photography from the ground up

Technique

Primal Earth

There are places in this world that defy expectations of how a landscape should look; places that are twisted and broken; places that are filled with other-worldly forms and shapes; and places that shift the spectrum of what we might think are normal hues for a landscape on planet earth.

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Utah is certainly one of those places and in a small, overlooked area in the center of the state, where a layer of Mancos shale has been exposed by the elements, there lies an expanse of bluish colored earth, which depending on the light, might be a subtle grayish blue, or a more deeply saturated aqua-blue.

primal-earth-series-alluvium

In every instance, the landscape is surprising; the texture can range from rough and deeply creased to smooth and almost sensual. In some places, it resembles a network of arteries (which, I suppose, in a way, it is).

primal-earth-series-extremity

In other places, it is a series of waves advancing on some forgotten beach. But everywhere there is at least a hint of blue. When you are used to red, sepia, or even more common grays and browns, the change can be quite startling. One location, in particular, was a prize we had to spend a little time searching for. Factory Bench overlooks what has come to be known as the Moonscape Overlook. It is a place that changes your perception of how the world should (or might) look.

primal-earth-series-earthwaves

If the light is right, the whole experience becomes exaggerated by the deep shadows playing over the complex terrain. Every twist and turn, every sinuous channel becomes more deeply etched into the unearthly earth.

primal-earth-series-moonscape

Spending a night on the plateau above these badlands was an adventure in itself. A storm, which had been building throughout the day, moved in around sunset. Wind whipped the tent through the night and several times I was sure our shelter would be ripped away from us. But our little Coleman prevailed and by morning, things had calmed down enough that we could have a peaceful breakfast.

campsite-factory-bench

This last image was made looking east across the broken, variegated wilderness. Not far from here is the Mars Research Station where teams of scientists and engineers have been spending long periods of time in a simulated habitat to prepare for a possible trip to the red planet. The remote and other-worldly landscape allows them to make their preparations without light pollution or other outside influence.

the-earth-is-blue

On this same trip, we spent time in Capitol Reef and Goblin Valley. Probably it was the crowds and touristy nature of those parks that turned me off (I am a hopeless misanthrope), but neither of them had an impact on me as strong as did the blue badlands of Caineville Mesa and Factory Bench.


Winter On The Burn

We have had two major wildfires here in the Jemez Mountains over the last four years. Each destroyed well over 100,000 acres leaving large tracts of forest scarred with the burned skeletons of once majestic conifer trees. After a while, you get used to the desolation. It can even have its own kind of harsh beauty.

Winter-On-The-Burn

The East Fork of the Jemez River flows through Las Conchas where the 2011 Las Conchas wildfire started.

Winter can be especially beautiful in a burn. The tonal contrast between the white snow and the black, charred trees is striking. The textural contrast between the trees on a burned ridge and a lowering storm cloud provide strong elements and tell a story of loss reconciled by time and weather. We can use such conditions to make more compelling images.

Icing

Mixed conifers which were burned in the Las Conchas wildfire in 2011 coated in a layer of hoarfrost

When conditions are right, the bones of the dead trees become coated with hoarfrost and are transformed into fragile, crystalline structures. You can almost hear the tinkling of their branches as they sag under the weight of the frost.

Treesicles-2

Conifer skeletons left over from the 2011 Las Conchas wildfire dressed in a fragile coating of hoarfrost

When the sun breaks through a low-hanging bank of clouds, the light is transformed; it becomes, in a way, magical. The shadows and the mist of the clouds create a kind of frame that surround and isolate the area which is lit, making it the focal point of the composition.

Valle-Grande-Winter-Light

Cerro La Jara in the Valle Grande is illuminated by the sun through a break in the low hanging clouds that cover Redondo Peak which burned in the 2013 Thompson Ridge wildfire.

Otherwise unremarkable elements of the landscape become worthy of attention when they are enhanced by a coat of frost.

