Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Published 7:50 AM by with 0 comment

As Time Goes By - Finding the Photographer Within

Photography, for me at least, has been a solitary endeavor and I like it that way. When I grab my camera and drive to some new (or familiar) location, part of the excitement is not knowing what I will create and not having to worry about anything or anyone. I like to let what's in front of me slowly unfold until it eventually reveals itself.
Some will argue that taking a photograph is simply extracting part of a scene that already exists so there's no real interpretation involved on the part of the photographer. I don't subscribe to this notion.
The famed photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson once said "Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst." I think that's true but it took me a long time to truly understand what he meant.
When I started capturing still images, I wanted to be an accomplished photographer right away and...I my own mind. What I've realized since then is that my ability to assess my own progress has shifted at the same rate as my accumulated experience. When I first began capturing images, I had no real sense of what I wanted to do. My time shooting up to that point was quite limited and I had learned very little. In my naïveté, I thought my photographs were really something special. When I look back on that work now, with over ten years of experience under my belt, my photographs seem positively amateurish.
I believe in the old adage that says "there is no substitute for experience". When I bought my first serious camera, I read every single photography book I could find. While they all helped me to understand and operate my camera, none really taught me how to be a photographer. There were many volumes that discussed the philosophy of capturing an image but it didn't mean anything until I actually began shooting and, over time, discovered my own vision.
Then one day everything began to make sense. I understood that I was no longer a simple practitioner of the medium, in fact the camera itself was now just a means to an end. Photography, I realized, started with an urge to create. It was no longer important for me to capture a technically perfect image, although I understood the theory of how to do that. What was important was knowing how to capture the essence of my response to a place, person or thing and present those thoughts and emotions in a two dimensional picture.
One of the highest compliments I have ever received from someone was when he told me that I helped him see the extraordinary in the ordinary. Suddenly, he was able to see a beauty in his daily life that had previously eluded him. Wow.
So what am I trying to say here? I think there are two types of photography. One is where the scene is captured as faithfully as possible and the camera does most of the work. The other has the photographer, as faithfully as possible, capturing his or her vision in a coherent image.
A tall order? Yes, but there are countless photographers out there who have tapped into this realm. Ansel Adams did it in his landscape work. Sebastiäo Salgado does it in his epic portrait and environmental images. Richard Avedon transcended portraiture and fashion to an art form. These are just a few examples but the list goes on.
There are times when I feel like I have found a portal into this world. I feel it when i hold my camera and look through the viewfinder. What I see is constantly a wonder to me and my excitement is almost always brimming over the edge. I think it's that reverence for image making that keeps my passion alive.
In the meantime, I know that when ten more years have passed, I will look back on my present work and feel the evolution of my thoughts and ideas. I'm curious to know what my future self will make of the person presently sitting in this chair. Only time will tell.
My initial idea for this blog post was to write about my recent visit to Balboa Park in San Diego but I obviously went off on a serious tangent. That being said, I'll mention it briefly now.
When I first arrived at the park it was to meet up with a group of photographers for the global 500px/Fujifilm Photowalk. Sadly, I mixed up the actual meeting place and missed the event. I was with my daughter Tara so we decided to do our own walk instead. No point in squandering an opportunity to shoot such a beautiful venue.

Balboa Park is all about light and depth

Who could resist shooting this very cool sculpture?

This sign and the texture of the wall reminded me of an old Charlton Heston-style movie.

I don't shoot many candid moments but I liked this man's stance and his big hat.

Something about the shadow of the stair rail in the background caught my eye.

The silhouette of the rail and the textures drew me in to this composition.

A Lost World
Walking around the wonderful grounds of Balboa Park makes me feel like I am exploring another planet. It's hard to believe downtown San Diego is just a mile away going about its business.

Exotic Land
Not exactly exotic to those who live here but, to me, these trees represent something unfamiliar. This is especially so given my previous abodes in Ireland, New York and Seattle. It is fascinating to me that these long skinny trunks don't just keel over.

I think this door is really interesting for reasons I can't describe. 

Shooting places and things is one thing but once a person is inserted into the mix, the entire meaning is transformed. Tara is really photogenic and is very comfortable in front of the camera. Her dress and hat gave her a classic look that worked well with black and white. The resulting shots made me think of a spread in Vogue Magazine from the fifties.

