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This blog was begun on January 29, 2011. The views expressed, unless otherwise credited, are those of the author, David Halpern, who is always willing to hear contrary views. These views are also subject to change as technology improves or other new information becomes available. Questions and comments are welcome. Click to Email Me

Archived Blog Postings - April 1 through June 27, 2011

June 27, 2011: A suggestive photograph from nature

My friend and fellow photographer, Bob Nugent (, constantly finds abstract images within my more literal compositions— clouds that look like the faces of animals, for example. His own images are often abstract perceptions which Bob finds more enticing than the subject from which they are derived. When he photographs nature, he is drawn more to what elements of the landscape seem to represent than what they are. I find his approach fascinating and so it was when I visited Bandelier National Monument last Thursday with my younger son and his family. "What does that rock look like," I asked my perceptive twelve-year-old grandson. I was immediately reminded of the lyrics of that wonderful Harry Chapin song "Flowers are Red." If you want to see all of the colors of life (or the shapes within a rock or cloud) you definitely should ask a child whose eidetic memory remains at least partly intact.

How many images can you find within the tuff pictured in the image below?


June 26, 2011: This colorful sunset is the result of yet another Wildfire in New Mexico.

Just before sunset this evening, the sky west of my home in New Mexico took on this eerie appearance as smoke from the Las Conchas Fire near Los Alamos blocked much of the sunlight. According to news reports, the fire broke out at about 1 p.m. today on private land and quickly engulfed 3500 acres. Unfortunately the camera isn't capable of capturing the smell of smoke and ash, but I can tell you that this sight was very unsettling in a drought stricken area now battling two large wildfires. This photograph has not been manipulated.

Monday, June 27 update: Overnight, the Las Conchas Fire spread over nearly 44,000 acres while the Pacheco Fire now covers fifteen square miles and is only 10% contained after wind gusts on Sunday sent flames through thousands of additional acres.


June 24, 2011: Wildfires across America – Be careful out there!

This picture was made yesterday on New Mexico 502 as I returned from Bandelier National Monument to Santa Fe. The fire burning directly ahead of me is the Pacheco Fire in the Santa Fe National Forest and as I write this, it has consumed more than 5500 acres of forest land and is only 10% contained. It is one of 49 wildfires currently burning in the U.S.— mostly in the rain starved southwest.

Though not nearly as large or threatening as the as the Wallow fire, still blazing in eastern Arizona and on the western border of New Mexico, it is requiring the engagement of 700 firefighters and numerous aircraft. It's final cost will be in the millions of dollars and the potential threat to the health of people in the region is still unknown. What is certain is that it is destroying a lot of valuable timber and will leave a significant scar on the landscape that will take years to heal.

The exact cause of the Pacheco fire is still undetermined, but we do know that it was not caused by lightning. Current weather conditions throughout this area of the country are extremely dry and the forecast promises no immediate relief. A single careless act – a spark from chain dragging on pavement from a moving vehicle, a thoughtlessly tossed cigarette, or friction from overheated brake pads on a tourist's car can ignite dry grass at a roadside and start a small fire that can quickly flare uncontrollably.

A percentage of wild fires each year are started deliberately by very sick individuals, but most are caused by lightning strikes, spontaneous combustion and careless behavior. You and I can't prevent acts of nature, but we can be thoughtful and alert so that we don't increase the risk of creating more fires, endangering more lives and destroying more property.

While most of us recognize the ugliness of fire damage — lamenting the destruction of beautiful foliage, landscapes and animal habitat and sympathizing with those who suffer the loss of property — we need to see beyond that and demonstrate a concern for the life altering residual damage caused by fires. It can last for many years and in many ways affect the lives and economic welfare of people distant from the flames and smoke.

So, let's be careful out there and do our part to keep more of these fires from starting.


June 20, 2011: Slot Canyon Images

The widely recognized sandstone slot canyons of Utah and Arizona are like deep narrow caves with skylights. Their openings are often so narrow that you can step across them, while deep below ground they sometimes open into large rooms where spiraling walls and often bizarre shapes, sculpted over centuries by rushing water, glow in the reflected light of the mid-day sun. They are curiously beautiful places to visit and photograph in dry weather, and may be extremely dangerous in wet seasons when violent flash floods can rush through them with overwhelming force, continuing the process of erosion and driving out or drowning every loose thing in their path.

Antelope Canyon, on Navajo land near Page, Arizona, has become a very popular tourist attraction. There are two sections: the upper canyon is easily accessed from the floor of a usually dry sandy wash, while the more spectacular (in my opinion) lower canyon requires a descent into a winding corkscrew and a steep climb to exit at its northern end. Guides to the lower canyon lead visitors across flat rocky terrain and point out a crack in the surface where you ease yourself into the entry and descend by a series of metal ladders to the canyon floor. While these are among the most colorful canyons in the area, there are many lesser known canyons in the region that require the use of climbing gear to access their lower reaches.

When working with film, photographing the slot canyons was difficult, requiring long exposures and extraordinary darkroom skills. A random web search will show that all that has changed in recent years, and that virtually every tourist with a pocket size digital camera comes away with slot canyon images that fairly represent the experience. Very good photographs, on the other hand still require technical skill, understanding of the qualities of light and color and patience. The greatest challenge today is to find images that have not been photographed by others.

In most slot canyons, your best photographic opportunities will occur when the sun is high in the sky—late morning to early afternoon—the hours we usually avoid when photographing landscapes on the surface. But, that's not a hard and fast rule; much depends on the width of the canyon rim and its orientation to the path of the sun which also changes with the seasons. While there is light in the canyons earlier and later in the day, levels fall sharply and the reflections off the canyon walls that enhance the quality of the color diminish when the sun is closer to the horizon. Because the contrast range can be extreme, holding detail in both the highlights and shadows of your images can be difficult, so it is important to be attentive to light conditions and watch for minute-by-minute changes. Long exposures with small lens apertures are always preferred, so a tripod and cable release are essential equipment, and I never recommend using flash because it destroys the natural lighting effects.