The-Big-Chill

Mixed conifers that survived the Cerro Grande wildfire in 2000 stand covered in a thick coat of hoarfrost

They come front and center when the rest of the scene is obscured by cloud cover. Such conditions reduce the clutter that would, under normal conditions, draw our attention away from them.

Treecsicles

Mixed conifer trees that survived the Cerro Grande wildfire in 2000, their needles covered in a thick coating of hoarfrost

The last two images are successful only because of the low clouds which block the view of a conifer covered hillside. If we could see the entire scene, the trees in the foreground would become lost in the background of similar shapes and patterns. By using the softness and the simplicity of winter conditions, we can imbue otherwise unattractive or unworkable scenes with qualities that make them stand out, and render them more recognizable and appealing to the eye of a viewer.

 

 

 

 

 


The Badlands Of The San Juan Basin

The San Juan Basin is a large, roughly circular, depression that lies in the northwest corner of New Mexico, and is a part of the larger Colorado Plateau. What makes the basin special is the fact that, at one time, it was in an area that was covered by the Western Interior Seaway, a prehistoric body of saltwater that split the North American continent from top to bottom.

75ma

The Western Interior Seaway

The location along the shores of a large body of water in a tropical climate allowed an incredibly diverse ecosystem to thrive. As these life forms died, they decomposed and were eventually covered by volcanic ash from the eruption of nearby volcanoes. As the seawater covered the area more sedimentation sifted over the remains and some of the sediment was infused with mineral rich water that seeped through the layers above making it harder than the surrounding matrix. This was an important step in the formation of the present-day hoodoos. The weight of the water compacted the entire assemblage, and it was lost to the the world above the waves.

About 65 million years ago, the waters receded and a layer of sediment nearly two miles thick was left behind. Since then, plate tectonics, volcanism, and glacial erosion have helped to shape the present-day San Juan Basin. Further erosion from wind, water, and annual freeze/thaw cycles exposed the hardened sediment layers which eroded more slowly than the softer sand/ash matrix. The result is a wonderland of hoodoo gardens that are especially obvious along the edges of the many washes that criss-cross the basin. Some of these drainages such as Ah Shi Sle Pah, Hunter and Alamo–the two washes that formed the Bisti, and their tributaries have carved and exposed a treasure trove of unlikely works of earthen art.

The human history of the badlands is of course relatively short. Probably the most significant event in shaping the area in the last hundred years was the discovery of coal and the associated coal-bed methane. By the early 1980’s coal mining, mostly to fuel the nearby Four Corners Power Plant, was consuming large tracts of land throughout the basin. Inevitably, the Bisti became the center of a lawsuit between the Public Service Company of New Mexico and the Sierra Club; PNM already had a mining operation there and it looked like it might become just another large open-pit mine. However, the courts sided with the Sierra Club and in 1984, the Bisti was awarded wilderness status. In recent years, Ah Shi Sle Pah has also become a Wilderness Study Area. So, at least for the present, these gems are safe from the insatiable maw of “progress”.

Of the nine recognized badlands in the San Juan Basin, the Bisti is the largest–at 30,000 acres–and most well known. It includes the Kirtland and Fruitland geologic layers and was deposited 70-75 million years ago. The chief deposits are: sandstone, siltstone, shale, coal, and volcanic ash. Fossils include remains of T-Rex and large cypress-like conifers.

Ah Shi Sle Pah is much smaller than the Bisti, but was deposited around the same time, and thus contains the same geologic layers. It contains the same deposits: sandstone, siltstone, shale, coal, and volcanic ash. The fossils found in Ah Shi Sle Pah include remains of crocodiles, Pentaceratops (which has been found only in Ah Shi Sle Pah), early mammals, and of course, petrified wood.

The other recognized badlands in the basin are: Ojito–the oldest having been deposited 144-150 million years ago–, De Na Zin (70 -75 million years ago), Lybrook, Ceja Pelon, Penistaja (all 60-64 million years ago), San Jose (38-64 million years ago), and the youngest, Mesa de Cuba (38-54 million years ago).

