of the Anasazi, or Ancient Ones, but also of cultures that are more recent. I spend a lot of time making photographs in the desert where I come across a ruin on just about every trip. They may not be as famous as Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon, but they speak of the past nonetheless.

Usually these locations are single dwellings, the remnants of someone’s dream slowly being reclaimed by the earth, but sometimes they are entire villages or settlements that were thriving communities, but are now nothing more than abandoned piles of crumbling adobe and rotting wood. The first two images are of ruins in the Rio Puerco Valley in north-central New Mexico

Many of the more well known and much older sites are of Native American origin. Pueblo Pintado is an outlier of Chaco Canyon and was inhabited from around 900-1250 CE. The image below shows one of the kivas in the foreground and the Great House behind it. The people who lived here were the forebears of the modern day pueblo people

Whenever I am in one of these places, I am overcome by a feeling of kinship with the people who lived and died there. I find myself wondering who they were and what they did to sustain themselves. What were their names? Why did these places fail and fall prey to time and the weather? In many cases, such as the ranching communities in the Rio Puerco Valley, it was overgrazing that forced the inhabitants out. In places like Pueblo Pintado or Mesa Verde, it is thought that drought played a large part in their demise.

This last image is one of twenty-three kivas in the Cliff Palace which was the largest cliff dwelling in North America. It housed about one hundred people in 150 rooms. There are close to six hundred cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park.


Black and White (Sands)

White Sands is an incredibly beautiful place. I don’t go there as often as I should; it’s only about a four-hour drive from my door. Every time I do go, I wonder why it’s been so long since my last trip. Of course, for me the attraction is the photography.

The stark landscape provides the perfect ingredients for great black and white images.  Each of these photographs was made on the edge of light. The sun was low above the San Andres Mountains to the west.

Simplicity is the key; images that can be reduced to basic compositional elements are the ones that work best in monochrome. They can stand well on their own without the need for color. Don’t get me wrong I love making color photographs; I will continue to do so, but right now, I am re-discovering the power of the black and white image.

These three started as color versions because they were captured in RAW format. I followed my normal workflow, making global post processing adjustments in Adobe Lightroom and then moved them to Photoshop for the fine tweaks. The last step, the black and white conversions, were done in Silver Efex Pro.

I am pleased with the unexpected turn my photography has taken. As I mentioned in a previous post, I started out as a black and white photographer back in the day of chemicals, enlargers, and safelights. I feel like my work has come full circle.


Take Your Camera

One of the first things I tell my beginning digital photography students is:“Always have a camera with you!”. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have come across a wonderful scene and, without a camera, could only stand there and appreciate it. Not a bad thing, but as a photographer…!!!

I was driving into town for groceries-a sixty mile drive for me-and this scene unfolded along US Hwy. 550. I stood on the shoulder and waited until traffic cleared so I could make this image. Sometimes the light and the conditions combine to create a scene that may never happen again in exactly the same way. Be ready when that happens.

This image was made in a friend’s driveway. I was visiting him and noticed these leaves lying on the snow. I was drawn by the way they were nestled together and slightly embedded into the snow . I was taking my own advice that day and had a camera with me. The next time I visited him the leaves and the snow were gone.

This last image was made while I was driving from Albuquerque to Los Alamos to teach one of my classes. Just south of Santa Fe, these tracks cross under 1-25. I had gotten off the freeway and driven down the frontage road to the bridge over the tracks. I made several exposures of them from different points of view and was climbing up the bank to where my car was parked when I heard the whistle. The Southwest Chief (Amtrak), on it’s run from Chicago to Albuquerque was rounding the bend through the cut in La Bajada.

The point of these anecdotes is to illustrate the importance of being prepared. If you are in the right place at the right time armed with a camera a whole new world of possibilities opens up. To paraphrase Jack London: “You can’t wait for opportunity, you have to go after it with a club”.


The Bones Of The Image

Sorry about the bad pun, but this seemed like the perfect image to drive home the idea that black and white photographs are more about the structure, tones, lines, and shapes of the photograph, whereas a color image can distract from those basics.

All of the various skeletal segments in the left foreground create lines into the image; they all lead the eye in about the same direction-towards the mesas in the background. The eye then should travel in a kind of spiral: up to the clouds and then back down to the distant double peaked mountain. The focal point (hopefully) is the carcass; the lack of color in the (blue) sky, and the (yellow-ish) grasses means that there is nothing to distract the viewer’s eye from it.