Tara contrasts dramatically with the light and architecture.

This young child unexpectedly bolted across the frame just as I pressed the shutter.

My Adobe Spark (formerly Slate) presentation of this post is available here

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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Published 10:15 AM by with 2 comments

The Color of Autumn - A Season of Transformation

When I was growing up in Ireland, autumn always signaled a time to gather horse chestnuts for a game we played called Conkers. The goal was to separate the chestnut from its prickly skin and thread a string through it. I would then take turns with my opponent to try to smash his chestnut with my own.

It was pretty primitive entertainment but, by cracky, we made it work and had fun nonetheless. Of course I also noticed the leaves and colors of the season but it was more in my periphery than something that really made an impact.

The Road to Creede in Colorado.

For me now as a photographer, autumn is a transformation of the summer landscape into a magical kaleidoscope. It's the season where nature is screaming to be heard, although, it certainly doesn't need to raise its voice too loud to get my attention.

Living on the road poses unique challenges where I actually have to track the season down. Some states I've been to don't even have fall. As a result, Linda and I try to plan our travels to include places where we can do our best leaf-peeping.

Our campsite at Elk Creek near Gunnison in Colorado.
When I visited Colorado recently, fall had not quite arrived. There were hints of it, alright, but the cavalcade of color I was expecting was still a few weeks away. In order to seek out those desirable shades of red, orange and yellow, I had to drive to higher elevations and by higher, I mean over 10,000 feet.
The road from Gunnison to Creede in Colorado is a feast for the eyes. There are beautiful mountain and meadow views in every direction. To describe it as epic would barely scratch the surface of the visual experience. As the road literally began to rise past the little town of Lake City, the rich colors I was after began to show face.

Wonderful fall colors on the way to Creede.
There is an observation area along the way, at an elevation of over 11,000 feet, called Windy Point that has phenomenal views of the San Juan mountains and the lush valley below. While there, the weather was favorable for dramatic light. Sunbeams moved about like a searchlight. One moment they would sweep across the valley floor and in another instant, would light up the colorful peaks. Every photograph was different, despite being only seconds apart. I felt like these images were going to be my best work.
Later, when I was capturing and sorting, I hurriedly scrolled to the Windy Point photographs, eager to see my masterpieces. The first few looked really busy and the compositions were unbalanced. Oh well, I thought, these are just a result of me getting my bearings. As I went through the rest, I became more and more disappointed. There was just too much going on in each frame. In general, I prefer simple compositions but these images had no structure, no focal point. There were a few I could rescue by cropping but, all in all, I was pretty bummed.

Fantastic view but a compositional failure, in my opinion.

This one is a little better. The vivid colors help somewhat with the balance of the picture.
There's an argument to be made for using a tripod and it's not just to keep everything steady. When I tether the camera to a firm set of sticks, suddenly the act of making a photograph takes on more importance. There is more deliberation and intention to the task at hand. When I look through the viewfinder, I tend to pay a lot more attention to the composition. It's a less frenetic experience, as it is when I am freely wielding the camera from left to right or up and down, reacting to what's happening in front of me.
There's absolutely nothing wrong with shooting handheld, but perhaps if I had used a tripod for the vista at Windy Point, the pictures would have been better. I simply would have taken more time and care while composing each picture. I don't know but this kind of thing has happened to me before. I get excited about what I'm seeing, click the shutter until my finger goes numb and feel like I've captured the photograph of the century. Only, I didn't and the images don't even make the first cut.
Luckily for me, there were literally hundreds of opportunities along the road to Creede to make up for the lackluster batch At Windy Point.

This is one of my favorite shots. The row of trees make a lovely autumn motif and frames the photograph nicely.

So, maybe I need to slow things down a bit. Instead of finding ten places to stop on a single trip, I might yield more success if I pick, say, three spots to shoot. If I use my tripod and be really mindful to what I'm seeing, it's possible I might just find the composition that looks as good at home on my computer as it did in the field.

Mountains and Valleys
The colors of the mountains in this area of Colorado are just gorgeous. Add some fall tones to the mix and the resulting cocktail is delicious.