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The map shows the boundaries of the San Juan Basin. Rather than being formed by volcanism like the San Juan and Jemez Mountains to the north and east, the basin was uplifted as a single block after which the center collapsed to create the basin.

The idea for this post came from a show I had last year called Badlands Black and White. I chose to print all the images in B&W in order to focus on the graphic elements: tone, texture, patterns, etc.

A-Puzzling-Landscape

This image was made in Alamo Wash in the Bisti Wilderness. The cracks that result from the shrinkage of the clay rich soil tell a story of the arid environment. The sandstone balanced on the short mudstone pillars is an example of the hardened sediment and how it weathers in relation to the softer layers below it.

An-Alien-Assembly

The floor of most badlands is usually littered with small pieces of debris, which is comprised of bits that have broken or eroded from larger structures. They can be shale, clinkers (super-heated clay), siltstone, or even glacial deposits from the last ice age. There are often fossilized bone and clamshells mixed in with all or some of the above.

Bisti-Tour-Sepia

I made this image of a client while leading a tour in the Bisti Wilderness. The man is standing on an ridge above a deep wash in the Brown Hoodoos section of the wilderness. I wanted to give the viewer a sense of scale and the feeling of being lost in the bizarre surroundings.

Evolution

These eroded pillars are in a small alcove located in a tributary of Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash. Some of them still have their sandstone caprocks, while some have lost theirs. The badlands are an evolving story of creation and degeneration, once the protective cover of the caprock is gone, the erosion process proceeds at a much faster pace.

In-The-Hall-Of-The-Hoodoo-King-B&W

This image is from Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash. The squat hoodoos in the foreground are relatively new and haven’t weathered out to the extent that some of the taller, more widely spaced ones have. Like many of the places I frequent in the badlands, I can’t visit this one without making several exposures.

Stonebones

At Ah Shi Sle Pah, there is a small, raised enclosure; I call it the Dragon’s Nest. What caught my eye the first time I saw it were the patterns and textures eroded into the solidified volcanic ash. This formation, at some time in the past, probably had a sandstone cap-rock.

Tables-Of-Elements

I made this image in Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash. This collection of hoodoos sits in the middle of a labyrinthine tributary wash. The small column on the right has lost its caprock and is undergoing accelerated erosion.

Homage-To-The-Queen

This is a formation in the Bisti Wilderness that I call the Queen Bee. It is part of a small area of similar formations known as the Egg Garden. The cylindrical shape of these eroded forms is due to them being formed and hardened inside limestone tubes. As the surrounding layers eroded away, they emerged as distinct egg-shaped forms. The Egg Garden is one of the most popular attractions in the Bisti.

The-Eye-Of-The-Storm-Sepia

This small arch is another feature that brings people come from around the world to visit the Bisti Wilderness. The Bisti Arch can be deceiving; the opening is only about three feet across and half as high. The first time I found it, after searching unsuccessfully during previous visits, I was surprised by how small it is. The top of the arch is made of siltstone supported by a volcanic ash pedestal, and was once part of a wall which stretched across Alamo Wash.

Rocks-Of-Ages-Sepia

In his book “Bisti” which was printed in the 1980’s, David Scheinbaum included an image of this formation with the caption: “This unstable hoodoo is just within the Sunbelt coal-mining lease and will probably be destroyed by mining in the near future.” I made this image on a recent trip to the Bisti Wilderness, and I’m happy to report that the unstable hoodoo is still standing.


The Creative Workflow (WYSIWYG)

I am constantly on the lookout for new images. Even while I’m driving, one eye is searching for a photograph. But, to really see, it is important that I be present so I can delve into the potential image, dissect it and study the relationships between the elements. What is the best way to do this? What should I look for as I move through this process?

The first step is to ask myself: What was it that drew me to this scene? Usually it was a singular object, or a play of light over the landscape. The Soaptree Yuccas, the sidelit patterns, and the subtle light on the sand dunes at White Sands National Monument were what grabbed my attention and led to this first image. Understanding my motivation made it easier realize what I want to say with the photograph.

