There are times when the atmosphere puts on a show that, combined with the right light, cannot be ignored. If you happen to be in a place that provides a suitable setting for such a show, you may be able to capture it all in a way that reveals the power and beauty that nature paints under these conditions.
I made this image in 2007. I was in Canyonlands at Grandview Point when I noticed the storm moving across the buttes and mesas to the south and west. The ethereal nature of the light through the clouds and the haze of the falling rain was stunning. It took me a moment to realize that I should make a picture of this. If you look closely at the bottom right corner, you can see the Green River where it exits Labyrinthe Canyon at Hardscrabble Bottom. A few miles downstream is the confluence of the Green and the Colorado Rivers.
I was driving to Las Cruces for a calendar shoot and decided to take the scenic route through Lake Valley. As the clouds lowered to obscure the tops of a small range of hills, I rounded a curve to find these Cottonwood trees still wearing their autumn colors standing out in an otherwise sere landscape.
I was leading a tour in the Bisti Wilderness in December and by the time we arrived at the Egg Garden, the clouds had moved in and dropped down low on the landscape. Looking to the southwest, I noticed the sun attempting to shine through the thick cover; the result was a number of beams which died in midair much like virga (falling rain that never reaches the ground). Of all the times I have been to this location, I never witnessed better light than this.
The Jemez River bosque south of Jemez Springs nestles close to the base of the wall of Virgin Mesa. I made this image on a winter morning a few years ago. The low clouds were veiling the canyon wall and created a sense of mystery and helped to define the branches of the cottonwoods and willows that line the bosque in that part of the canyon.
Closeup photography basically requires an observant and discerning eye, as well as a willingness to witness in the commonplace a display of the miraculous.
John Shaw-Closeups in Nature
All of the photographs in this post were made on my property within a quarter mile of my house. That is the wonderful thing about close-up/macro photography: there is a world of subject matter literally at your feet.
Also, all these photographs were made with my thirty-something year old Nikkor 105mm f2.8D macro lens mounted on one of my Nikon Df bodies. I normally don’t mention gear because it seems superfluous, but in this case, I have had a long-standing love affair with this lens and it still makes beautifully sharp images, so it needs to be recognized.
I have spent hours photographing leaves; cottonwood–as in these photos, aspen, willow, oak, birch, etc. You get the picture. I never grow tired of it, and I usually come away feeling fulfilled and happy with the day’s work. The first image encased as it is in ice is a bonus for me; when I’m working in these conditions, I don’t feel the cold. I get so focused that I am unaware of anything going on around me. Not such a good thing if you’re in a crowded city, but working in a field with not another soul within a mile or more, it’s an exhilerating freedom.
The everyday patterns found in the natural world are pretty much perfect. No amount of rearranging can possibly make them better, but rather it will usually leave them looking, well…re-arranged. So I take things as I find them and rarely touch any of the elements. The only caveat is I will sometimes remove a distracting element if it can be done without disturbing the rest of the composition.
This image of a small group of seed pods required a lot of forethought and some delicate maneuvering. It is a 1:1 magnification ratio, so the working distance was about twelve inches. At that distance, depth of field is measured in fractions of an inch; I needed to be sure my camera’s focal plane was parallel to the pods, and that my aperture provided a DOF that was wide enough to keep all the pods in reasonable focus, but was shallow enough to ensure a nice soft background. Add to all that the fact that I was working just a few inches above the ground and if I bumped the fragile pods with my equipment, they would be destoyed. Enough said.
Walking along the river one afternoon I looked down to find this arrangement of cottonwood and willow leaves, twigs, and grass at my feet. I actually shot this handheld (something I usually won’t do when making close-ups), so there was really no set up involved, I just squatted down, composed the image, and released the shutter.
Out again a couple days ago, I found these red birch logs lying near the river behind my house with the leaves tucked in between them. It took a while to set my tripod in the optimal position for this image because there were quite a few downed trees close to the subject and I needed to balance the legs of the tripod on them and get the whole thing close enough to the ground to achieve the right perspective.
It’s been a while since I’ve done any close-up work and I had forgotten how rewarding it can be. Getting out and crawling around in the dirt again brought it all back to me. I hope you enjoy seeing these photographs as much as I enjoyed making them.
This then: to photograph a rock, have it look like a rock, but be more than a rock.
I found the opening quote by Edward Weston in Guy Tal’s book More Than A Rock. I thought it appropriate to introduce this post. The book is also worth a gander.