And remember, watch the weather conditions carefully. A few clouds in the sky are not necessarily a cause for alarm, but if you notice that the sky above is beginning to turn gray, you should avoid even the slightest possibility of rain and get above ground. I can't overemphasisze the danger of getting caught in a flash flood.


June 19, 2011: Thoughts on Father's Day

Nathan Halpern 1905 -1997

The most important influence in my life was and is my father. In my early years, I saw him as a huge figure, though he wasn't physically as tall as I imagined. But, he was strong and had very large hands of a working man. He was intensely truthful with an acute sense of justice. He respected the rights of others and was totally free of hypocrisy. While he was loyal to family in the sense that he would forgive our mistakes or wrongdoing, he insisted that we learn from our experiences and do everything we could to relieve the victims of our errors. I remember no occasion when his temper was out of control, and his fairness was extraordinary.

He always taught me by example, and to say that I was proud of my father is a gross understatement. He was a modest man who never boasted of any accomplishment. He had a strong work ethic. He contributed to charities without expectations of recognition and he was always as generous as he could afford to be. He served well in a number of leadership roles and never asked anything of others that he was not willing to do himself. He loved this country and gave me my first exposure to the natural wonders that have become the principal focus of my work.

My father was a manufacturer and wholesale distributor of men's hats and caps and started his own company before I was born. He was a superb salesman who believed in the quality of the goods he sold. He knew his customers and their markets and he didn't "blow smoke." When I was old enough to work part time he gave me my first job. With justification, he fired and rehired me several times. In the process, I developed a respect for all of his employees and I came to appreciate that no task was so menial that I could afford to look down on it. And, I absorbed valuable life lessons by watching my father and listening.

Nathan Halpern was born in Grudnow, in the pale of Russia on September 3, 1905. He came to the United States as an infant, grew up in Florence, Alabama, with his parents and four sisters and moved to Nashville, Tennessee, a year after graduating from Coffee High School. The inscription under his name in his yearbook reads, "bite off more than you can chew, then chew it. Plan out more than you can do, then do it." He married my mother on New Years Eve 1933 and I was born three-and-a-half years later.

He died on August 1, 1997 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I'm glad that I had the opportunity to tell him how much I loved him while he was alive, once writing with tears of joy, "My father is the mench I want my sons to be."

I don't need Father's Day to remind me of what I had and what we shared. But, on this day I especially miss him.


June 15, 2011: Even a blind hog can root up an acorn now and then...

In my long and varied career, I've photographed a lot of different subjects. I've always been willing to try anything, but I've never made a practice of photographing sports, though I was introduced to that kind of photography in my high school and college years, and do enjoy photographing equestrian events when I follow my wife—a licensed United States Equestrian Federation official—to horse shows.

But every now and then I'm tempted to photograph something outside my comfort level, like the surfer below. It was late in the afternoon at a California beach, and this fellow, who I took to be a novice sufer dude, was having a lot of trouble handling the waves. I watched him for quite a while from a platform on a stairway from the top of a cliff to the beach. He reminded me of myself the first and only time I attempted to snow ski, when a pro who was watching me exclaimed, "I've never seen anyone fall down so many ways without getting hurt!"

This picture is a candidate for a caption writing contest and perhaps an example of how it ought not be done.

June 13, 2011: Developing selective vision (commentary on my June 11 post)

My friend Susan Hepler, former Chief of Interpretation at Bryce Canyon National Park has gently taken me to task for a comment in my last post. She quoted: "... the distance. I was so excited by the views that I jumped out of my car perhaps fifty times to take pictures. I remember getting home, processing the film, looking at the slides and thinking 'Good grief, they all look alike!' Clearly, not all those scenes needed to be photographed..." And then she chastised me, "Of course they needed to be photographed, else how could you have known to be more selective in such a short time? Most of us take years and lots of intention to sort through our photographs to realize this. Some of us still don't do selective photography and that is why you get paid for yours!"

Susan makes an interesting point, and perhaps I should have said that in my excitement with the dramatic California coastline, I failed to notice what should have been the obvious similarities between many of the views I was photographing. Had I been more observant, I might have been looking for details and differences that would have allowed me to make a variety of more distinctive and appealing images.

Still, I stand by my assertion that not all those views needed to be photographed, based not only on years of looking at photographs, but on what I've learned and subsequently taught my students through exercises designed to enhance a person's ability to see more of their environment more thoroughly. I'm talking about seeing more than the "things" that compose the composition, but the textures, shapes, colors, conditions, the quality of the light and then recognizing the feelings evoked upon seeing all those details.

Only by seeing or observing more, does one gain the ability to be truly selective.

Had I known then what I do today, I would certainly have approached that drive down the California coast with a more selective and perhaps understanding eye, which is not to say that I absolutely would not have made some "look alike" images along the way. My approach always is to take advantage of every chance to make a good photograph. If, after making one image, I see a nearby opportunity to make a better, although similar one, I will take advantage of that opportunity. But, having trained myself to see more of my environment, I would have been less likely to be repetitious. My view would have taken in more than steep slopes and a restless sea and I would have found an almost endless variety of subjects for my camera.

Above: Wave action on rocks at Laguna Beach, California, 2009. An example of looking selectively at a single element of the environment and picturing it in a variety of ways.


June 11, 2011: Not everything needs to be photographed.

What a revelation that was. I'm not sure exactly when it occurred to me. Maybe it was when my dermatologist wanted to make a complete photographic "map" of my body so that he could have a record of all my moles and spots to help him monitor their change over time. I declined and found another dermatologist who was content to do regular periodic exams. But, if anything demonstrates that there are things than don't need to be photographed, look at today's news or Google Anthony Weiner.

Now don't misunderstand...I'm not saying that you should always be able to justify every desire you have to make a picture. Au contraire, mon amis. (Where did that come from...I have absolutely no French heritage!) If the spirit moves you, go right ahead and make your picture, like I did with the one below.