I made this image last year on a trip to the Bisti Wilderness. I had some luck with the atmospheric conditions that day and came away with several very good photographs. This one of the Bisti Arch is one of the best from that outing, and while I think the color version is pretty strong, I feel the black and white conversion says more about what I was seeing and feeling when I captured the image.

Also, the second image has more dynamic tonality;  the saturated colors in the first capture the viewer’s attention, but the rich tones in the monochrome version say more about the structure of both the formation and the composition of the image.


The Beaten Path

Where do we as artists find inspiration? Exploring new territory is always a good way, at least for me. As a landscape photographer, I am charged with boundless energy–despite my sixty-plus years–when confronted with a place where I have never before set foot. Everything is brand spanking new and this always seems to boost the “WOW” factor to higher levels.

But, sometimes, in order to replenish the well, it’s wise to return to some of the places, or techniques that have inspired us in the past. A great and wise photographer who was instrumental in my early meanderings into the world of nature/landscape photography advised returning to places we had been before at a different time of day or year.

I made this image in the Brown Hoodoos area of the Bisti Wilderness. I have visited the Bisti many times and have hundreds of photographs to prove it, but this time I not only found my way to this particular location which had eluded me in the past, but the atmospheric conditions and the light were especially dramatic. It was like being there for the first time. Not long after this trip, I led a tour and we came to this very spot; the lighting was harsh with not a cloud to be found in the clear, blue sky; nonetheless, my clients were ecstatic. It was their first time and the landscape captivated them. It made me see the place with new eyes.

The Bisti Arch was another well known feature that had, somehow eluded me. I knew the approximate location and even had GPS co-ordinates. Yet, I had wandered around Hunter Wash searching in vain. Finding what could have been an arch that had recently collapsed, I concluded that it was the object of my frustration. Then, on a recent trip, while hiking back to the parking area, I glanced at a small formation that I had passed many times, but had never really noticed. I was in just the right spot and there it was, The Bisti Arch. I quickly realized why I had been missing it: I had the scale all wrong. I was imagining it to be much larger than it really was. Nevertheless, I was overjoyed and spent more than an hour making photographs.

Like the Bisti, I have been to the area around Cabezon Peak many times. I have tried time and again-unsuccessfully-to capture an image of Cerro Cuate which is just south of Cabezon. I’ve made several photographs of it in beautiful light, but the compositions all seemed to fall short of what I was looking for. The images just never seemed to do the mountain justice. On a recent trip, however, everything finally fell into place. We were driving home after spending some time photographing the nearby ghost town of Guadalupe. It was early evening and the sun was low. I had noticed this small drainage earlier in the day, but the light was no good at the time. Now the light was right; we stopped and I made five different exposures, this one, after a black and white conversion is my favorite.

So, don’t make the mistake of thinking that once you’ve been to a certain location you’ve seen all there is to see. The light and the conditions are always changing, and with them, the entire mood of the scene. You may even find an unexpected treasure waiting for you.


Black and White!

Forty years ago when I purchased my first SLR camera-a Nikkormat FTN that I still have-I immersed myself in the world of black and white photography. Naturally, one of my heroes was, and still is, Ansel Adams. I learned how to develop film and make acceptable black and white prints from the negatives. I was hooked.

Fast forward to the present day: Photography has changed in ways no one could have imagined in that long gone time when a computer was still a large room-sized machine with unknown purpose and potential. Most of my work since switching from film to digital has been color landscapes. The portraits I have made are also (mostly) in color. Why? The answer is twofold: First, I lost that connection and, with it, the ability to visualize the scene and the image in the frame of my viewfinder in black and white. And, I just could not make a black and white print that matched those that slowly emerged from the developer under that red safelight. Granted, some of the shortcoming was due to my lack of expertise, but much of it had to do with the inability of the available technology to make an acceptable conversion

Recently, however, I have been re-connecting with that which I had lost in terms of visualizing my images in monochrome, and, with the ongoing development of new and better software, I find that I can once again produce a black and white or toned print that lives up to my expectations. Once again I can get excited about a black and white image the way I used to.

This image was made on a lonely highway in northern New Mexico. A storm was rapidly approaching from the south and the heavy clouds added to the feeling of desolation in the scene. The arrow-straight road with the mountains in the distance suggests a lack of any creature comforts. Even the rough texture of the road and the dark silhouette of the tree compound the sense of total isolation.