I love the diffuse light of an overcast, snowy day. All the images in this post were made along the Jemez River Bosque during a snowstorm last week. I used my 80-200 telephoto lens set at the upper end of its range. The result is a compression of the elements of the scenes. That coupled with the soft, misty depths of the bosque due to the falling snow serves to enhance the intimacy of the images.
My intention for this outing was to capture the delicate, subtle relationships between the various forms of vegetation. What I discovered is something I knew all along: nature is a master of design; it is subtle; its forms are deliberate; and its colors blend as naturally and effortlessly as the confluence of two rivers.
I have been doing this photography thing for a long time. When I was first starting out, I was keenly interested in the work of such luminaries as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and, the master of color, Eliot Porter. Today, some fifty years down the road, they have been joined by the likes of David Meunch and William Neill. These images are a return to the things that sparked my initial interest in the art of photography.
As I worked, I was repeatedly drawn to the similarities, and the contrasts between the chamisa and the cottonwoods. Later while processing the images, I saw that the blue color shift caused by the flat light on this cold morning was very complimentary to the yellows and reds of the chamisa, the dead oak leaves, and the tamarisk. I deliberately made use of that effect to convey my feeling of the experience through the photographs.
I had noticed this red sandstone boulder several times while exploring the area and I knew I would use it at some point. When I saw it on this day, it was immediately clear to me that this was the time. Environmental conditions and of course the light can transform a scene such as this from one of mere interest to one that speaks of the nature of things.
If there is magic on this earth it lies in water.
Water, without it life cannot exist. It is elusive, you cannot hold it long in your hand (unless it is in its frozen state and even then it soon melts away), yet it carves mile deep canyons through billion year old rock.
I made this first image on a cold day last week. I walked up the East Fork of the Jemez River at Battleship Rock looking for water and ice, and while there was plenty of both, it took a while before I found a composition worthy of an image. This small cascade was exactly what I had in mind; the ice suspended above the rushing water and coating the small branches has a fragile elegance that is all its own.
After leaving the East Fork, I walked a ways up the Rio San Antonio to this waterfall. It is a favorite of mine; I have been coming to this place for many years. I used to bring my daughters here on hikes when they were little girls, so I have a deep connection to it. Again, I was looking for ice, and again I found it. I don’t know how many photographs I’ve made of this waterfall over the years, but this is certainly one of my favorites.
I made this photograph of upper Guadalupe Falls, as well as the two that follow, in the mid-nineties with my Nikon F3 using Fuji Velvia transparency film. To achieve this intimate perspective, I had to set my tripod on a boulder which was lodged above the falls where they drop about ten feet. It is a precarious platform with not much room to work from, but the results seem worth the risk. The snow and ice on the rocks and the greenish color of the icy water give this image a frigid feel.
This is the same waterfall as in the second photograph. It is an abstract to some degree, but the reality of the falls is still obvious. I have always loved the visual and physical contrast between liquid water–particularly if it’s moving–and its solid state when it appears to be moving. Here the immutable basalt face of the cliff provides yet another contrast to the ephemeral nature of the water.
This is the lower end of Guadalupe Falls; the rock in this location is granite, part of an ancient upthrust. The shapes and the solid presence of the rock juxtaposed against the relentless flow of the river through this narrow passage along with the figurative connection between the two provided by the ice are the elements I was reacting to when I made this photograph.
After more than a week of unfulfilled promises from the weatherman, and several half-baked attempts, we finally got a substantial snowfall here in northern New Mexico. So, I awoke in the pre-dawn of the new year to find a foot of fresh snow and more coming down.
I made this image of my home from the southern boundary of my property. The rincon along the edge of Virgin Mesa is just visible through the falling snow to the north. I made several compositions and settled on this one. My main concern during the processing was to preserve the ethereal quality of the light through the snow on the distant rim.
Nikon Df, Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8
I call it the Number 10 Cabin, but it’s really just an old barn/shed. I have photogrphed it many times over the years–it is located a couple hundred yards from my house. This image was made, obviously, during a snowstorm. I love to photograph in these conditions; the world seems to shrink down to just the elements within the frame. I used a relatively fast shutter speed to freeze the falling snow, which gives the photograph an almost pointillist feel.
Nikon Df, Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8
This river runs through my land. I made this photograph from a wooden bridge located just north of my house. Normally when photographing moving water, I use a slow shutter speed to smooth the flow, but on this cold, snowy morning, freezing the movement with a fast shutter felt like the best way to portray the scene.
Nikon Df, Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8
South of the village, the canyon opens up and the bosque has room to breathe. These cottonwoods on the edge of a small meadow stood out againt the low clouds. The world was reduced to the immediate surroundings. As I said previously, these are my favorite conditions to work in. Again, I used a fast shutter to freeze the falling snow, which adds another dimension to the image. I made another exposure using a slow shutter to mask the snow and this version is by far my favorite.