Fall Preview
When we first arrived in Colorado, there were only hints of the colors to come, the trailer to the big movie, if you will. Here, by the Taylor Reservoir, a few flecks of yellow look like dabs of paint from an artist's paintbrush.

Despite all, I still feel like I left beautiful Colorado with a nice collection of photographs that adequately capture the experience of being there. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to trying new techniques in my quest for the perfect image.

While not a fall-themed image, I really like this shot from our first morning at Elk Creek.

One of the last sunsets as we bid farewell to Colorado.

My Adobe Spark (formerly Slate) presentation of this post is available here

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Monday, September 07, 2015

Published 1:22 PM by with 0 comment

Good Light Hunting - In the Heart of Colorado

No doubt everyone knows that light is the single most important component in creating a photograph. There are basically two broad light categories in photography; natural and controlled lighting. The latter, as it suggests, is predictable and is used in studios or as a supplement to outdoor illumination. Natural light, on the other hand, is arguably not controllable so keeping an eye on weather forecasts, etc. is, not only helpful but a necessity.

Because my concentration at the moment is landscape photography, I'm always at the mercy of whatever Mother Nature doles out. What makes things even more unpredictable is that I'm constantly on the move from state to state.

The first thing I do when I arrive at a new location is use my iPhone to figure out a few basic things. For weather forecasts, I've found the AccuWeather app to be the most helpful, particularly for predicting fog. Everyone has their own favorite weather app but this works for me.

I use an app called PhotoPills to determine when the sun and moon rise and set. This app is like the Swiss Army knife of photography apps. It also displays three-dimensional Interactive overlays of the exact position of the sun and the moon throughout the day. So if I scout out a place where I want to shoot the sunset, for instance, I can hold my phone up to the sky and move it around to see the precise spot on the horizon where the sun will disappear. I also use the app to do calculations for long exposure when I am using an eight-stop ND filter. I can't recommend it enough so go get it.

AccuWeather and PhotoPills for me are indispensable.

I have found the quality of light to be different for each state I've visited. I'm not sure what accounts for this aside from the effects of being at a different longitude. I'm sure atmospheric conditions, both natural and man-made are also influencing factors. It's exciting for me because each situation poses new challenges and new rewards. There is nothing quite like being able to capture the personality of light.
Recently, my travels took me to Gunnison in Colorado. Here, at the end of the summer, there was all manner of weather drama. Almost every evening there was a thunderstorm and each morning had clouds hiding and revealing the sun. Across the landscape, this made for beautiful pools of light and when it shone full on the wonderful rock structures, I was in black and white heaven.
The day after I arrived, I got up at what felt like the witching hour to capture the sunrise. The weather called for intermittent clouds so I was expecting to make some interesting photographs. For this trip, I decided upon the nearby Blue Mesa Reservoir, a massive presence with craggy rocks looming above the water's edge. I had a hard time figuring out the most advantageous spot because I was literally driving in the dark. Eventually, in the faint glimmer of dawn, I managed to find a little turnoff and unpacked my gear.
I have a Fujifilm X-T1 mirrorless camera and, for landscape photography, I primarily use my 18-135mm and 10-24mm lenses. That gives me an equivalent full-frame focal length range of 15-205mm.
I set up my tripod, camera and shutter release cable and waited. There was a sliver of color on the horizon and then it was gone. Angry storm clouds moved in quickly and, before I knew it, there was sheet lightning on the horizon and thunder booms that rattled my rib cage. I slapped on my 10-24mm lens and captured a few stills of the black clouds. Large drops of rain started to fall and I made a beeline for my car. I managed to get one decent keeper shot out of this little adventure. It's better than none, I suppose, but it's what I expect in this part of the country.

The storm clouds got so dark, I thought it was turning back to night.
A couple of days later, I went back to the same place but this time the weather cooperated. I had lots of impressive clouds and patchy light to create the perfect mood for a monochrome photograph. When I see light like this, I naturally think of Ansel Adams. Throughout his long artistic life, I don't think he ever really grew tired of the thrill of seeing the sun hit a rock just so.

