photography from the ground up

Processing

That Was Then; This Is Now

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.

Nikons

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.

Jim-B&W

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

Kim-Inchon-Pagoda

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

Four-Chingos

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

Street-Market-Korea

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

Papasan

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

Jemez-Springs-Twilight

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

Jim,-Robin,-The-Big-Wing,-&-The-Moon

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

Pow-Wow-Portrait-2

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

Susan-Battleship-Falls

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

Lauren-&-Prasanna-Sunflowers

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


Focal Lengths, F Stops, and Tripods, Oh My

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).

Agua-es-Vida

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

A-Fallen-Crown

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

The-Very-Large-Array-2

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

Winterleaves

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.


To B&W Or Not To B&W

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.

Moondancing

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.

Moondancing-B&W

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.

In-The-Wasteland

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.

In-The-Wasteland-B&W

The image is suddenly more about the dry cracked earth which was my intent.

The-Chama-River-Trestle

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.

The-Chama-River-Trestle-Sepia

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.


Mud, Stones, and Wood

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.


The Evolution Of Vision

Artistic vision is not something that is easy to define, at least not in terms of individual style. It is something that is (or should) always be changing, evolving. When I look at the work that I was doing five years ago, I am struck by the difference from that which I am doing today. That’s as it should be. If I could see no discernible change, I would be worried that my creativity is stagnating.

Vision has to do not only with the subject matter you shoot, or the way you choose to capture it. It is also about how you take the image from the one in the camera to the one that hangs on the wall. So, post processing is just as important to expressing your vision as the initial capture, perhaps more important. This first image was made one January day on the edge of what was soon to become the Valles Caldera National Preserve and after many years of learning and evolving, both in my shooting style and in my processing technique, this is still one of my favorite photographs.

I tell my Beginning Digital Photography students that they should always be looking for new ways to present their subjects and of course this extends to the work they do in the digital darkroom. I made the above image in 2002. It is a close-up of burned tree bark that I took in the burn scar of the Lake Fire. This is pretty representative of the work I was doing at that time: close-up/macro/intimate landscapes.

The third image was made several years later and it is one of the very few I made during that time that included a hint of anything man-made. All of these photographs were made using film cameras. The first two were shot with a Nikon F3, the second, a Nikon F100. All three were made using Fuji Velvia transparency film.

Sometime around 2005, I began to feel that my strict adherence to shooting almost exclusively macro/close-ups was stifling my creativity and I began to broaden my horizons (both literally and figuratively). I had also purchased my first digital camera, a Nikon D200. Looking back, I think the new-found freedom of no longer being constrained by the cost of film played a major role in my ability to experiment with a new shooting style.

This black and white landscape was an early attempt to further break from my habit of excluding man-made elements from my images. I still hadn’t perfected my B&W conversion technique, but it was a step in the right direction.

When I was shooting mostly macro, I preferred diffuse lighting; no shadows means clearer details, but as I began to see the broad landscape, I began to take advantage of the multi-faceted nature of light. In the five images above, I make use of different kinds of lighting: overcast, early morning, evening, and mid-day with partial overcast. They each paint the landscape with a different brush and each portrays a different mood.

Lately, my work has come full circle, back to the subjects I was pursuing when I first started out all those years ago, which is to say–anything and everything. The difference is, I now have the expertise I lacked back then, so I am able to show my viewers what I saw in my mind’s eye before I released the shutter. That’s a good feeling, but it doesn’t mean that I feel I’ve reached some kind of photographer’s Nirvana; I am excited to see what kind of curve my vision will throw me next.


Digging Through The Archives

I have been stuck in the Photographic Doldrums for the past couple of months, so I have been spending quite a bit of time searching my archived images. I’m not one to live in the past, but I’ve found that it can be rewarding to revisit my older work. I have rediscovered some of my best work rummaging around in old files. I have also found photographs that, for some reason didn’t make the cut when I first edited them, but over time, with my ever-changing vision and some changes in my workflow, they suddenly take on a new life.

This first image was taken in Canyonlands National Park in Utah. Mesa Arch is an iconic location for landscape photographers, but the shot almost everyone takes is of the sun rising behind the arch. Being a bit of a crank, and wanting to make an image that spoke of my vision and not some other photographer’s, I made this photograph in the late afternoon and used the arch to frame the incredible landscape that lies beyond it.

I made this image of Shiprock while driving to Utah a couple of years ago. I was drawn by the bright yellow rabbitbrush and I was also going through what I like to think of as my “fence phase”. These two elements made the perfect foreground for the great volcanic plug and brooding skies.

This is an image of the Virgin River in Zion National Park. The overcast settled lower and by the next morning, the rain was continuous, making my hike to the Subway impossible due to high water and flash flooding. But this moment, looking down canyon with the soft light penetrating the swollen sky is one of my best images from that trip.

Twilight at Chupadera Pond in Bosque del Apache NWR. These three cranes were hunting for their dinner. They had just flown back from a day of foraging in the farm fields at the northern end of the refuge and now they were continuing their seemingly endless search for food in the pond where they would spend the night. The color of the light in this image has not been altered. For one magical moment between sunset and the onset of night, the entire landscape was bathed in this golden-orange glow.

This final image of the Egg Garden in the Bisti Wilderness has gone through numerous iterations and I think I finally have it just where I want it. I know the composition goes against the venerable “Rule of Thirds”, but sometimes it’s good to break the rules, and sometimes it’s good to revisit the past.


HDR: Thus I Refute Photographic Snobbery

I recently received an e-mail which made the argument that HDR is a polarizing subject in the photographic community. It led me down that road that forks and forks again and…well, you know.  Are we as photographers to believe that we are (and should be) fenced in by rules? In this case the rules are about technique and processing. When photography was in its infancy, it was considered to be outside the realm of “serious art”. Now, nearly one hundred years later, it has become acceptable, but only if it fits in a certain box.

So, I am having trouble coming to terms with the ongoing debate inside the photography community concerning HDR processing. I consider the ability to blend exposures to expand the dynamic range of an image to be a wonderful addition to the photographer’s toolkit. There seems to be some divisive opinion about how much processing is allowable. What bothers me about this debate is one very important consideration: CREATIVITY! If someone’s vision requires that heavy and obvious HDR look, then who has the right to tell them it’s too much? Each one of us is different; we each see things in different ways and wouldn’t life be boring if we all agreed on everything?

This first image was made in the Bisti Wilderness last year. The landscape was other-worldly, and the dramatic sky added even more to that impression. In my post processing, I consciously emphasized that quality by making the HDR effect more obvious. I used a tool to help me achieve my vision.

The second image is from the same trip. It was made about an hour after the first. By then the skies had cleared somewhat, and, while the landscape is by no means common, it doesn’t quite have the alien feel of the previous image. This is also an HDR exposure fusion, but I backed off on the processing; I used the technique to enhance the contrast and to make the sky pop a little more.

So, two HDR images that express two very different emotions. I think I have succeeded in capturing my vision for each of them, and that is the point of art.