I did not pre-visualize this image as a black and white photograph. I like the way it looks in color, but I decided to experiment with it. I used Silver Efex Pro to do the conversion and I am very happy with the results. I think stripping the color adds even more to the bleakness of the scene. It lays bare the basic elements and structure of the image. Sometimes making a change in your pattern can help you to revitalize your passion and creativity. Even something as simple (or as complicated) as returning to your roots can breathe new life into your work.

This final image was made in the Mesa de Cuba badlands in the San Juan basin of northwestern New Mexico. It is a three image exposure fusion which I then converted to a sepia toned image in Silver Efex Pro. What caught my eye when I first happened upon this scene was the almost visceral appearance of the erosion channels. It had just snowed and the thirsty ground was sucking the moisture from the newly-fallen snow emphasizing the tonal contrast between the channels and the surrounding earth. At first I was concerned that it may be a little over the top in terms of the tonality, but I realized that I was merely presenting the scene as I had interpreted it. In the end, that’s what matters. Be true to your vision and you will evolve as an artist.


The Darkroom Geek

I recently read a comment thread on a well known social media site in which the person who originated the thread was trying to make the point that shooting in RAW format is not for everyone. Well, the lines were drawn and the battle ensued. Most of those involved seemed to be missing the point that the author was trying to make. One fellow went so far as to say that shooting jpeg was more demanding because you need to get your exposure right in camera. That’s true, but he seemed to skip over the part where a good deal of the image data is thrown away when the file is compressed, while a RAW file preserves all of the image data to be developed later in the digital darkroom. He then went on to say that–I’m paraphrasing here–shooting RAW is for geeks who would rather spend time in front of their computers than be out shooting images.

Well, I never considered myself a geek, but I do spend a fair amount of time post–processing my RAW files. And, I get a great deal of satisfaction from the act of finessing the image and taking it from its RAW state to a final polished image that can be printed on a wide format printer without loss of detail. There was another photographer, somewhat more well known than I am, by the name of Ansel Adams who spent a great deal of time in the darkroom–a darkroom geek I suppose. Adams was famous for his virtuosity with not only the camera, but for his manipulation of his images in the darkroom, where he would spend hours printing images that would go on to stir the souls of many.

Now, I’m certainly no Ansel Adams, but I do realize what he knew all those years ago. The process of making a remarkable, print-worthy image does not stop after the shutter is released. That’s where the photographer’s vision is captured surely, but bringing that vision to its fully realized state requires some post camera work in the darkroom whether it be a film, or digital capture. If spending time in front of my computer to make my images speak to the viewers in the way that I first visualized them makes me a geek, then so be it. I’m in good company.


My Inclement Muse

I have been taking stock of my creative drive, attempting to disassemble it and discover what makes it tick. What I have found doesn’t surprise me. I have known it all along, but putting it into words seems to help sustain it. One of the things that drives me is a love of inclement weather: snow, rain, stormy skies–I could do without wind. When the weather turns foul, my spirit soars. I get a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach, and anything seems possible.

If I can throw a remote location into the mix, then I’m a happy camper. Mother Nature in all her power and glory! Both of these images were made in such locations, under such conditions. The first one is The Eagle’s Nest in the Bisti Wilderness. It had just started to rain, a typical New Mexico summer thunderstorm. I have to admit that I was a little concerned about being several miles from the car, in wide open spaces with lightning flashing, but the muse told me to just make the best of it. I named this image after her.

The second image was made on the side of the road between San Luis and Torreon, NM–Yes you can find stuff like this just lying around next to the road, all you have to do is get out and look for it. I didn’t go more than a hundred yards from the car to make this photograph. Unlike the Bisti image, there was no immediate threat of rain and shelter was within easy reach, but that did nothing to diminish the pleasure and satisfaction I got upon releasing the shutter.


The Road And The Sky

In keeping with my fascination with our connection to, and impact on the natural world, I have been making road images. There was a time not too long ago when I would go to great lengths to keep anything that smacked of the human hand out of my photographs. But, I have come to realize that it’s not really necessary to hide the things that we have “contributed” to the landscape. An open road in a remote location can create a powerful resonance in the human psyche, and so I hope that this realization can contribute to my ongoing, and (hopefully) never-ending growth as an artist.

This first image was made on US  64 west of Taos, NM, a few miles beyond the Taos Gorge Bridge. The atmospheric conditions were incredibly dramatic and that long stretch of empty highway was looking like the road to infinity. I love the possibilities that are implied by that vanishing point!.