The diagonal angle of the clouds and the mountains made, I think, a dynamic composition.
It took me a while to get the look of the above image right in post production. The strong light, shadows and textures suggested an aggressive approach to the black and white processing. Earlier attempts were too timid and the mood wasn't bold enough. The final version more closely matched how I felt at the moment of capture.
Even though I was focussed on capturing exciting light, I always keep my eyes peeled for as many picture-making opportunities as I can. With the prevalence of lakes, ponds rivers and rain in the area, I was on the lookout for interesting reflections.

Optical Illusion
I thought this made for an interesting composition. Even though I obviously knew what I was shooting in the field, while culling through the images later, I did a double take to figure out what was going on here and then remembered it was a reflection in a puddle. The similar and unified tones of the black and white, for me, conceal the idea initially.

Floating in Air
I had the same kind of reaction to this image when I tried to recall what was going on. Aside from the rocks breaking the surface of the water, the entire picture is a reflection of the boulders above and beyond the top of the frame.

One morning, my wife Linda and some friends drove the thirty miles from Gunnison to the trail at Dillon Pinnacles. This is an impressive rock outcrop that formed from the mudflows and lava of ancient volcanoes. The morning light hits the craggy rocks at an angle that accentuates their unique character so I wanted to be there for that visual experience. For the trip, I challenged myself to get one shot that represented the majesty of the Pinnacles. Black and white was my obvious choice because I believe it was better able to capture the ominous feeling I had while looking upwards.
I shoot in both RAW and JPEG and I use the in-camera film simulations to help me compose the photograph. I had the JPEGs set to black and white and the beauty of having an electonic viewfinder as opposed to the more traditional optical viewfinder is that I'm able to see what the photograph will look likebefore I press the shutter. For that reason, I was able to see everything in black and white and perhaps compose in a different way than I might have otherwise. It's a great advantage to me.
Still, as good as the JPEGs are straight out of the camera, I use them only as a reference. I like my black and white landscape images to be big and bold so that requires me to process the RAW files in Capture One and Silver Efex Pro. Given the control each program gives me over every pixel in the image, I am confident the end result will be exactly how I have previsualized it.

This is exactly how I remember my experience looking up at the Pinnacles.
The Dillon Pinnacles Trail is full of beautiful scenery. As early as it was, I was completely wide-eyed and attentive to every conceivable photo opportunity. There was fog, sun and clouds and the views of the Blue Mesa Reservoir were mesmerizing. The fact that the elevation is in excess of eight thousand feet was literally breathtaking :)

Sights all along the Dillon Pinnacles Trail.
I had passed a sign on the highway that said Wildlife Viewing Area a few times so I finally decided to give it a look. While I didn't see any actual wildlife, the viewpoint was from the top of a hill so the perspective of the valley below was pretty amazing. Again, the morning light did not disappoint and the spotlit landscape had me clicking my shutter in a frenzy.

I love the atmosphere in this photograph. The rich tones give it a timeless feel.
I've always loved the idea of roads that seem to go on forever. I mentioned in a previous article that it's the perfect metaphor for my nomadic lifestyle. This unpaved road up by the wildlife viewing area worked so well as a black and white photograph with the fantastic morning sky. Moments later, it started to rain so I retreated to my car. It's at times like these that I'm glad I have a weather-sealed camera and lens combo.

The Road to Infinity.
This last image is a bit of an oddity. I was visiting Crested Butte, a ski town outside of Gunnison with mountain views to die for. This little house caught my eye, particularly with the mountain behind. What's so striking is that it has no real definable style, at least not to me. As a result it's anonymous, out of time with its modern surroundings. Isolated as it is in the composition, it could be anywhere, at anytime and that's what I like most about it.

Mountain Home.
My Adobe Spark (formerly Slate) presentation of this post is available here

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Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Published 8:36 PM by with 0 comment

Moving Pictures: Capturing Mood and Atmosphere

A photograph is not worth making unless it moves me in some way. Making a successful image, for me, entails not only pressing the shutter but also developing the digital negative in a program like Capture One or Lightroom. If the final result is to be black and white, a further step of developing will take place in Silver Efex Pro 2. But enough about that. This post is about how I feel about photography, not what I do on my computer.

