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.