I was walking on a Mississippi beach near Gulfport a couple of years ago, and I saw these wings lying in the sand. There wasn't much else around to capture my attention and I had a camera around my neck, so I exposed a frame. A while later, suffering a weak moment in the hot sun, I also made a picture of the half eaten carcass of a small catfish lying in shallow water. That picture was repulsive and, to my mind, had no redeeming value whatsoever; it really didn't need to be made.

I remember the first time I drove down the California coastline from Carmel to Morro Bay, a distance of just under a hundred miles. It was around 1970, and it took me almost an entire day to cover the distance. I was so excited by the views that I jumped out of my car perhaps fifty times to take pictures. I remember getting home, processing the film, looking at the slides and thinking "Good grief, they all look alike!" Clearly, not all those scenes needed to be photographed, and I needed to look at things more selectively.

You might say that no subject needs to be photographed. But that would be incorrect when you consider the impact that photography has had on society and the changes it has helped bring about. The fact is, were it not for the photographs William Henry Jackson made of the Yellowstone region in 1871, we might not have had the world's first National Park system. Consider what Lewis Hine's photographs did to help bring about changes in the treatment of child labor. Sometimes the need is in the mind of the photographer, sometimes it is in the mind of the viewer, often it is the quality that makes a photograph truly great.

My point is that a person is likely to make better photographs if he or she considers carefully the need to make them. Personal needs can be as important to the process as any other perceptions and I am not judging photographers or their work in making the observation that is the title of this post. This is an approach I take today; not the approach I've always taken, and how I judge the need will often be different from the criteria you apply.

This is simply food for thought.


June 10, 2011:

Let's get beyond a fascination with alternative printing processes and get back to recognizing good images.

A few years ago, I was visiting a well known gallery of photography and viewing an exhibit of platinum prints. I was not impressed by the images, although the quality of the prints was quite good. Today, I can't recall a single image from that show, or the name of the photographer. When I expressed my reaction to the gallery owner, the reply was, "Oh, but these are fine platinum prints." I bit my tongue, but I wanted to say that a poor photograph is still a poor photograph no matter how you print it.

Consider some of the greatest black and white photographs of all time (we'll discuss color on another post). I've seen so many, but a few that stand out in my memory are Edward Weston's images of cabbage leaves and peppers, Eugene Smith's picture of his two children walking through the woods behind his home, Ansel Adams' Moonrise, Alfred Stieglitz' The Steerage, Edward Steichen's Portrait of J. Pierpont Morgan, Arnold Newman's image of Igor Stravinsky, Yousef Karsh's 1941 portrait of Winston Churchill and Julia Margaret Cameron's The Dream. With notable exceptions, due to my knowledge of the individual photographers' style and methods, I don't recall how the first prints I saw of these were printed.

I like looking at photographs. I've been looking at them analytically for sixty years, and in all that time it has been the content, composition, style and the visual statement images make that has had impact on me. I never look to the printing process for primary satisfaction. After all other considerations, I do like to look at a well executed print in any traditional or alternative process, but if something else doesn't draw my attention, I don't care what the reproduction process is.

Morning Mist, Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma © 1973, David Halpern, All Rights Reserved 

This is the image that launched my career as a fine art landscape photographer. It is the first photograph I ever entered in a juried exhibition, and the 1974 print that was accepted for that event was sold to Marcuse Pfeifer, a New York art dealer. The image subsequently won other awards, was shown in several other exhibitions and ultimately became my "trademark" piece. A print included in the art collection of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City was destroyed when that building was bombed by Timothy McVeigh on April 19, 1995. The Murrah Building Collection was later restored and a new print was made. However, I have chosen to make no other prints of Morning Mist since that time and the negative has been "retired."

All prints of this image were made on traditional gelatin silver papers. I experimented with other print media, but nothing else had the same appeal to me.


June 9, 2011: Where have I've been for the past three days?

Yikes! I just realized that I haven't posted anything for the past three days. I do apologize to my regular readers, but I hope you'll appreciate the reason for my distraction.

My wife and I just sold our present home in Santa Fe. We bought it three years ago when we became part-time residents, and now that we're spending more of our time in this incredibly wonderful city we need a larger place for our stuff. (Remember George Carlin's "A Place for My Stuff? If not, you can find it on YouTube.) For the last three days we've been preoccupied with the details of our sale and making a decision on where we go from here. It's been an intense and somewhat traumatic experience.

Since leaving my parents' home after college, I've lived in five locations, in five different States. I've lived in eight different houses, but I've never felt the sense of attachment I've felt to this one, despite the fact that we've only owned it for three years. It's a relatively old adobe (between 80 and 100 years) in the historic section of this 400 year old city. It was once the garage and chicken coop for the larger house to the south that belonged to a famous sculptor who converter it into what probably was a guest house. So, it's relatively small with just four rooms and two baths, but the central room is a generous living and dining space with a brick floor, heavy vigas supporting the ceiling and roof. and two wood burning fireplaces. What we like most, this time of the year, is the generous portal and courtyard which is planted entirely with perennials that bloom from spring into early fall, and a natural rock recirculating fountain that attracts a variety of songbirds, an occasional owl, woodpeckers and several magpies who wake us up at sunrise each morning. We use one of the bedrooms as an office, so there's no room for guests, but we always invite friends, who stay at one of several nearby hotels, for dinner on the deck, just off the courtyard.

It's very peaceful here, and picturesque — the place has character and charm, and both of us find it hard to be away from it. Last night, I was standing in the garden, trying to entice our younger Jack Russell terrier to come indoors for the night. I looked back toward the empty portal and the open windows of the living room and thought "I'm really going to miss this place." It was a moment that needed to be recorded, so I went inside and brought out a camera and tripod and made the image below. I took the picture without altering anything in it — no adjustments to the lighting, no rearranging of pillows — it is just what I saw. (I did however make three exposures at different shutter speeds and I combined them in the computer to reveal all the important details.)

Our next house will be larger and have more closet space, but as far as I'm concerned, it can never be any better than this.