Nikon D810, Nikkor 24-120mm f4
You can feel the silence and the mystery of the winter forest in this image. The trunks of Ponderosa Pine and Fir trees seem to go on forever and the veil of frozen air in the low clouds adds to the effect. I used a long lens to compress the separation between the trees. The sliver of snow covered ground at the bottom of the frame is essential to the composition; without it the image becomes more abstract.
Nikon D810, Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8
Happy New Year from Northern New Mexico!
It’s been more than a decade since the Las Conchas Fire burned more than one hundred fifty six thousand acres (244 sq. miles) in the Jemez Mountains leaving a huge burn scar in its wake. Two years later the Thompson Ridge Fire took another fifteen thousand acres. While I mourn the loss of those large areas of forest, I recognize the photographic opportunities the burns produced.
The low clouds partially veil the burned trees in this photograph. There is an obvious contrast between the live trees in the middle ground and the seemingly endless ranks of burned, dead ones on the hills in the background.
Nikon D810, Nikkor 24-120mm f4, 1/640, f8, ISO 640
I used my 80-200 telephoto zoom to isolate these fir trees in the frame. They are losing their bark and what bark remains is burnt black; the result is an almost abstract image. I also made a landscape (horizontal) version of this image, but the strong vertical lines of the trees lend themselves better to the portrait orientation.
Nikon D700, Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8, 1/400, f8, ISO 400
I processed this photograph in a way that emphasizes its airy, dreamlike quality. It was snowing and the clouds were low, so I used a fast shutter speed to freeze the flakes in the frame. This is a relatively “high key” image for me, but I think it does a good job of expressing the mood of the experience.
Nikon D810, Nikkor 24-120mm f4, 1/1000, f11, ISO 640
These trees were coated with a filigree of hoarfrost on this cold morning. The delicate icy branches against the black trunks and the cloudy sky creates an interesting visual contrast. Again, I chose a vertical orientation to accentuate the strong vertical lines of the dark trunks.
Nikon D700, Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8, f8, 1/640, ISO 400
Here is the view looking west along highway 4 from Corral Canyon, a beautiful area just west of the Valle Grande. This image shows the indiscriminate path of the fire, leaving large swaths of forest incinerated and others unscathed. Again, I was drawn to make this image by the visual, as well as the conceptual contrast of the scene.
Nikon D810, Nikkor 24-120mm f4, F11, 1/200 ISO 1250
I noticed these horses grazing at the foot of a burned mountain. This is the area where the Las Conchas fire started. I wanted the horses to be dwarfed by their surroundings to lend a sense of scale to the image. Even so, I had to use a 200mm focal length to produce the framing I desired.
Nikon D700, Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8, 1/640, f11, ISO640
At last, a real winter! One we denizens of the Jemez Mountains can be proud of. We’ve had two substantial snowfalls within the past two weeks, and there is more in the forecast. The day after Christmas I awoke to a world of swirling white. I quickly got dressed and grabbed my gear. There is nothing like being cloaked in the clouds during a fresh snowfall to bring the world into focus.
Jemez Springs has become a “destination”, the road and the village are typically busy with tourists, so it was a welcome relief to see it relatively abandoned with clean, new snow covering the small cluster of buildings that comprise the heart of the village. Luckily, the road hadn’t even been plowed yet.
The Jemez Historic Site (the pueblo of Giusewa) is about halfway between the village and my home. I have been wanting to make this image for quite a while, but due to a lack of the white stuff, I had put it off. This was my chance, and I think I made the most of it. This is what I consider to be the best of a series of seven exposures I made of this scene.
Continuing up the road, I came to Soda Dam. I have made many photographs of Soda Dam over the years; it’s only a five minute walk from my house. With the snow still coming down, I decided to give this image the same treatment as the one of the village seen above. I used a relatively fast shutter speed of 1/250th of a second to freeze the motion of the falling snow. The resulting image puts the tableau in context and serves to convey what I was feeling at the time I released the shutter.
After leaving the Soda Dam, I continued north on the highway into the Santa Fe National Forest. The most striking scenes I found were the ones of areas of forest burned in recent wildfires, their branches covered and defined by the snow. They provided a visual as well as a thematic contrast, and the photographs are a combination of realism and the abstract.