Here is another photograph that suggests the same hope (or fear) as the first image. Sandoval County Road 279 runs south off NM 44 about eighteen miles north of San Ysidro. For nine miles or so it is paved. A short distance beyond the village of San Luis, it turns to dirt and continues past the ghost town of Cabezon and through the Rio Puerco Valley. This is a desolate part of the world, but in such places my spirit is renewed.

And finally here is an image of BLM Road 1103 which splits off County Road 279 close to Cabezon. From this point, it crosses the Rio Puerco and continues on past Cerro Santa Clara and Cerro Guadalupe, and then farther south along the eastern edge of the Rio Puerco. These roads whether paved or dirt give us access to the places that quench our thirst for wilderness, and for all those unknown destinations we have seen only in our dreams.


The Human Element

In my last post, I commented on how we, as a species, are responsible for the degradation of our environment, and how we are the only species that has the capability to affect such an assault. That being said, I would also like to acknowledge our status as a part of the natural world in which we live. We need only accept our place to begin a process by which we become more attuned to the ebb and flow of the cycles that are a necessary part of life on our wondrous planet.

It occurs to me that since we really are one with the world around us, why should I as a photographer of nature be reluctant to include the human element in my images. After all, I have photographed people in natural settings for environmental portraits. So, it is a short leap to accept the subjects of those portraits as elements of the landscape they inhabit, rather than taking the opposite view that the scene is just a backdrop for the portrait.

This first image is one that I made several years ago. I was photographing a friend of mine who wanted some photos for her website. Halli is a yoga instructor, so I immediately visualized what became this image of her in a half lotus pose with this wonderful waterfall behind her. The waterfall, the whole environment, is certainly more than just a backdrop here. It is an integral part of the image; it suggests the power inherent in our connection to the natural world, if we can just be receptive. The technical challenge here was to have Halli remain still through the long exposure required to render the moving water as a silky curtain. Luckily, due to her training, she had no problem remaining focused and still while the shutter was open.

This image was made at Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu, NM. Robin and I were out exploring the area and she disappeared into this cabin. I noticed her moving around inside and asked her to pose in the window. The missing pane served as a frame and the glass in the remaining panes reflected the surrounding landscape. The result is a portrait that not only captures her essence, but also reveals the source of her tranquility in this moment.


The Birth of a Monster (The Las Conchas Fire) Part 1

On Sunday, June 26th I was at the Valle Grande Staging Area of the Valles Caldera National Preserve. I had taken a seasonal position working for the preserve. It was pretty much like any other day, except for the wind, the relentless wind, which was gusting up to 60 mph. A little after one o’clock, one of my co-workers rushed into the visitor’s center to announce that a fire had broken out at the Las Conchas Trailhead. Las Conchas is a popular spot; the East Fork of the Jemez River flows into a narrow slot before it continues on through high country meadows and finally plunges through a series of pools in a steep canyon. The natural thing was to suspect that someone had disregarded the closure of the Santa Fe National Forest-due to extreme fire danger, and had left a campfire unattended, or tossed a cigarette into the dry grass. It wouldn’t have been the first time (investigators would later discover that the fire was the result of an aspen tree, blown over by the wind, falling on a power line).

We all went out onto the porch to see what we could see. Las Conchas is about three miles west of the Valle Grande and, sure enough, there was a telltale plume of white smoke. Maybe I was being naive, or maybe I just didn’t want to believe it, whatever the reason, I told myself it was nothing to worry about–they would jump on it and it would be out before it had a chance to do any real damage. But then we watched as the fire started up the side of Los Griegos (a prominent feature on the rim of the caldera) and suddenly moved across the mountain as if someone had painted the flames with a brush.

Seven hours later I stood on my friend Robin’s deck and made this image of the smoke and evaporation cloud of what was now being called the Las Conchas fire. Because of the extremely dry conditions after a winter and spring during which we had had no appreciable moisture, the fire grew from its source and by the time I took this photo, it had consumed four thousand acres. By the end of the day, that number would increase tenfold. Driven by the wind at first and then, later, by the collapse of a smoke plume which had risen thousands of feet into the air (imagine dust bunnies scattering after a book has been dropped flat on the floor), the fire grew in all directions, consuming everything in its path: timber, wildlife, homes…

By Friday the fire had grown to nearly one hundred thousand acres and had become an organic presence. I made this image from the road which leads to Redondo Meadow where the initial Incident Command Post was. The large smoke plume was the result of the fire spreading onto Cerro Santa Rosa and consuming a fresh fuel supply.