I want to remember this old house just as it is today. After we move next month, I won't return to see what the new owner does with it. They'll fix it up to suit their own tastes and I can accept that inevitability. But, long ago I learned a painful lesson when I returned to another house and found that the owner had cut down my favorite tree. No, I won't come back.

June 5, 2011: 1 out of focus photograph + 1 very lucky shot = 1 very special image.

On February 22, 2009, I participated in a special winter excursion for photographers aboard the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Along the route into the rugged and spectacularly beautiful San Juan Mountains, the train made several stops so that we could photograph what we railfans call run-bys. The train stops at a particularly scenic area and lets the passengers get off. The trail then backs up for a considerable while the photographers take up positions at trackside or nearby, with a good view of the rails. Then the engineer builds up a good head of steam, opened the throttle and with a blast of the train's whistle alerts the railfans that he is moving forward with smoke belching from the stack and steam gushing from every port to add to the drama. The enthusiastic crowd hovers over their tripods and the click of shutters is faster than the click of the wheels rolling over rail joints.

At the first run-by, I adjusted my camera to focus automatically at a point that was off center in my viewfinder. After I reboarded the train, I neglected to reset the point of focus to the center of the viewfinder (you might call that the default position). I typically use the autofocus feature when photographing action.

When I took my position for the next run-by, I didn't realize that my camera was focusing at a point ahead of the train. The series of pictures I subsequently made was out of focus—not so that the subject was unrecognizable, but obviously not what I had intended.

When I reboarded the train and reviewed my images on the LCD panel on the camera's back, I sadly discovered my error. Under most circumstances, I would have deleted those pictures from my flash card, but this time I didn't do so, though I thought about it. When the excursion was over and I returned home, I discovered that at another run-by later that morning, I had taken another precisely focused photograph of the locomotive coming straight toward me in virtually the same position as it had been in one of the earlier out of focus images. It immediately occurred to me that with a little care, I could superimpose the crisply focused image of the locomotive over the soft-focus version and create an composite illustration that would be unique, in that no one else on the trip would be likely to have a similar shot.

In this finished version, the greater part of the image is taken from the first out of focus photograph (even the smoke and steam). Only the locomotive with the engineer and brakeman clearly enjoying the ride and the beautiful winter day were taken from the second properly focused image. The effect could not have been achieved in a single photograph. I could not have planned this under the circumstances of a rail excursion over which I had no control. It's simply one of the most fortunate accidents I've ever had with a camera.


June 3, 2011: Beware of salt and sand.

These two elements are very hard on photographic equipment. That doesn't mean you should not take a camera to the beach or the desert, but you should be very careful when you do.

When I made this photograph in 1986, at Stewarts Point in northern California, The wind was blowing steadily from the ocean and I remember struggling to keep my 4" x 5" view camera from shaking even though it was supported on a heavy tripod. With each crash of a wave upon the rocks, the wind delivered a mist of saltwater over me as I hovered over the camera to protect the lens. I made only this one picture before stowing my gear and hurrying to clean off every drop of water before it had a chance to penetrate the crevices between the lens and shutter, bellows and both front and rear standards. Salt water has an almost immediate corrosive effect, and while the risk to my camera on this day was minimal, I couldn't have been too careful. Twice, I've been with other photographers who have completely destroyed 35mm cameras and lenses by exposing them to salt water. Truly, there's nothing you can do to salvage a lens that has been soaked by or dropped into sea water.

The image below was made in Death Valley, where blowing sand can have an equally devastating effect on cameras and lenses, though the nature of the damage that can occur is abrasive rather than corrosive.

In this instance, I carried my digital SLR in the dry bag I've spoken of in previous posts. The camera was removed from the bag only to make exposures and it was returned to the bag immediately after each exposure was made. The risk to the lens from blowing sand is obvious, and while you can protect the front element with a UV or skylight filter, there remains the possibility that blowing sand could penetrate crevices in the camera's body and do serious harm; not as irreparable as the damage saltwater can do, but bad enough to spoil your outing, vacation or assignment.

Long ago, I learned—from an old master carpenter—the importance of taking good care of your tools. "Take care of them and they'll take care of you." Any professional in any field knows the truth in that statement.


June 2, 2011: Take your camera for a walk.

All of us tend to overlook the photo ops that are right in our own back yard or on the streets where we live. Is it a case of the grass being greener on the other side of the fence, simple wanderlust, or too much familiarity? If we can be so attentive to what we see in our travels to new or distant places, why is it that we don't see subjects at our own doorsteps? I spent my first twenty-two years in Tennessee, and while I thought I knew a great deal about my home state, I discovered more about it after I moved to Kentucky. I swore I'd never overlook the opportunities where I lived again and proceeded to become familiar with the landscape of the Bluegrass State. Then I moved to Missouri and began in earnest to explore opportunities there. When I subsequently moved on to Oklahoma, where I've spent most of the last forty years, I roamed all corners of the State. And then one day I got a call from a publication in New York that wanted to know if I had a stock photograph of something that was just five minutes from my home and I had to admit I'd never photographed it. I'd failed to do what I'd sworn to do all those years ago in Kentucky.

In 2008, when my wife and I bought a home in the historic district of Santa Fe, New Mexico, I started taking my camera with me every day when we took walks around our neighborhood, up Canyon Road and down to the Plaza. With a Jack Russell terrier on a leash and a camera around my neck, I look like a perennial tourist, and maybe that's what I am, but I enjoy finding new pictures—sometimes of the most mundane subjects in the most ordinary of those on the right and below. It's a practice I recommend to everyone. I'm not claiming that any of these are extraordinary images, but they are examples of constant visual exercise and part of an exploration for new direction in my work.


June 1, 2011: So, the world didn't end on May 21.

Harold Camping was certain that it would. One would have thought that, after his prediction proved to be wrong, he would have learned the lesson that it's supreme chutzpah for mere mortals to assume the right to speak for Almighty God. As a subscriber to the Borowitz Report ( I thought Andy hit the nail on the head with his next-day satirical analysis.