2015 was an exceptional year for me in terms of photography. Not just for the images, but for the experiences as well. I made an effort to be more adventurous, and spontaneous in my choice of subject matter. I also vowed to be more responsive to the images themselves when it came to post processing. In all, there are thirty-seven photographs, so I will present this post in two parts. I hope you enjoy viewing them as much as I enjoyed making them.
In late January we had a heavy snowfall which made it impossible for me to drive out of my driveway. So, I walked down to Soda Dam to photograph it in its winter splendor. This image seemed to be a black and white candidate from the start.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70 f2.8: 1.3 sec., f20, ISO 50
March took me to southern Arizona to photograph desert wildflowers. I didn’t find the showing I had hoped for, so I contented myself by pursuing Teddy Bear Chollas. When photographed in the right light, they have a luminous quality about them. I made this image at sunset in the Lost Dutchman State Park, east of Pheonix. The fabled Superstition Mountains lie on the horizon.
Nikon D800 with 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1.3 sec, f16, ISO 50
I’ve been to Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash many times over the years, but I seldom explore along the southern edge. In April I decided to change that; I made this image looking northwest from the top of the southern rim. This is the section I call the Yellow Badlands. It’s like taking a look back through time.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70 f2.8: 1⁄8 sec, f18, ISO 50
In May while exploring a part of Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash I had never been to before, I came across this incredible hoodoo hidden in a small ravine along the northern edge of the main wash. I stayed and worked the area for nearly two hours. This is the first of many compositions using what I call the Neural Hoodoo as the main subject.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 16-35mm f4 lens: 1⁄30 sec, f16, ISO 50
This black and white image was made from the opposite side of the Neural Hoodoo. If forced to choose a favorite, this would be it.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 16-35mm f4 lens: 1⁄25 sec, f16, ISO 50
This final image of the Neural Hoodoo was made from the same general location as the first, but I zoomed in to capture a more intimate portrait.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 16-35mm f4 lens: 1⁄15 sec, f16, ISO 50
At the same time I was exploring the far reaches of Ah Shi SlePah, I was discovering some of the amazing and convoluted drainages along the southern rim of the wash. I made this image on a stormy evening in late May. I could not have asked for more appropriate light for this scene.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄60 sec, f18, ISO 50
In early June I went out to the Bisti Wilderness. At the far reaches of the southern drainage, I made this image of a multi-colored grouping of hoodoos. I had photographed this same group several times in the past, but I think this is my favorite. The clouds seem to reflect the lines of the caprocks.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70 mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄40 sec, f16, ISO 50
One morning in late June I noticed the chollas around my house were blooming. I set out the next morning for the Rio Puerto Valley to capture the splashes of color in that dramatic landscape. I made the first image (above) in the ghost town of Guadalupe. The return of life to the desert seemed coincidental to the ongoing decay of the adobe buildings.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄6 sec, f16, ISO 50
In this image, a blossoming cholla stands at the head of a deep wash as a rain cloud passes over Cerro Cuate in the distance. Even the slightest precipitation sustains life in this environment.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄10 sec, f16, ISO 50
Early on the morning of July 4th, before the road was closed for the parade, I slipped out of town and drove out into the San Juan Basin. I didn’t really have a plan other than to visit the Burnham Badlands, which lies to the west of the Bisti Wilderness, and covers a relatively small area as badlands go (about one mile by two miles). This graceful hoodoo sits smack in the center of it.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄20 sec, f16, ISO 50
After completing my exploration of the Burnham Badlands, I drove west through the heart of the Navajo Reservation and arrived at Shiprock in the early evening. I drove one of the dirt roads that runs along the lava dike until I found a spot I liked. I set up my camera and tripod then waited for the light. Over the next two and a half hours, I made almost a hundred exposures as the light changed and the sun crept toward the horizon. This is my pick.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄6 sec, f16, ISO 50
Hidden in plain sight, just a few miles north of Ah Shi Sle Pah is the Fossil Forest. At the end of a low ridge which runs east to west, you can just make out the telltale signs from the county road: the striated color, and the deep cut drainages where geologic treasures lie exposed. I went there with an agenda: to find a fossilized tree stump. I’ve related the whole story in an earlier post, so I’ll just say here that we were able to locate the stump after some scrambling and sleuthing.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 16-35mm f4 lens: 1⁄25 sec, f16, ISO 100
In July, I made a trip to visit my daughter Lauren in Madison, Wisconsin. She accompanied me on the return trip. Early on the second morning, somewhere in central Kansas, she mentioned the large birds roosting on the fence. I had driven past and hadn’t noticed them, so I backtracked until we found them. The birds turned out to be a committee of turkey vultures sunning themselves and drying their wings. I was able to get pretty close to them without distressing them, and I managed to capture quite a few exposures. This is my favorite.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 24-120mm f4 lens: 1⁄640 sec, f9, ISO 500