As the days went by the residents of the nearby communities became used to waking in the morning to a smoke shrouded sky. The sun shown red through the haze and, at times the fire seemed too close for comfort.

I made this image looking up San Diego Canyon north of Jemez Springs a little over a week after the Las Conchas fire burst into our home and our lives.


A Stroll Through Ricketts Glen (Part2)

This is Part 2 of a two part post on Ricketts Glen. See A Stroll Through Ricketts Glen (Part 1).

After spending some time at Waters Meet, we crossed the bridge and began the climb up through Glen Leigh. This leg of the hike was a true test of my stamina–a seven hundred foot elevation gain in a little over a mile. The beauty of the place fortified me though and we had barely gotten started when we came upon Wyandot Falls.

And a little farther on we discovered this beautiful unnamed cascade which I dubbed Tranquility Falls.

I had the sense that Glen Leigh was much narrower and steeper than Ganoga Glen, but after studying a topo map of the area I discovered that they are both about the same near the bottom, but Ganoga does flatten out a little near the top. As we continued up the deep green canyon, we passed B. Reynolds and R.B. Ricketts Falls, and then came to Ozone Falls which, at sixty feet, is the highest waterfall in Glen Leigh. It cuts a graceful curve as it descends over the many layers which define its classic form.

After passing Ozone Falls the trail became noticeably steeper and narrower for a short distance. We stopped at Huron and Shawnee Falls and then continued up through the seemingly endless world of green and rushing water. When we finally made F.L. Ricketts Falls I was looking forward to the end of the trek. I set up a shot and then stepped back to look at my framing options when I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned to see my camera on the tripod fall over and land lens down on the rock. I frantically picked it up to survey the damage. My heart sank when I saw that the Neutral Density filter was shattered. I tried to unscrew the filter to determine if my lens was damaged, but it was stuck, the outer edge of the filter was bent from the impact. I finally managed to loosen the filter and was relieved to see that the lens was undamaged other than some minor scuffs on the filter threads.

I replaced the ND filter and made the above image of the falls. Then I packed up my gear and we headed up the trail to the last waterfall in Glen Leigh, Onondaga Falls.

Onondaga resembles Sheldon Reynolds Falls in its shape and the way the plunge pool is formed. As I made this final image, I remember being exhilarated by the experience and although we were both physically drained, we made our way back to the car with a smiles on our faces, talking about the day’s adventure.


Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash

Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash is a place of silence, solitude, and visual overload. It is located northwest of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico’s San Juan Basin. There are no paved roads within twenty miles and in all the times I’ve been there, I have not seen another person.

Much like it’s bigger cousin, the Bisti Wilderness, Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash is a carnival of geologic attractions. There is eroded sandstone, shale, bentonite and petrified wood. There are hoodoos which defy description, and there are fossilized bones of creatures that roamed the earth millions of years ago

Because of the varying density and hardness of the stone which makes up the structure of the wash, there are variations in the degree of erosion. The result is that harder rock emerges from the side of the wash like some pre-historic dinner plate which was buried over 70 million years ago.

At the end of the Cretaceous period, this entire area, like the nearby Bisti Wilderness was part of a river delta. The deposits of sand, silt, and mud are what we now see emerging in their hardened state. Some of the more exposed sandstone has eroded to such a degree that it looks as though its bones are poking through its tough hide.

On the eastern edge of the wash is a small side canyon which contains an incredible hoodoo forest. It is the first sight that greets you when you start down into the wash. It has been etched into my memory, and is a reminder of the timeless yet fragile quality of our world.

Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash is currently a Wilderness Study Area. The old parking lot is closed to vehicle traffic. Visitors must park on the main road and walk a half mile to the place where the trail starts down into the wash. It is well worth the walk. If you do visit, please leave it as you found it.


The Wind, the Dust and the Bisti

It had been a couple of years since I last made the trip to the Bisti Wilderness. The Bisti is located in northwestern New Mexico between Farmington and nowhere; getting there is an adventure in itself. Last Sunday morning we began driving up US 550 past Cuba with the intention of going to Chaco Canyon, but the weather grew increasingly worse. The overcast spread until it formed an impenetrable curtain, which blotted out the sun. The wind began to gust, lifting the sand from the great expanse of the San Juan Basin, carrying it high into the air, adding to the dome of the darkening sky.