Ever the supremely confident preacher, Camping almost immediately attempted to explain his error and went on to assure us all that he had revisited his projection and was now absolutely certain that the world would end on October 21. Preoccupied with doom as he is , Camping was apparently powerless to have warned that a tornado of record proportions would devastate a large portion of Joplin, MO on May 22, taking 134 innocent lives and effectively ending the world as they knew it. goes on for the rest of us, and if we're smart, we'll spend it working to improve our little bits of paradise here on earth and worrying less about where we are likely to spend eternity. We can think positive thoughts, smile at people we meet, try to learn something we didn't know yesterday and do something productive.

Sunrise, Montevideo Uruguay, February 18, 2011

May 31, 2011: An argument for hiking light.

This is one of those "Do as I say; not as I do (or did)" pieces of advice. It is an acknowledgement of my mistakes.

When I was much younger, carrying only 35mm equipment, I often hiked canyon and mountain trails carrying a heavy backpack filled with camping gear, food supplies and photographic equipment to handle every opportunity I thought I might encounter. Later, when I started using large format cameras and heavy tripods, I became accustomed to routinely carrying more than fifty pounds on my back into places like the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and to 13,000' mountain passes. I was younger and determined (maybe stubborn or obsessive are more applicable words). I also weighed more than I do today, although I was physically stronger. However, as a result of self abuse, I had to have a hip replacement four years ago, and while the surgery was very successful and I can still hike to my favorite locations, I don't wish that kind of punishment on anyone. I'm now an advocate of hiking light, carrying only gear that is necessary to accomplish a specific goal. Sure, that means that I sometimes miss an opportunity, but what's worse: missing an occasional picture...or injuring myself so that I can't try again on another occasion?

 Two young owls, Arizona, 2007
Observing my students and other hikers over many years, I've noticed that many of them tend to carry a too heavy load of equipment. Even if that doesn't put them at immediate risk of injury, it does increase the likelihood of fatigue while on the trail. That clouds their judgment and keeps them from appreciating the details that can offer exceptional image possibilities.

Say you're a flatlander hiking at altitudes to which you're not accustomed. It's a beautiful sunny day and you're enjoying the scenery, but the trail is long, the hours pass and the sun rises high overhead. You find yourself looking for a spot to rest and enjoy a cool drink and a snack. Later in the day, the shadows lengthen and the sun begins to reflect a warm glow off cliffs or distant peaks, but you may be thinking more about reaching your destination where you can drop your pack. You find yourself walking past things you recognize as good subjects for a photograph, and you rationalize, "There are lots of these, I can't stop to shoot them all." But, how many subjects have you passed in your tired condition without recognizing them at all?

If you're like me, you don't just hike to explore new destinations; you do it to discover wonderful subjects to photograph along the way. The journey becomes every bit as important as the ultimate discovery, and the enjoyment of both is the goal. So before you set out on the trail, it's important to think seriously about your purpose. Mine is to make the best pictures I can, even if I don't have particular subjects in mind.

I know geologists who like to photograph rocks and rock formations, wildlife photographers who seek out specific animals, reptiles or insects, botanists who study the wildflowers and larger plant life, and generalists who simply look for subjects that evoke a personal response. I have a friend who looks at clouds, tree stumps, plants and rocks and sees abstractions in them of faces and animals and human figures. Each of us sees uniquely, or strives to do so.

I don't claim to be a wildlife photographer, even though I have made a few decent wildlife photographs. I used to take my long lenses with me on hikes, just in case I encountered interesting critters. That was before I discovered what it really takes to be a successful wildlife photographer. Understanding animal behavior and habitat, careful observation and patience are essential to successfully photographing animals in the wild. On the rare occasion when my purpose is to photograph wildlife, that becomes my single objective and I don't carry equipment for other purposes.

When I hike, I often miss opportunities that require equipment I don't have in my pack, but I capture much better images of the subjects I do photograph because I'm alert and concentrating all my attention on the task at hand. I'm not after quantity and while I often remember the opportunities I thought I'd missed, I make notes, write in my journals and am better prepared for return visits and different experiences in familiar environments.

Sometimes I do get lucky, as all of us will if we spend a a lot of time making photographs. The picture of the owls above is an example of luck. I was visiting the slot canyons near Page, Arizona with two other photographers when we spotted these youngsters in a niche in a rock wall. My friends were carrying telephoto lenses, but I couldn't imagine what use I might make of those long and heavy pieces of equipment in a place where the walls were only a few feet apart, and I carried only "normal" and wide angle lenses. I waited while they made their pictures and then I asked them to hold their positions while I approached the owls on their rocky perch. Thankfully, "Mom" wasn't around and I was able to rest my elbows on the rock ledge in front of the birds and make my picture from a distance of 16 inches.

I'm grateful for the equipment I have today, the lightweight clothing and boots I wear, the lighter tripod I most often carry on a sling over my shoulder, and the memory cards I carry instead of a large quantity of film canisters. I rarely miss my large format cameras, heavy tripod and bulky film holders, and the heaviest essential thing I have to carry is a large bottle of water. I'm not as tired at the end of the day and I look forward to more hiking tomorrow.


May 29, 2011: Pictures from the iPhone

I use an iPhone 3Gs (my wife uses the 4). To begin with, I didn't want an iPhone at all. Despite my attraction to technology, I simply wanted a mobile telephone without bells and whistles, but you can't buy one of those anymore, and after experiencing problems with other models and brands I allowed myself to be talked into an iPhone. One day, at lunch with friend and photographer, Tom Luker, I discovered that the camera in his iPhone was a pretty interesting tool, and the quality of the images it produced were comparable to the ones I made with my first Olympus digital camera in 1997. After that, I started playing with my iPhone and the result since have been rather amazing.