In August we set out on the high road to Taos. The way passes through many small villages: Chimayo, Truchas, Las Trampas, and Picuris Pueblo to name but a few. At Picuris, we visited the plaza, and there, I noticed the shapes and texture of the adobe walls of a small church. This is the result of my efforts there.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 24-120mm f4 lens: 1⁄400 sec, f14, ISO 1600
Farther up the road, we took a fork to visit the village of Tres Ritos. There, in a meadow by the side of the road, was a spray of mountain asters with a small wetland full of cattails just beyond it. The dark foreboding sky intensified the saturation of the colors and was the perfect backdrop for the scene.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄640 sec, f16, ISO 1600
In late August on a trip to Denver, I drove up highway 285 instead of using the interstate. Late in the day, the clouds were hanging in tatters from the peaks of the Sangre de Cristos to the east. The grasses were just beginning to turn and the colors filled the spectrum. When I came across the trees, it all came together.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄5 sec, f11, ISO 50
On my return from Denver, I was driving across the Taos Plateau and the nearly full moon was climbing through the clouds above the Sangres. The Chamisa was in bloom and all I needed to do was find the right combination.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄500 sec, f13, ISO 800
Still on the Taos Plateau. The texture and colors in the grasses and sage, along with the rays of sunlight piercing the dark clouds caused me to pull over again (at this rate, I would never get home). The lonesome Ponderosa Pine anchors this image, but the thing that really ties it all together is the thin strip of light colored ground below the mountains.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄500 sec, f11, ISO 800
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 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.
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.
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.
Otherwise unremarkable elements of the landscape become worthy of attention when they are enhanced by a coat of frost.
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.
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 title of this post has nothing to do with color correction, or the temperature and tint of images. It has to do with the feeling that comes over me when I find myself enveloped in a cloud, surrounded by a world of white.
A good snow has become a rare thing here in the Jemez Mountains. So, it was a pleasure to wake up to nearly six inches of wet, white stuff recently. I dug my snow boots out of the back of my closet and ventured out into the white.
Growing things become dormant during the winter, but they are still an integral part of the landscape. I found these elongated clusters of seed pods and I was struck by both the contrast between and the similarity to the cottonwood trees in the background. The snow on the branches and on the ground served to intensify the graphic elements of the scene.
This scene of a snow covered bridge over the Jemez River needed only one element to make it complete: a human figure. Since I was the only one around, I volunteered myself. I set the timer on the shutter release and walked across the bridge.
These snow covered cholla cacti caught my eye; their prickly spines covered with a fresh coat of soft snow provided a conceptual as well as visual contrast.
The spring run-off usually happens in late April to mid-May. This is the earliest I have ever seen the river running this high and murky. I used a 3 stop neutral density filter to slow the shutter to 2.5 seconds in order to render the water as a smooth, chocolate colored flow with vanilla streaks. The background is lacking the rincon (a curved cliff face) which is normally visible from this vantage, but it is obscured by the low-hanging clouds.
The chiseled geology of Soda Dam is softened somewhat by the snow. There is never a lot of snow around it due to the warmth of the ground. Soda Dam is formed by a small warm spring that has laid down the calcium-carbonate deposit over thousands of years. The small waterfall was in deep shadow, so I made two exposures, one for the scene, and one for the waterfall. I then blended the two in Photoshop using a layer mask.
This final image was made in my driveway. I love the contrast of the trees against the nearly featureless, white…ish background. The normal view includes a ponderosa pine covered ridge.
By mid-afternoon, the world was back to normal, and most of the snow was melting. These ephemeral transformations are short-lived, but they serve to emphasize the things that I love about the place I chose to make my home.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As photographers, it is our job to discover beauty in the commonplace, everyday subjects or interactions that we encounter. Usually, it is a challenge; rarely it is serendipitous. A change in the quality of the light, or a change in the relationship of the elements can make a dull, uninspiring view come to life. It is important that we remain vigilant or we will miss the fleeting opportunities that appear, seemingly, out of nowhere and then disappear just as suddenly.
I came upon this scene while driving the south loop at Bosque del Apache NWR. At first glance, I was not certain that it would make a compelling image, but the longer I studied it, the more potential I saw. The textural contrast was striking, and the color palette pleasing.
If you analyze the image, several things should be obvious: the reflection of the trees is somewhat blurred by the moving water, but there is still a feeling of quiet calm. The texture of the grasses and smaller trees add a subtle counterpoint to the tranquility, the color triad: blue, yellow, and red unify the composition, and the brooding sky lends a natural vignette to the scene.