Getting an idea out of my head and turning it into a finished photograph gets easier with experience. That's not to say that everything I do is a success, far from it.
Because I'm not doing any commercial work, my ideas are completely my own. Occasionally the resulting images will look really good in-camera and other times their potential is realized in post production. My favorite part of the process is when the photograph takes on a life of its own.
I recently found myself at a hotel in an uninspiring location. I sometimes have moments where, if I don't do something with my camera, I'll go crazy. I was feeling like that in the hotel room and I suddenly had the idea of a lone figure, sitting at the edge of a bed, backlit by window light. The mood I was looking for was one of reflection, anticipation, possibly sadness and loneliness. Was this person hoping for good news or was he recovering from bad news? I like the ambiguity of the shot.

Waiting for News.
I've always been drawn to the atmosphere of fog. I think everyone is fascinated by it on some level. As a landscape photographer, it simplifies an otherwise busy scene, stripping everything down to its bare essence.
I was in Bend, Oregon and managed to snag some early morning fog at nearby Sparks Lake. The combination of the sun's first rays and the thick fog made for an interesting variety of patterns. Converting these photos to black and white created the mood I was after. Over the years, I have found that my most successful photographs are simple in design and simple works really well in monochrome.

Morning Fog.
The lake cooperated with my demands for a perfect reflection and I also chose black and white for the finish on this wide shot. I added quite a lot of grain using Sillver Efex Pro.
Sometimes I feel like digital photographs are a little too perfect and, contrary to some of my pixel-peeping colleagues, I prefer a grungier look. I like to add grain to soften the edges and create a warmth usually only found in film.

Sunrise at Sparks Lake.

There are few places I've been to since I started my epic road trip where climate change is not fully evident. Lake levels are at a record low and the landscape itself is changing profoundly.
From a photographic standpoint, the dried-up lake bottom was an interesting subject. The play of the morning light on the cracks in the earth made for fantastic textures.

A variety of moods at Sparks Lake.

It seemed like autumn came to Eugene in Oregon a little early this year. There was already a bed of leaves on the ground when I arrived at the beginning of August. While the summer represents a cacophony of vacationers boating, camping and hiking, autumn brings a quietness to the air. The slight chill in the morning is a welcome one and the colors of the falling leaves are spectacular.
Strange then that I would choose black and white for the shot below. As beautiful as the colors are, the details in the dead leaves are more interesting to me. Extracting the color helps to make the intricacies shine through.

An Early Fall.

Roof of Pete French Round Barn.

A highway that goes on for what seems like forever is a bit of a cliché these days but it is a metaphor for my life at the moment. Particularly in the United States, these roads represent freedom and endless possibilities. The highway is the conduit to my next destination, my next experience and my next favorite photograph.

The Longest Road.

I missed the Supermoon rising recently and it would have been breathtaking had I known about it and traveled a few miles to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado. However, I'm not sure I would have captured such interesting clouds as I did a few days earlier. I was shooting the sunset at Black Canyon and my friend pointed to the sky behind me. I'm not sure I would have seen it in time had she not noticed it. This shot is all about mood. It reminds me of something I might see in a Steven Spielberg movie :)

Rising moon at Black Canyon in Colorado.

I had a few opportunities to watch and capture the sunrise and sunset at Black Canyon. The insignificance I felt while standing there was supreme. The colors were forever changing, evoking a kind of melancholy. These are the times that I am so grateful for this life.

Shades of sunrise and sunset at Black Canyon.

This last photograph below of Black Canyon is one of my favorites. I shot it on the first day I was there. On my way up to the park the sky was heavy with dark clouds and it began to rain. I had been watching the weather forecast and was expecting a little drama when the clouds would eventually clear. My patience was rewarded when shards of light appeared, penetrating the rain clouds like spotlights on a stage. The sun selectively lit up patches of the rock face and all I had to do was be there to capture it.
The resulting photograph has an ominous mood and it highlights, quite literally, the magnificent canyon walls. Meanwhile, the dark shadows fall to black, adding mystery to the picture. This is a good example of when the photograph takes on a life of its own. I could never have precisely planned the atmosphere in the final image.

Dramatic Light at Black Canyon.

Despite having access to some of the most stunning scenery in the United States, there are times when I have nothing but my imagination with which to make a photograph (like the above example in my hotel room). No matter where I find myself, I rarely say "there is nothing to shoot here". I truly believe that, with an open and creative mind, inspiration will make itself known.
My Adobe Spark (formerly Slate) presentation of this post is available here

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