There are occurences in nature that are as beautiful as they are short-lived. These small ephemeral miracles are everywhere around us if we take the time to look for them.
Apache Plume puts forth its feathery tendrils after the flower petals drop. These are the seeds which are dispersed by the wind, but when you find them just beginning to grow from their stalks, they appear to be suspended in some hidden undersea world.
Barley Grass seeds have a beautifully complicated, interwoven, geometric structure which to me is more interesting than anything built by man. A couple days after I made this photograph, the seeds were mere husks.
This Cliffrose blossom had some rain drops trapped in its petals and the backlit effect was a diaphonous glow which caused the droplets to show through the petals and accentuate their fragile elegance.
I make it a habit to dig into my archives every so often just to see what might jump out at me. I am usualy pleasantly surprised and also find myself wondering why I didn’t see the possibilties of these images back then. The answer is, in most cases, a change in my perspective, or perhaps a maturation of my vision. In other cases, a simple change in long-standing habits, otherwise known as getting out of a rut.
I was in Lake City, Colorado for the Lake City Wine and Music Festival. After the two day event, I took a ride up the road to Cinammon Pass which summits at nearly thirteen-thousand feet. Somewhere along the way I made this photograph of a stand of aspens. I guess I didn’t think it worthy of any further work when I edited my photos from that trip. I let my expectations get in the way sometimes and when I revisit images later, those biases no longer inhibit my judgement.
The shading and texture of these deep erosion channels at the foot of Cainville Mesa caught my eye as we were driving past on the way to Factory Butte. I didn’t have a long telephoto lens with me, so I borrowed my friend Robin’s 70-300 and made this image. I didn’t think anything else about it and skipped right over it when I edited and processed my work from that trip. But looking at it now, I see the things that compelled me to make the photograph in the first place.
The coastal redwoods in northern California are an experience. It’s like being transported to another world, at least it seems that way to me, a desert rat who has lived for more than forty years in the desert southwest. This patch of rhododendrons was growing right along the road; the contrast between the delicate leaves and blossoms, and the looming immensity, and mystery of the trees disappearing into the mist in the background captured my imagination.
I try to do any cropping to an image in camera, in other words, as I’m making the image. I very seldom crop photographs when I’m processing them. But this one was nagging at me. the left side of the image was not doing anything, it was an unwanted appendage. At the same time, I didn’t want to lose too much of the brooding clouds at the top. The answer was to change the aspect ratio from the normal 2:3 of 35mm or, in this case, full frame digital to 4:5. I like the result. The subject is the Yeibichei Rocks in Monument Valley.
I often go to Tucson in February or March to photograph the blooming desert. In a good year, the wildflowers carpet large parts of the desert landscape. I remember very clearly the making of this image. This saguaro cactus was right across a dirt road from where my campsite was located. The sun had just set and, in the twilight’s glow, the clouds were a salmon color. This particular cactus was probably thirty feet tall and in order to isolate it, I had to be pretty close (once again, I found myself without a long telephoto lens. I have since started bringing at least my 80-200 Nikkor along on all my trips). The point is that the farther away you can get from a tall subject such as this, the less vertical perspective will be obvious in the image. I was able to do some correction in Lightroom, but I would rather make the corrections during the making of the photograph.
Here is another photograph from one of my Arizona springtime trips. I had read about crested or cristate saguaros and set about finding one. A crested saguaro is a mutation which causes the cactus to fan out, usually at its head. The mutation is thought to be caused by some event (a lightning strike, or possibly a freeze) which interferes with the plant’s normal growth.
I’m not sure why this photograph escaped me during the first go round. I made the image on my first visit to Bandon Beach. I had been looking forward to photographing there and I spent an entire morning moving up and down the beach making pictures. None of those images met my expectations at the time; this one languished in my archives until just recently. There’s a moral to this story: take the time to review your archived images. There are probably some gems waiting there for you to finally recognize their potential.
2015’s Best Part 2
As the title suggests, this is the second installment of my favorite images from 2015, and, as I mentioned in my previous post, the year was a departure for me in many ways. It is important for me as an artist to feel that my work is progressing. Last year I was able to move my work in new directions while exploring some new territory geographically as well.