Paying attention to these elements and emphasizing them during post-processing resulted in the image you see. Your interpretation of a scene and the way it looks in the final outcome, is subjective and is only limited by your own imagination and creativity.
This is a post about gear (particularly lenses) and why I chose it (them) to make a specific image. I teach a digital photography class at a nearby college and one of the things I cover in that class is the effect that the angle of view (the angle of coverage of the lens) can have on how the image is perceived by viewers. There are four categories: broad landscapes (wide angle), intimate landscapes (normal to short telephoto), compressed landscapes (mid-long telephotos) , and macro/close-ups (macro lens).
This image of a small wash full of water was made in the Rio Puerco Valley after a monsoon rain. It is an example of a broad landscape; the depth of the image from foreground to horizon is exaggerated. I used a wide angle zoom with an aperture of f 22 to give me the depth of field I needed to keep everything sharp.
Nikon D800, Nikkor 17-35mm f2.8 @ 17mm; 1/30sec, f22, ISO 100, tripod
I made this image in Blue Canyon on the Hopi Reservation in northern Arizona. It is an intimate landscape; the area covered, side to side and front to back, is relatively small compared to the broad landscape. There is a feeling of immediacy or closeness about the image, as if it could fit in your living room. I used a medium telephoto zoom set at an aperture of f 11.
Nikon D700, Nikkor 28-70mm f2.8 @ 35mm; 1/25sec, f11, ISO 100, tripod
Using a telephoto lens causes an image to compress, so distant objects seem closer. A telephoto lens does not exaggerate the depth of the image the way a wide angle lens does. Instead, it causes elements to flatten, making the distance from foreground to horizon appear shorter, and making the elements in between appear more closely grouped.
Nikon D700, Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8 @ 200mm; 1/25sec, f8, ISO 100, tripod
There is something about the the world that lies right at our feet that is compelling. Although it is normally common and quite ordinary, given a little attention and a skilled eye it can become extraordinary. This is the world of close-up or macro photography. There is no need to travel to exotic locales when there is an unending source of interesting subjects to be found in your own back yard.
Nikon D300, Nikkor 105mm f2.8 macro; 1/60sec, f8, ISO 200, tripod.
Wow! Another year fades into memory. I have spent the last couple weeks editing the images I’ve made in 2013 with the goal of culling my favorite dozen. Image editing for me is a labor of love; I have a connection to my work, so picking “the best” out of hundreds candidates is not an easy task.
I knew from the time I made this photo of a bull elk in my yard on January 3rd that I was setting a high standard for the rest of the year. Also, not only was it serendipitous, but the image was a departure from my usual wide angle landscapes. I had been feeling for some time that my work had been stagnating, so I resolved then and there to take it in a new direction.
In early February, I ventured into an area along US 550 that I had been looking at as a shooting location for some time. I was drawn by some red sandstone pinnacles that were visible from the highway. As I walked toward them, I came across this old section of road that is slowly eroding, being reclaimed by natural forces. The scene made me realize how impermanent our impact on nature really is. In the end, this is the image that stood out above the others I made that day. Again: serendipity.
As the year progressed, I found myself revisiting some places I had been before. The image of the church on San Ildefonso Pueblo (a scene I had driven past countless times before) is more about the light than the subject matter. It is also a more visually compressed image than is usual for me due to my use of a longer focal length lens.
Every year at the end of May–Memorial Day Weekend to be exact–the Pueblo of Jemez hosts the Starfeather Pow Wow. Hundreds of native dancers from across the country come to dance and compete. I made hundreds of images that weekend, but this portrait of two brothers stood out. They are dressed in “dog soldier” head-dresses, hair-pipe breastplates, and feather bustles, all made by their father. Just before I released the shutter, I told them to give me some attitude. I think they did a pretty good job.
Anyone who is familiar with my work, knows that I spend a great deal of time in the Rio Puerco Valley. It was near the middle of July and the rains had just started after several months of searing heat and cloudless skies when I made this image. There are many possible causes for this animal’s demise, but the location of its desiccated remains along a now rain-filled wash and the rain falling from a heavy sky tells an ironic story about the uncertainty of life in this harsh environment.
And speaking of harsh environments, the Bisti Wilderness in July can be a sobering place. The temperatures can soar to well over 100°F. I usually try to discourage clients from booking a photo tour during this time, but if the monsoons have started, it can be relatively pleasant and the cloudy skies lend a sense of drama to the scene. I made this image of one of my clients pondering the maze in the Brown Hoodoos section of the wilderness.