Next I had to frame the scene  in a way that would tell the story in the best way possible. I placed the closest yucca up front, but a little off center, leaving little doubt that it was the main subject of the image. This placement also allowed me to separate it from the others in the middle ground and avoid a confusing and static composition. My choices for the exposure had to be based on the dynamic range of the scene, which, In this case, was pretty wide considering the bright highlights on the sand in the distance, and the dark tonality in the shadows near sunset.

Rippling-Dunes

Yuccas on a textured dune field at White Sands National Monument

The first technical requirement was that I capture a broad dynamic range, so I made a bracketed series of exposures that covered the entire spectrum of tonalities in the scene. Even though I didn’t need to use all the different exposures, it’s better to have them and not need them than it is to need them and…well you know.  The next requirement was that the depth of field be wide enough to have sharp details front to rear. Because of the low light level at the time of day I was shooting this, the fact that I was shooting at the lowest possible ISO–to achieve the best possible image quality, and the small aperture needed to get the depth of field I required, my shutter speed was relatively slow–1/10th of a second. That meant that I needed to shoot with my camera mounted on a tripod (something I usually do anyway). It’s easy to see from this cause and effect chain how my creative workflow was based not only on composition and design elements, but also included technical considerations.

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Sandhill Cranes at twilight in a pond at Bosque del Apache NWR

The second image of Sandhill Cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge was made at twilight, that special time in the evening just after the sun set and the light is bouncing off the upper atmosphere. I was taken by the reflection of the colored sky and the reeds in the placid water of the foreground, and the transition from the smooth to the to the rough texture of the water, which created a layer-like effect because of the sudden change in color and texture. This layer is also where the action takes place: the cranes mingling, spreading their wings, foraging for dinner. There is then an abrupt transition to the golden reeds and the darker background before the final shift to the lighter tonality and magenta shades of the distant mountains and the sky.

I had my camera mounted on my tripod as usual, but I kept the bullhead swivel loose so I could easily pan to follow the movement of the birds. This image also relies on a wide depth of field to preserve sharpness in the details of all the layers mentioned above. I wanted to make the layering effect more obvious, so I boosted the saturation and contrast a little. Once again, the thought process kicks in and the decisions are made.  The point of all this is to stress the importance of being involved in the making of an image. If you want a photograph to be yours, you need to put a little of yourself into it, and you need to be intentional throughout the process.

 


Two Birds

I killed two birds with one stone the other evening: I did some “blue hour” photography, and I made some panorama images. I have been wanting, for some time now, to get out and photograph the “blue hour”. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, it refers to the hour before sun-up or after sundown when the light from the setting sun is reflected in the upper atmosphere. The more common name for this time is twilight, and it is divided into three distinct phases: civil, nautical, and astronomical. The duration of twilight changes depending on the time of year, and the latitude from which it is being observed. The blue reference has to do with the color of the light which has a wonderful bluish cast to it and is diffuse without any harsh shadows. So, I finally made myself go out into the diminishing day and drive to the Rio Puerco Valley. The prospect was sweetened by the full moon which would be rising about half an hour after sunset.

Rio-Puerco-Twilight

Cabezon Peak and Cerro Cuate dominate the skyline as the sunset is reflected in the twilight sky in New Mexico’s Rio Puerco Valley

I arrived at my destination two hours before moonrise and set about scouting the area for a good location to photograph the event. Since I am quite familiar with the place, it didn’t take me very long to find what I was looking for. I set up my camera on a tripod and began making test images to determine the correct exposure. As the sun went down and the light softened, I began taking several series of vertical photographs which would later be stitched together in Photoshop to create the final panorama.  The first image was made about thirty minutes after sunset and about twenty minutes before moonrise.

Sundown-Rio-Puerco

A herd of cattle returning home after a hard day grazing in New Mexico’s Rio Puerco Valley.