Rarely have I used the iPhone to make a picture for publication, but there have been times when it was the only camera I had with me, and I figured that it was more important to make a picture than to make excuses. That was the case when I made the picture of artist Burton Silverman shown at left. Of course, this is not the "raw" image, but had the original file not had all the information needed, I could not have manipulated it as I did to clean up the background, adjust the contrast and add unsharp masking.
Notice in this detail of his right eye, how relatively sharp the image is. Of course it isn't nearly a match for any of my regular cameras. but in a small size reproduction only a printer or another photographer armed with a magnifying loupe would detect the low resolution of the file. I was also impressed by the absence of digital noise in the image which was taken with ambient light in the lobby of a museum.
To eliminate camera movement with the iPhone, it is necessary to know how to trip the shutter very gently. That is accomplished by holding the shutter release button down prior to the exposure and releasing it to make the exposure. Most cameras and camera phones require you to press down on the shutter release at the moment you wish to record the image, but the iPhone gives you an advantage by letting you do the opposite.

On another occasion when I met Tom for breakfast at a Tulsa restaurant, he asked me if I had my camera in the car. He explained that he needed a head shot, requested by a publisher to accompany a magazine article he'd done. I said that I didn't have my "real" camera, but that if was only going to be reproduced as a small image, I could do it with my iPhone. We went outside the restaurant, in a courtyard, and made the picture on the right. When I returned home, I processed the image and emailed it to Tom who sent it to his publisher with a note asking if this iPhone image would work. The publisher was amazed and used it without hesitation. It's even sharper than the Silverman photo.

I've used the iPhone on a number occasions like this, but there have been several other occasions when I've obtained surprising landscape and architectural images without having to carry a larger camera, usually to events where that would have been a social inconvenience.

Here's an iPhone image is made while touring an historic home a few months ago. I knew I wouldn't have an opportunity to do any serious photography, so I left my serious cameras at home. When I saw these ancient wisteria vines growing against an adobe wall, and the interesting shadows they cast, I felt compelled to record the scene. Later, I converted the image to black and white and reproduced it with a sepia tone. I've since printed the picture on a fine art paper and it looks very good as long as the image is no larger than 9" in its longer dimension.

And, finally, on the right is an image that I made of a skylight from a building in downtown Santa Fe while waiting for my wife to complete her shopping.

I won't be surprised if one day there is an iPhone that records a file in excess of 14MP. Meanwhile, the capability of this little tool isn't bad (the iPhone 4 makes even better pictures than mine) and I think it might be fun to mount an exhibit entirely of pictures made with it.*

* I realize that this already has been done a number of times, but there's always an opportunity to do something better.

May 28, 2011: I learn something new every day.

That's one of the things I enjoy most about digital photography. Certainly, I continued to learn throughout my four-and-a-half decades as a "traditional" film-based photographer, but the technology advance more slowly and the learning curve became more gradual through those years. Digital photography, on the other hand, continues to evolve rapidly, demanding one's constant attention, for today's state-of-the art equipment is almost sure to be toppled from its pinnacle in a matter of months and the computer software we use is updated even more frequently.

I enjoyed a special learning experience a couple of weekends ago when I attended an excellent workshop on digital printing. The instructor was Steve Zeifman, owner and operator of Rush Creek Editions in Santa Fe (, one of the premier digital fine art printing studios in the United States. I met Steve, a master printmaker. three years ago when I became a part-time resident of Santa Fe. We quickly became friends, and while I do most of my own printing, Steve is the person I rely on for fine-art prints when the order calls for something larger than 16" x 20." His Epson printers are the latest models, enabling him to print up to 64" wide, and his quality is impeccable.

I may have said this before, but my primary reason for attending workshops at this point in my career is to learn how other photographers and instructors approach our craft and how they think. All of us work with the same tools, but not all of us use them alike. Nor are our workflows the same. So when Steve put out the word that he would be teaching a workshop for experienced amateur and professional photographers, I jumped at the opportunity. And, I wasn't disappointed.

The event lasted for two days, during which Steve covered no less than two dozen subjects from working with the original image file, to printers, ink set selection, media, printer maintenance, and the steps to achieving the ideal print. He discussed software, including Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop and all of the participants went through the process of "perfecting" one of our own images and producing a 30" x 40" print, which was included in the cost of the workshop. As if all of this instruction were not enough, We were treated to guest presentations by Grant Kalivoda (, former owner of Camera & Darkroom in Santa Fe, now representing Epson, Canon and HP in this area, and by Don Messec ( who discussed his fine art printing methods which incorporate less toxic, more environmentally sound, safer and smarter approaches.

Steve Zeifman, Master Printer, Owner and Operator of Rush Creek Editions, Santa Fe, NM

The 40" print I made during the workshop was of the image below, from the Bisti. I love it, but I'm having some difficulty figuring out how to frame it and where to put it when I do. Maybe I'll just enjoy it a while longer and then offer it for sale.


Steve Zeifman is exceedingly generous with his knowledge. Knowing that many professionals like myself are likely to continue making many of their own prints, he's operating with the belief that if he shares his wisdom, helping us to be better at what we do, we'll rely on his skills when our needs exceed the capabilities of the equipment we use. I think he's absolutely correct, and I look forward to a long and mutually profitable business relationship.

I also hope Steve will continue to offer workshops like the one I attended on Saturday and Sunday, May 7-8. This kind of instruction, as well as the interaction between the participants, has great value and many of my fellow photographers will appreciate learning how someone like Steve thinks and approaches his craft.


To my friends in Oklahoma, I want to put in an unsolicited plug for another fine printer of fine art images and friend, Gary Gibson, owner of Ampersand Graphics in Bartlesville .

Also, In a future posting, I'll talk about nother category of digital printers—like my friends at VisualFX in Tulsa, Oklahoma— who produce high quality advertising displays, trade show and museum exhibits and architectural graphics.


May 27, 2011: More on the Bisti

Today, I'll talk about some of the things you need to consider when photographing a location like the Bisti. I've boiled the discussion down to ten points.

This late afternoon scene in the Bisti does little to predict what lies a relatively short distance ahead.