From a land of parched earth to a place where water is omni-present; my travels took me to Wisconsin in August. On a day-trip to Olbricht Botanical Gardens with my daughter, I made this image of the Thai Pagoda. Normally I steer clear of this kind of symmetry in a photograph, but the structure, and the entire environment seemed to demand it.
Autumn is the best time to be in the badlands, especially if the atmosphere cooperates. Even though the ground was soft and the washes were running from the rain, there were still cracks in the earth. It was as though the soil had a memory of the scorching it normally receives and refused to let go. After processing this image, I realized that it was best to convert it to black and white.
During the months of September and October I spent a great deal of time photographing the trains of the Cumbres-Toltec narrow-gauge railroad which runs from Chama, New Mexico to Antonito, Colorado. I spent every weekend for nearly a month chasing the trains and the fall colors. In the end, my favorite image had nothing to do with color and everything to do with the train, the track and the trestle.
To most people, in the US anyway, November means thanksgiving. For me it is my annual trip to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Over the years, I have come to relish my time with the cranes, herons, geese, and other waterfowl that call the Bosque home during the winter months. Even though I have thousands of images of the birds flying, taking wing, landing, wading, eating, and doing whatever else it is that they do, I still managed to make two of my favorites there in 2013.
This first is obvious and familiar: a crane in the process of taking off from one of the ponds to fly to the fields where he will spend the day foraging. The second is a departure from my normal Bosque images, but one that illustrates the reason that I keep returning year after year.
In December I travelled by train to visit my oldest daughter (an adventure I wrote about in my previous blog entry). Chicago’s Union Station was a surprise to me. I made several images inside the station and when I wandered out the doors to Canal Street, I found this scene. I was immediately drawn by the fact that while some of the elements had symmetry–there’s that word again–some didn’t. And of course the cherry-on-top: the wet pavement reflecting the lights and columns.
Here is my wish for all of you, now and in the new year.
Somewhere out in the middle of New Mexico’s San Juan Basin, there is a piece of sandstone that sits atop a column of mudstone. Recently, it has become a kind of holy grail for landscape photographers. It has been given a name: “The King Of Wings”. I have known about this formation for a few years and have thought it would be nice to find it and photograph it, but other things kept popping up and the wing remained on the back burner.
In the spring of last year (2012) a fellow from California contacted me about booking a Photo Tour. He wanted to go to “The King Of Wings”. I told him that I didn’t know where it was, but he didn’t want to take no for an answer. So began a long distance collaboration to discover the location of this particular formation.
Over the course of the next couple of months, we corresponded by e-mail and I told him that I thought I had an idea where our prize might be. I went out to the place I suspected and made an exhaustive search, but came home tired and empty-handed. Then one day he e-mailed me with the news that he had found it on Google Earth. We made tentative plans to meet when he came to New Mexico to photograph the wing, but I was unable to join him on that trip.
Over the next six months, the wing was once again relegated to the back burner as other things took priority, but every once in a while a small voice would interrupt my train of thought telling me to go and find that damn wing.
Finally, I put a day on the calendar and made plans to make the trip (and silence the voice). Robin and I set out early on a Sunday morning and made the three and a half hour drive to the area that serves as a starting point for the walk to the wing. When we arrived, there was about six inches of snow on the ground and looking out across the white, featureless landscape, I began to have second thoughts. I consulted my GPS: 1.7 miles (as the crow flies) to the wing; we decided to go for it and set out across the rolling, snow covered plain.
Actually, the hike was more than three miles (since we are not crows and are unable to fly), not very far really, but trudging through the snow, up and down hilly terrain with camera gear and tripod is a bit different than a walk in the park. After finally coming to the wash where the landscape suddenly changed from bunch grass prairie to badlands we knew we were getting close. We skirted a rock outcrop and I consulted my GPS. I looked in the direction the little magic box indicated, and there it was, still a half mile away, but in our sights. What makes this wing special is the cantilever (12 feet) of the stone beyond the supporting column. It’s whereabouts is a closely guarded secret by those who have found it, so I will respect that and keep the secret, but I have to wonder what all the fuss is about.
The day I chose to make this long anticipated trip was clear with nothing to interrupt the agonizingly blue doldrum sky but the waxing gibbous moon. I told myself that this was an exploratory venture, that I would return on another day when the skies were more photogenic. Perhaps, perhaps not.