As August gave way to September, I was eager to explore the Taos Plateau which I had photographed briefly while driving across it in August. At that time of year, the plateau becomes a sea of yellow due to the chamisa and snakeweed blossoms. The wildflowers, like the mountain asters in this image, accent the scene with bursts of color.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄25 sec., f16, ISO 32
The ultimate goal of this trip was the Rio Grande Gorge which cuts across the plateau to a depth of over a thousand feet. Most people see it from the Gorge Bridge west of Taos on US highway 64. But, there are many places along its length where you can drive to within walking distance.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄30 sec, f16, ISO 50
I tell the students in my Beginning Digital Photography class that you don’t need to drive to exotic places to make good photographs. Of course, it helps if you live in a beautiful place. I made this image of a mule deer buck in velvet in my yard. The blooming chamisa provided the perfect backdrop.
Nikon D300 with Nikkor 80-400 lens: 1⁄200 sec, f8, ISO 1250
In mid-September, we went to Kasha Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument which is located just south of Santa Fe where the Rio Grande finally exits the gorge after enduring the indignity of being impounded in Cochiti Lake. The hike to the top where the best views of the tent rocks are to be had passes through a narrow slot canyon which affords a cool respite from the late summer heat.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄320 sec., f13, ISO 800
My favorite images from that trip were these two of Robin in the slot. The second one became the title image for my show at the Jemez Fine Art Gallery: “The Path Less Travelled”.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄160 sec., f10, ISO 1250
In September, we also made a trip to White Sands. As detailed in a previous post, the main reason for the trip was to photograph the White Sands Balloon Invitational, but Mother Nature had other plans. The lightshow at sundown was spectacular as this image attests.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-120mm f4 lens: 6 sec., f16, ISO 32
I love to break the rules. Dividing the frame in half is supposedly bad form, but with this image, I intentionally centered the top of the dune horizontally I think it works pretty well.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-120mm f4 lens: 1⁄8 sec., f16, ISO 32
The combination of the color and the peaceful quality of the dunes created a dreamlike atmosphere which I think I managed to capture pretty well with these last two images from White Sands.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-120mm f4 lens: 1.6 sec., f16, ISO 32
Both were captured near twilight; the intensity of the reds in the sky increased as the evening progressed. By reducing the clarity in Lightroom, I was able to enhance the dreamlike quality of both photographs.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-120mm f4 lens: 2.5 sec., f16, ISO 32
On the return trip from White Sands, we made a small detour to Three Rivers Petroglyph Site. There are over 21,000 petroglyphs on the rocks which cover the top of a ridge a little over a half mile long. Again, the weather cooperated and the light was perfect. This image of a hand petroglyph is my favorite from that shoot.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄15 sec., f16, ISO 32
In October, we made a journey to to southeastern Utah. The first night we camped at Goosenecks State Park and explored the surrounding area. In the Valley of the Gods, I saw this lone juniper tree perched on a rocky slope below a sandstone fin.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 16-35mm f4 lens: 1⁄15 sec., f16, ISO 32
On the second day, we drove up the Moki Dugway and then out to Muley Point. This was the surprise of the trip and we spent several hours climbing around the sandstone mounds that lie along the edge of the precipice overlooking the Goosenecks of the San Juan. In this image a small juniper clings precariously to its niche overlooking the serpentine canyons and the monoliths of Monument Valley on the horizon.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄8 sec., f16, ISO 32
Our ultimate destination was Monument Valley. It had been nearly forty years since I was last there, and while there were some changes: notably, the View Hotel, the prospect out over the valley and the sandstone buttes was unspoiled. We camped within view of the Mittens. I made this image of our campsite on our first evening there.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 133 sec., f16, ISO 32
John Ford Point was made famous by the director of the same name in his 1939 movie “Stagecoach”. I did make my own version of the iconic image: a native on horseback gazing into the distance from the point. But, my pick is this image of a rider moving away from the point while clouds hang low over the valley, partially obscuring the mittens.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-120mm f4 lens: 1⁄640 sec., f16, ISO 1600
As we were driving down into the valley on our first day there, I noticed this raven perched in a juniper right by the roadside. I moved slowly at first , not wanting to spook him before I could get the shot, but the more we photographed, the more I realized that he wasn’t going anywhere. As we packed back into the car, he began squawking. I think he was expecting a tip.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄10 sec., f16, ISO 32
This image is a replication of a photograph that Ansel Adams made in 1958. I don’t make a habit of shooting from other photographer’s tripod holes, in fact I will go out of my way to avoid doing so. But, hey, he’s Ansel Adams.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄20 sec., f16, ISO 32
When we pulled into the North Window parking area, I saw this dead juniper along the roadside and was immediately drawn to it. There is something about the bare bones of a twisted juniper tree in this landscape that just fits together.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄20 sec., f16, ISO 32
In November I travelled to Las Cruces to photograph a group of women for a Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math calendar. On the way I took a detour through Lake Valley and came across this stand of cottonwoods still in their autumn colors. I was attracted by the contrast between them and the drab landscape, and the low-hanging wintry sky.