1. This is a desert environment and while it's not especially inhospitable to hikers, it's not park-like either. It can be very hot in the summer and very slippery when it rains, even though it doesn't rain very much. (The yearly average is around eight inches and October's average is just over an inch.) The temperature can drop precipitously when the sun sets, so if you're staying for late afternoon light (and I recommend that), carry warm clothing in your pack. There are no prepared or marked trails leading to your destinations and no directions at the entrance. Sturdy shoes are advised, sunscreen is a must, a broad brimmed hat is preferred (unless you have a lot more hair than I do) and while you'll be walking mostly on level terrain, there are some hills to climb and the soil can be very unstable on some slopes. Also, it is essential to carry and drink plenty of water.

2. Desert winds and blowing sand can be hard on you and your equipment. A bandana to cover your nose and mouth is recommended and protection for your cameras and lenses is essential. I carry a dry bag that I bought to use in saltwater environments and I carry my camera in it when in sandy environments because it offers better protection than any camera case I've ever used.

3. Be prepared to hike a distance of at least five miles a day (round trip). I always tell my workshop participants not to feel they have to conquer distances. If you find something compelling just a few feet from the trailhead, stop and photograph it, and if you want to concentrate on a subject for the entire day rather than struggle to cover more miles and seek whatever might be at trail's end, be attentive to your own perceptions and wants. Making good photographs is more important that making a lot of mediocre ones. However, and particularly in the Bisti, the better subjects are not found near the trailhead, and it is a good idea to work your way into the area before stopping. While hiking in this particular environment isn't difficult, it does require some conditioning, so if you're accustomed to sitting at a desk and staring at a computer for hours a day, develop a habit of getting up and taking a brisk walk for an hour a day for a few weeks before you travel to the Bisti.

4. I would not recommend working with several different lenses in this environment. Changing lenses in the desert, especially if you're shooting digitally, is risky and you're almost certain to pick up dust on your sensor. I've found that my 24-120 mm lens is all I need when working with my Nikon D3x in the Bisti. If you have more than one camera body, equip them with different lenses if you feel you need more choices.

5. I consider a tripod an essential tool, even if your lenses have image stabilization. I like to maximize my depth of field and that means shooting with a small aperture and often with a slow shutter speed. I also use a cable release, even though the camera may be well supported and may seem steady enough.

6. Watch your step, particularly on the hillsides and arroyo rims. The unusual formations in the Bisti have been formed by soil erosion, and sometimes water undercuts the edges of dry stream banks and hollows out pockets under the edges of hills. If you're concerned about falling, a walking stick is a good hiking aid, and I often use one. The surface of the ground varies from hard pack to sandy. I have not discovered any extraordinary "critter" problems. I've seen rabbits, but I haven't encountered anything threatening. I suspect there are snakes and biting insects, but you'll find them in any wilderness environment and this one is no more threatening than any other I've hiked.

7. This is a fragile environment and erosion changes the landscape somewhat from year to year. Someone may tell you about a formation they photographed a couple of years ago and give you good directions to find it, but that doesn't mean you will discover it intact on your visit. It is also an environment that demands your respect; it is easy to damage the formations and dislodge rocks. Always be careful to leave it as you found it.

8. Abandon your preconceptions (I talked about this on May 6). Depending on recent weather conditions you may or may not see interesting plant life. You probably will see a lot of petrified wood--large logs or just chips. You will see bizarre rock shapes, but there are more subtle subjects including fossils if you are very attentive to details as well as the overall scene. The texture of the soil can be very interesting and it changes from place to place. But, if you go without expectations you'll probably find more good subjects than you will if you're looking for a specific thing.

9. Watch the light carefully. The shadows can be as interesting as the forms that cast them. As always, light defines shape form and texture or to put it another way, light is a law, pay close attention to everything it does.

10. This kind of an environment is very challenging when it comes to creating good compositions. Judging what to include and what to leave out of a picture will depend on your individual sensibilities, and it will require a good deal of thought. I also recommend keeping both eyes open. Many, if not most photographers who work with SLRs tend to close the eye that's not behind the viewfinder window. I recommend keeping both eyes open. What is outside the frame of your composition often influences how you see what is within the window.


May 26, 2011: Back to the Bisti

On May 17, I returned to the Bisti, where, beginning on October 7, I will be leading a landscape photography seminar sponsored by the Santa Fe Photography Workshops. The fall workshop catalog is being prepared now and you will be hearing more about this event soon.

The purposes of my visit at this time were to investigate hotels in Farmington, ask questions of people in the BLM office, and become more familiar with the Bisti landscape. Uncooperative weather made it a short visit, but I did manage to hike between seven and eight miles, record several new images and satisfy myself that I could remember enough landmarks to find my way around without becoming confused or lost. The available topo maps are virtually useless and while I do plan to use a hiker's GPS during the workshop, my comfort level will increase as I have more opportunities to hike the area, feel the distances and identify the major land forms.

The picture below is from an area I did not reach on my last visit in December. It is at least three miles from the parking area and there is much to attract a photographer before you reach it. I would be satisfied to select any one of ten locations Kent Bowser has shown me and work all day within a radius of a few hundred yards, but these first visits were planned as scouting sessions with the understanding that there will be plenty of time later to be selective.

This picture–especially with its wide angle perspective in this small size–only gives a hint of the photographic possibilities that await when you walk into the arroyo, but the pictures below were taken within fifty yards of the place from which this image was made. All of these photographs were made just before sunset, so there wasn't a lot of time to explore the area in depth—something I definitely will do on a return visit.

Wide views of the landscape can be interesting, like the view below of the area commonly called the Cracked Eggs. But, abstracts of the larger scene and details are more exciting to me. The smaller picture on the right is a detail of just one of the "eggs."

Tomorrow, I'll share some more views of the Bisti and talk about some of the things you need to take into consideration when photographing an area like this.


May 25, 2011: Back to the Blog

I've been away from my writing much longer than I anticipated following my May 6 posting. You might say that's an admission of a preconceived notion of my own. The only defense I can offer is that it was not a visual preconception.

Anyway, I'm back at the keyboard with several new subjects on my mind and some interesting new images. Here's a teaser of what is to come.

Petrified log, Photographed in the Bisti, May 17, 2011


May 6, 2011: Abandon your preconceived notions.