So, we just drove on past the turn off to Chaco. I guess I knew I was heading for the Bisti all along. When we arrived, the wind was blowing even harder, and the air was filled with swirling sand. We never went more than a couple of hundred yards from the car, but we were intrigued by the possibilities nonetheless. Every so often the sun would make an appearance through an opening in the clouds; we continued to make our short sorties into the landscape, and then back to the car for a respite from the wind and sand.

I made this image not fifty feet from the road. Just north of the small parking area at the foot of Alamo Wash there is a large deposit of eroded bentonite (minerals dissolved in a clay matrix). They are formed into small hills and many of them have these small stones on top of them; they look like offerings to some unnamed god.

At one point we pulled into a small parking area on the west side of the road, across from the main section of the wilderness area. The wind continued to howl, but we decided to venture into a draw that looked promising. Behind a large dome shaped hill, we discovered a garden of unearthly delights: sandstone and mudstone forms that seemed to go on endlessly. We were somewhat protected by the hill and the strange geology around us, so we stayed a while, exploring and making images.

I was hoping that the storm would abate. I wanted to hike out to the Egg Garden, but it’s more than a mile and a half from the parking area, the route is totally exposed, and the darkest part of the storm was centered over its location. The garden is an iconic location in the world of landscape photography. I made this image the last time I was there in 2009.

Egg Garden at Bisti Badlands

So, we continued to explore our newly discovered garden, taking shelter, when necessary, behind the strange monoliths. We spent a total of a little more than an hour dodging the sand and taking photographs.

But, the weather steadily deteriorated; the wind blew harder and the sand was stinging our eyes. I took these last two photos about five minutes apart. The sky was threatening rain. We made our way back to the car to leave, but only a few scattered drops fell as we drove out on the dirt road that is the only access to this incredible wilderness area.

 


A Stroll Through Ricketts Glen (Part 1)

I used to go to Ricketts Glen regularly when I lived in northeastern Pennsylvania. That was thirty-five years ago. I hadn’t been there since, until I made a recent trip back east with my oldest daughter, Lauren, to visit family. We set one day aside to hike and photograph the waterfalls in the park. Actually, there are two glens which make up the Glens Natural Area. They contain most of the twenty-two named waterfalls, numerous smaller unnamed falls and cascades for which the park is famous.

Adams Falls, the first waterfall we visited, is a big attraction even though it is quite a distance downstream from the main section of the park. When we pulled into the small parking area at 7:30 in the morning, there were already several cars parked there, all from out of state. A short walk on a well–maintained trail brought us to the falls. As soon as I saw them, I knew it was going to be a good day.

We spent about forty-five minutes at Adams scrambling around and taking photographs before we packed up and headed north into the Glens Area.

We began our seven mile “stroll” from the small parking area at the top of Ganoga Glen at about 8:30. The trail quickly descends into a world of dense green, and roaring water, but as we became accustomed to the sound, it quickly diminished to a pleasant sibilant whisper. After passing several small falls that are no more than 15–20 feet high, we sensed a sudden change in the timbre of the sound. We were approaching Ganoga Falls; at ninety-seven feet, it is the highest of the numerous waterfalls in the park.

Ganoga Falls is a classic “wedding cake ” waterfall. The stream drops and flows over the ledges and crevasses that form the increasingly wider layers of the “cake”. From the edge of the pool at the bottom of the falls, I made what I consider to be my best image of the day.

Not far downstream from Ganoga Falls, a small flow enters the main stream from the west. I followed it upstream a short distance to find this beautiful little cascade murmuring its way through a fern covered glade. The scene reminded me of an animated movie I watched with my daughters when they were young. Hence the name: “Ferngully”.

We continued down Ganoga Glen past several more waterfalls with names like Mohican and Tuscarora, and on to Sheldon Reynolds Falls, which was as far downstream as we would go. Sheldon Reynolds certainly isn’t as grand as Ganoga Falls, nor did it have the intimate, verdant feel of the small Ferngully cascade. It stands out, nonetheless, with its deep inviting pool and its singular profile.

We lingered for a while, enjoying the solitude and the scenery before heading back upstream to Waters Meet. It is here that the streams that course through Ganoga Glen and Glen Leigh come together. I set my camera on the timer function and took this photo of Lauren and me on the bridge at the confluence. We then enjoyed a picnic of fruit and trail-mix before beginning the climb up through Glen Leigh.