The last image is the obligatory wing portrait with Robin and me seated beneath the cantilever to give a sense of scale to the thing. There are other formations and hoodoos in the area, but they are really nothing special, so we packed up and hiked back to the car. Now I’m sitting here writing this and asking myself if I’m being fair. I am glad that I finally made it to the Big Wing (King of Wings seems a bit of an over-statement to me). But, in my estimation, it’s a one trick pony.
Of all the times I’ve been to the Bisti Wilderness, this is only the third time I’ve been there with snow on the ground. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have been there this time if I didn’t have a Photo Tour to lead. We met at the Bisti turn-off on NM 371 at 8 AM. After giving my safety briefing, we set out across the snow covered terrain.
The first stop was the Brown Hoodoos. I almost eliminated this part of the tour due to the slippery footing combined with the climb required to reach them, but once we got there, I was happy that I made the effort. The scenery more than made up for the risk and my clients were delighted.
After spending a half hour or so I decided we needed to move on. The forecast called for warmer temperatures in the afternoon and I knew that would mean the snow would melt turning the mostly-clay ground into a muddy quagmire.
We made the hike out to the Egg Garden in good time and here we spent another forty-five minutes or so. I began to realize that there were parts of the landscape that were more defined because of the snow and the contrast it provided, and other parts that seemed less photogenic because of it. The Garden was in the latter category, but my tour participants were having a great time nonetheless.
From the Egg Garden, we moved on to the Petrified Trees and here we lingered the longest. It was while we were here that the mud began to raise its ugly head.
The next stop was the Eagle’s Nest and by now we were walking in the runoff channels which was easier than walking in the ooze. This is an image of the approach to the Nest–it’s the prominent feature in the distance. You can see the muddy water flowing in the wash on the left.
We circled the Eagle’s Nest and then made our way back over to Alamo Wash which by now was running deeper than I have ever seen it run. This meant we had to start walking in the mud, but we were also at the final stop on the tour. Now all we had to do was trek close to four miles back to the parking area. I made this image in a small area of hoodoos just north of the Eagle’s Nest and began to pack up my gear in preparation for the return hike.
It was then that Tomas noticed the cranes. A flock of Sandhill cranes–probably migrating to Bosque del Apache–were battling the winds to make it to their wintering grounds, still more than two hundred miles to the southwest. They were too far away to make a good image, but you can see them (the small dots to the right of the rock formation) in this one that I made of my intrepid clients watching them fly by.
The walk out was more strenuous and it did take longer than usual due to the muddy conditions, but we laughed at our plodding and sliding most of the way out. At one point, we were all stuck on a slight incline and none of us could make any headway; the greasy caliche mud was so slick that we had to backtrack and find another route. It was a good day though. My clients came away with some good images, and I with some nice images and some good stories to tell.
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.
Being a desert rat in New Mexico is a full time job; there are so many places to polish your craft. One of my favorites is the Rio Puerco Valley. The Rio Puerco is a mostly dry riverbed that winds its way through some spectacular country on its way to join the Rio Grande.
This is the view looking south from BLM Rte.1114. It is a primordial landscape, dotted with volcanic cones and with the addition of a stormy sky, it becomes a journey to the time of dinosaurs if you disregard the cattle-guard in the foreground.
One of the things you can find without too much trouble (unfortunately) is trash. It comes in all shapes and sizes. This piece of culvert, with catch basin attached, is the extra large variety. It lies slowly rusting into the earth with Cerro Cuate as a silent witness.
There is also an abundance of old tires in the valley. They can be found serving as containers at watering holes, on the roofs of old trailers, or as in this case, ornamental artwork hung on a cattle-guard.
But, regardless of the trash, cattle, and other abrasive signs of man, there is much beauty to be found in this unique landscape. I will soon be adding The Rio Puerco to my High Desert Photo Tours line-up.
I made this last image from an overlook near Cerro Cuate. There are no rock walls or steel stanchions at this overlook, so you must be careful. In a place like this, the buzzards will find you long before a rescuer.
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.
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.
An aspen grove in the snow! An iconic photographic scene captured by the greats: Ansel Adams, John Shaw, Art Wolfe to name but a few. This is my humble contribution.
I made this image while driving home from Los Alamos. Coyote Call is a trail on the “open” side of the Valles Caldera NP. This stand of aspens is just a short distance from the trailhead. Normally, I would avoid making this type of photograph in this kind of light, but I think the long shadows in this case give the image more depth.
I captured this photo in color, but did a B&W conversion in Adobe Camera Raw, and I like the result better than the color version.
Equipment: Nikon D200, Nikon 17–35 mm zoom lens, Bogen tripod
Camera Settings: f 36, 1/15th sec., ISO 100