The second photograph was actually made earlier than the first, but it was more of a test to get the feel for shooting the panorama and I didn’t expect to take it any further. After all, it’s full of cattle, which I consider to be a blight on the landscape. But, in the spirit of expanding my horizons (thank you Robin), I processed the image and, as it turned out, I liked it.

From the information I had gathered from The Photographer’s Ephemeris, I expected the full moon to rise somewhere between Cabezon Peak (the volcanic plug in the distance) and Cerro Cuate (the more prominent double peaked mount). But as the horizon began to brighten I was somewhat dismayed to discover that the moon was not where it was supposed to be…well at least not where I expected it to be. I checked the app on my iPhone again and saw that my expectations were based on a location that was actually a couple miles east of where I was.

Ragged-Moon

A full moon rising, but obscured by clouds, between Cerro Cuate and Cabezon Peak in the Rio Puerco Valley in north-central New Mexico

I had planned to include the moon with the two mountains in the composition; that wasn’t possible from the place where I was standing. Now I had to re-think my plans, knowing that my window of opportunity was small if I was going to capture the moon close to the horizon. I quickly packed everything into my car and drove to the new location, walked to a place which afforded a clear view of the scene, set up, and composed the last image. By now it was dark, I was shooting thirty second exposures, and I was having to focus manually–auto focus doesn’t work very well in the dark. This being my first attempt at photographing at this time of day, and making panoramas, I wasn’t really very hopeful about the outcome. As full dark descended, I pack up my gear by the light of my headlamp and headed home.

The next morning I set about uploading and processing my previous night’s work. Each panorama is composed of nine vertical images which are then stitched together in Photoshop. As the first panorama was rendered I knew I was hooked. Somehow, despite the comedy of errors I had experienced while making the images, I managed to walk away with some finished photographs that I was happy with. It’s always an exhilarating feeling to discover a new technique and this was no exception. I made a few mistakes; there are some things I will do differently in the future, but overall, I’m happy with the way things turned out. It was a good night’s work.

 


Working With Light

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.

Lignite-And-Clinkers

In this image of lignite mounds and clinkers taken in the northern part of the Bisti Wilderness, the light is soft, but provides enough contrast to give shape to the features of the landscape.

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.

In-The-Extreme

I made this image of rabbitbrush in a wash deep in the Bisti Wilderness. The light was harsh and I was shooting almost directly into it, but the wide dynamic range of my Nikon D 800 managed to capture all the information in one exposure. I was also able to make highlight and shadow adjustments in Lightroom during post processing.

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

 

 

 

 


Textural Fluency

Texture as a design element is often made to play second fiddle to some of its more obvious kin: line, color, even shape; but it can be a very effective tool in our bag of photographic tricks. It is important here to note the difference between tactile and visual texture. Tactile texture is what we feel when we touch a surface whether it be two dimensional–a piece of fabric, or three dimensional– a marble sculpture. Visual texture is the representation of a three dimensional surface in two dimensions. As photographers working within the confines of two dimensions, we are limited to the visual representation.

Everything has texture. It can be rough and aggressive, it can be smooth and subtle, or it can be somewhere in between. In this image the textures range from rough (the trees) to softer (the grasses) to softest (the low clouds). Texture can make an image more interesting by inviting the viewer to explore the interactions and relationships between the visual elements within the frame.

Jemez-Canyon-Winter-Desat

Textural differences add another design element to an image: contrast. The visual contrast in this image of cottonwood trees during a winter storm gives the viewer a reason to delve more deeply into the image; it attracts the eye and lets the person viewing the image know that I found the contrast between the low hanging clouds, the trees, and the grasses interesting enough to stop and make a photograph.

On another level, the repetitive, more aggressive texture of the trees in the photograph creates a pattern or motif which stands out and dominates the more subtle blending of the background clouds and foreground grass, so the trees become the focal point of the image. Finally, the different textures within the image create layers which add depth both visually and conceptually.