Landscape Photography On An Overcast Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Rio Puerco Valley

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

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

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

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

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

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


White Sands

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.


Bosque del Apache

This was the scene at the farm fields at the north end of the Bosque del Apache NWR on Saturday morning. It is fairly typical for this time of year. Most of the birds have arrived for their winter stay at the refuge. On this particular morning there were 9,527 sandhill cranes, over 40,000 snow and Ross’s geese, 3 bald eagles, and over 300,000 ducks of various species. There were also innumerable LBBs (little brown birds), and an unknown number of deer, coyotes, bear, and other mammals. Oh yeah, and at least one mountain lion (one trail was closed due to recent lion sightings). All in all, a pretty respectable showing.

We had arrived the previous evening, and spent a couple hours on the “Flight Deck” watching and photographing the cranes flying back from the fields which surround the refuge to spend the night in the ponds where they are relatively safe from the predators (mostly coyotes) which are numerous in the Bosque. We were up and out the door at 5:30 in order to make it to the reserve for sunrise. It was cold–around 10°F, but there were at least twenty other photographers gathered at the edge of the Chupadera pond. I set up my tripod, and joined in the fun. As the sun rose, the cranes began to stir, and the cameras began to whir. I was suddenly reminded of the cold when my camera began to respond sluggishly, then stopped working. The shutter had frozen. I stood there helplessly while the birds took off and everyone around me continued to shoot. I’m not sure why mine was the only camera to succumb to the frigid temperatures, but I stubbornly tried, and tried again, to get the thing working even though I had another camera in the car not fifty yards away. I’ll have to work on that!

So, while I was busy trying to keep my camera working, Robin was next to me happily snapping away. She made this image just as the sun was starting to warm the scene with it’s golden light. Cranes go through a ritual before taking off. This one was stretching his wings in preparation for his first flight of the day.. The two birds on the right are just beginning the next stage: they face into the wind and stretch their necks, leaning forward. I think what they are doing is testing the wind, getting an idea of how they will get themselves into the air. This behavior is a signal to a photographer to be ready because take off is imminent. Well, any photographer with a working camera.

Next we headed into the refuge and turned south to drive the marsh loop. I was still toying with my camera and was happy to find that it was working again after thawing out. I had heard horror stories about shutters breaking after being frozen. It was shortly after this that Robin spotted this Great Blue Heron in the ditch on the west side of the road.

We stopped and spent about twenty minutes photographing him. He just stayed where he was, going about his business while keeping one eye on us. He finally spread his wings and flew off, and we packed up our gear and drove off, but we didn’t go far. About two hundred yards down the road, we came across hundreds of geese. They were in the marsh, and they would fly across the road to the field on the opposite side to eat, and then fly back across the road to the marsh. We spent quite a while watching them. Robin got the best photo.

The four geese on the left are Snow Geese, and the highest one is a Ross’s Goose. Collectively they are referred to as Light Geese. These five were flying to the field from the marsh.

We continued around the marsh loop, and on to the farm loop. We had just passed the Coyote Deck when we spotted several cranes flying low. We pulled over just as they landed on a berm between us and the flooded field beyond. This is one of them that seemed intent on watching us while the others went about their business. Perhaps he was the designated sentinel for the day.

Before we completed the farm loop, we made a stop at the Flight Deck to see if there was any activity there. Not surprisingly, there were no cranes or geese in evidence. There was, however, a lone bald eagle perched in “the tree” which stands out in the large pond in front of the Flight Deck. He spent quite a long time surveying his domain before taking wing to patrol the remainder of the refuge.

Bosque del Apache is undoubtedly a special place. I never tire of going there. The scenery combined with the thrill of seeing thousands of waterfowl and numerous raptors in one place at one time makes for a memorable trip.


Stone Echoes

This image shows some of the the amazing stone work at Chetro Ketl in Chaco Canyon. Seen against the backdrop of the canyon walls, it is not hard to imagine a bustling city with people going about their daily lives. It is also easy to see how the Anasazi took some of their building techniques from the world around them. These stone walls, some up to two feet thick, and interwoven, created an impregnable barrier to weather and enemy alike. They also provided a solid base for the two upper stories. In all, Chtro Ketl is thought to have contained 550 rooms in a complex that covered almost three acres.