Nikon D810 with Nikkor 24-120mm f4 lens: 1⁄4 sec., f16, ISO 32
Springtime In Arizona
I have been planning a trip to southern Arizona to capture the spring wildflowers in bloom for several years. Something else always seemed to take priority. This year I finally just packed the car and started driving. I went first to Tucson where I lived for a short time in the late 70s. I was looking forward to seeing the place again.
The town has changed a great deal in the ensuing years. The places I could recognize were lost in a miasma of new construction, freeway signs, and traffic that bore little resemblance the place I remembered. I fled to the desert, which was really the point of the trip after all. Getting out of town took way longer than it should have, but I finally made it to Saguaro National Park where I spent the remainder of my first day lost in the healing process of making images.
I spent ten hours driving, walking, and making photographs. I wasn’t as excited as I should have been. The clear blue Arizona sky was boring, as was the light, especially at mid-day. As the sun moved lower in the sky, I noticed some clouds building on the western horizon; they were infused with a magnificent orange glow. I pulled over at a likely spot, parked the car and wandered into the desert. I had a specific image in mind and, as I walked through the cactus forest, I found what I was looking for. Teddy Bear Chollas have a kind of ephemeral quality about them, especially when they are backlit. The light shining through the clustered spines creates a halo of luminescence around them. Their soft, fuzzy appearance belies the reality, Those spines are barbed, and if you are unlucky enough to come too close, the result can be quite painful.
After a day shooting in Saguaro National Park, followed by another long drive back into Tucson (long due to traffic, not distance), I decided to head north towards Phoenix in hopes of finding more wildflowers. It was not a lack of quantity, or quality that fueled my decision; there was plenty of brittlebush blooming in the Tucson area, but I was really hoping to find some Mexican Poppies.
I took the back roads through Oracle, Arizona–one of my favorite writers, Ed Abbey, spent some time there in his later years. On the way I spent part of the day visiting Biosphere 2, before continuing on my way in search of photographs. I eventually arrived at Lost Dutchman State Park near Apache Junction a couple of hours before sunset. Once again, I found myself wandering through stands of cholla and Saguaros waiting for the sun to fall below the horizon. Besides the thrill of the pursuit of images, the experience of solitude in a remarkable landscape is one of the most rewarding aspects of a trip like this.
I never did find the poppies, but all in all, it was a worthwhile trip. I managed to make some nice photographs, and to visit some old friends who live in Phoenix. On the way home, I stopped at a corner in Winslow made famous in song. The statue and “park” are the most noteworthy things I saw in the town, although friends have informed me that there is a good restaurant in one of the old hotels. Maybe I’ll check it out when I return in search of the poppies next year.
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.
If you think of your landscapes as portraits, which I do, this makes more sense. Any areas that are in deep shadow are hiding a part of the scene. Not only that, they are distracting and even extraneous. Crafting a fine landscape image can be much like writing an essay or novel: you have to finesse each element until it flows well with the rest of the composition. Of course there are times when you have to just accept the conditions you have and if you’re working in harsh light, you need to be aware of how to use the light to your advantage, and how to make adjustments later in post processing if necessary.
This can be accomplished in several ways. Newer cameras are pretty good at capturing wide dynamic ranges within a photograph. Often, one exposure is enough to get all the information needed to produce a good final image. If you are unable to capture all the tones in the scene, you may need to make a series of bracketed exposures and combine them later in HDR software or by blending the exposures in Photoshop. There was time, not so long ago, when I shot five exposures for every image, and then blended them in Photomatix Pro. Now I try to get it all in one exposure. I only bracket exposures under extreme conditions.
Post processing software is becoming much better at making tonal corrections; the highlights and shadows sliders in Lightroom work wonders on a high contrast image. High ISO and low-light noise reduction are also much better in the newer cameras, and the ability of editing software to deal with these problems in post is advancing quickly. So, the tools are available, making good, even great, images under extreme lighting conditions is becoming easier, and the results look better than was possible just a couple years ago.
On a final note, I use Adobe Lightroom 5 and the latest version of Photoshop CC, but there are quite a few very good options out there. On One Software’s Perfect Photo Suite is just one example.
Check out more of my work on my website: http://www.jimcaffreyimages.com
The World At Your Feet
There was a time not too long ago when ninety-five percent of my photography was macro/close-up work. I made a conscious change to broader landscapes, and now ninety five percent of my images are landscapes. Go figure! Recently, while doing some research for a photography class I am teaching, I opened a book by John Shaw, one of the premier nature photographers of all time. One of the first things I noticed about John’s work is that he doesn’t just do landscapes, and he doesn’t just do macro/close-ups, he does it all, and he does it extremely well! So, I am now in the process of trying to strike a balance between the two.
Macro/ close-up photography has one big advantage over landscapes: you can do it in your own backyard. There is a world right at your feet. All you have to do is look.
I made this first image early one winter morning on my way to work. I was walking to my truck when I happened to glance down at the ground; there were all these amazing ice forms with some of the gravel showing through. It was just a matter of setting up my tripod and taking the shot.
Winter is a great time for this type of photography. I love the patterns that can be found in ice and snow. The image below was made in a friend’s driveway one winter afternoon. The arrangement of the leaves caught my eye, and again, it was a simple matter to set up the shot. I like the slight depression in the snow around the larger leaf; it adds a little depth to the image.
Sometimes it’s necessary to get down at eye level with your subject in order to find the image you’re looking for. I found this frozen weed stalk in my side yard one morning. The sun hadn’t hit that side yet, so the small plant was still covered with frost. I was kneeling on the frozen, snow covered ground while I framed and composed the shot, but I think it was well worth the effort.
Spring is another great time to find photos at your feet. The world is awakening after it’s long winter sleep, and there’s plenty of new growth which is still fresh, not yet ravaged by the elements or insects.
The above photo was made right next to a road in the Santa Fe National Forest, and the one below in the back yard of some friends. Both were taken with my Nikon 105mm macro lens mounted on a tripod
This last image has been a favorite of mine for a long time. It was made in my yard just after sunrise, again using my macro lens. All of these photographs, except for the second one which is a digital capture, were taken with a Nikon F100, using Fuji Velvia transparency film, and then scanned with a Nikon Coolscan V film scanner.
So, the next time you find yourself looking for subjects to photograph, don’t forget the small world which is as close as a step outside your door.
This image was made in my front yard just as the sun was clearing the mesa–hence the name. I like the way the sunlight illuminates the tiny hairs on the stems, and backlights the petals so the flower seems to glow from within.
I used the rule of thirds to position the main subject in the upper right of the frame, and let the stem and bud fall across the center. This creates more visual interest than if I had centered the flower.
Equipment: Nikon F100, Nikon 105 mm f2.8 macro lens, Bogen tripod, Fuji Velvia transparency film.
Camera Settings: f8, 1/15th sec., film ISO 50.
Processing: Scanned to digital with Nikon Coolscan V, levels, curves, saturation adjustments, and sharpening in Photoshop.
The remnants of a common weed captured on a frosty winter morning. I was taken by the way the frost seemed to outline the veins of the leaf, and the small clusters on the stem. I shot this with a wide open aperture (f 2.8) in order to throw the background out of focus and create what is called a bokeh effect.
Equipment: Nikon F100, 35–70 f 2.8 zoom lens, 81A warming filter, Bogen tripod, Fuji Velvia transparency film.
Camera Settings: f 2.8, 1/20th sec., ISO 80
Processing: Slide scanned to digital with Nikon Coolscan V–ED, Contrast, levels, curves, color balance, and Unsharp Mask adjustments in Photoshop.
We were mountain biking on San Juan Mesa, and stopped for a break, so I grabbed my camera and we walked along a game trail. There were bluebells growing everywhere we looked, but it took a while to find the right ones. I was taken by the graceful curve of the stems, and the placement of the blossoms on this pair.
I only had my “all-in-one” lens with me, and no tripod, but I was able to get close enough, and open the aperture wide enough to isolate the flowers against a nice bokeh background. Luckily, there was hardly any wind, so movement was not a problem. This was the best out of five exposures. Again, processing was limited to curves, clarity, vibrance, and contrast adjustments in lightroom and photoshop.