This is a valuable lesson learned long ago: when you have an opportunity to photograph a new location, go with an open mind and abandon any preconceived notions. Those can keep you from seeing the best picture possibilities. I thought about this yesterday when Kent Bowser and I drove to the site of Waldo, New Mexico, near Cerillos. Though it is called a ghost town, Waldo is even less than that, and while some structure foundations remain, virtually all of the building materials from this former center of a coal mining district have been salvaged for use elsewhere.

I knew very little about the area, though I discovered that I had been nearby when I visited Cerillos State Park a year ago. Kent and I started out at 8:45 in the morning and by the time we turned off I-25 and onto the Waldo Canyon Road, the position of the sun did not encourage photography and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. We had intended to make this a scouting trip, but we were ready to make pictures if the right subject and atmospheric conditions presented themselves.

Just past the Waldo site, we took a short side road that led into a part of Cerillos State Park I hadn't visited earlier. We parked the car at the end of the road and followed a trail into an arroyo that would provide good subjects for photography if one was there to take advantage of later afternoon light. We drove east and, near Cerillos, came to an area of rocky hills with texture that looked quite good under the brilliant mid-morning sun. We spent at least an hour exploring and made a few images, one of which appears on the left below.


The rocks were the largest subjects at that site, and it's known that I have a strong attraction to rocks. So, quite naturally, they were the first subject to which I was drawn. When, after about a half-hour, I felt I was struggling too hard with the subject, I began walking along a dirt roadway that was full of weeds and bordered by sagebrush. I didn't know exactly what I was looking for, and I certainly didn't expect what I found hidden in the sage. It was a large bundle wrapped in a pastel pink blanket and tied with a rope. I have no idea what it contained and wasn't about to open it. It seemed that someone had stashed it there where it would not attract attention, and had I been driving down the road, I certainly would not have seen it. It was not the sort of thing I think about photographing, but the texture of the blanket and the folds of the bundle were quite a contrast with the rock I had been photographing and that interested me. I set up my camera and made the picture on the right. (The fly is an added bonus and in a larger image you would see that it is well detailed.)

Had I gone to this site with preconceived notions, I probably would not have looked for or found the bundle. But I was open to all possibilities and I considered this quite a find.

Later in the afternoon, we scouted a ridge to the northwest of this site, and I found the image below; yet another texture photograph but one of rock that appears a bit like rusty metal. We also discovered that this was a place where people come to shoot guns and drink beer (the only things I saw that one could shoot at were beer cans and an old bullet riddled kitchen stove lying on the side of the ridge) I found a variety of shell casings of various caliber and collected a large quantity of them to use in a future still-life.

It was an excellent scouting trip.'s Cinco de Mayo. Go out and celebrate...blow off some steam.

May 5, 2011: Labeling photography in galleries and museum exhibits—a pet peeve

While the nomenclature for traditional fine arts media has remained fairly constant over the years, the digital era has brought with it a plethora of terms that are very confusing, not only to the public, but to people who work in galleries and museum.

I commented yesterday on the origin of the term giclée, and I'm mentioning it once again because it's one of the most commonly used words found on the labels of digital photography as well as fine-art prints of works originally created in watercolor, pastels acrylics or oil paints. I dislike the term because it's simply an attempt to conceal the fact that the reproduction was made on a high quality ink-jet printer. And let's face it; if you're asking a high price for a print, it's even more palatable to a certain audience if it has a French name.

It also bothers me that some digitally printed photography is labeled archival, HDR, or Iris. To begin with, the term archival, which implies that an image is stable enough to last indefinitely, is virtually meaningless today. We can talk about image life expectancy, but that depends on such things as temperature, humidity, exposure to different light levels and the quality of the substrate media. There is no digitally reproduced print that will last forever (at least not yet).

Some images are captured and processed digitally, but reproduced on "traditional" media and processed chemically. Those, too, are often labeled improperly.

The term HDR (High Dynamic Range) is too often improperly applied and in fact has little or nothing to do with the making of the print itself. HDR is a computer software image enhancement tool that can be used to reveal maximum detail within an image by extending the tonal range and allowing you to see detail clearly in both the shadows and highlights. It often produces results that look more like very realistic drawings and paintings than photography. But, some users of the HDR tools use them to produce abstractions of a different type, which are more appropriately called "manipulations" and while HDR tools are used to create them, they miss the point and do not exhibit an extended range of values. It is, in fact, an appropriation of a tool made for another purpose—not unlike using a screwdriver to pry the top off a jar.

Words like Cibachrome or Ilfochrome (both are the same process and the names reflect different ownership of the brand) are proprietary names that often have been used because it's simpler to use those labels than it is to say that these are "Dye destruction positive to positive prints using material coated with Azo dyes." So, that doesn't bother me any more than the much older term "Daguerreotype." (Come to think of it, if that process had been developed today, we'd probably say the name masked the fact that it used mercury vapor to process the image...but in 1839 they didn't know what harm mercury produced.)

On the other hand, the term "Iris print" uses the proprietary or brand name of a specific printer, and like that "g" name that I won't reuse, masks more than it illuminates. There are better and more appropriate words that could be used, like "Pigmented ink print."

A digitally captured image is a digital photograph, no matter what you do to enhance it. If you want to say it was computer enhanced, that's fine and honest, but using the names applied to tools within a computer program like Adobe Photoshop is simply obfuscation.

A label is supposed to tell the viewer how the work was reproduced or what materials were employed. We're used to the term mixed media, followed by the names of specific materials like, wood, paper, silver, horsehair, cotton, etc. We're accustomed to reading "oil on canvas" or "silk screen print." These terms mean something to us.

We're used to photographs being described with terms like silver prints, dye transfer, gold toned, platinum/palladium or cyanotype—all words that convey meaning to those who study the history of photography. But these new digital era terms really bother me because I see them as deliberate efforts to convey the illusion of authority or sophistication.

Besides, a good, compelling photograph that stirs feelings within the soul of a viewer doesn't need a lot of words to describe it. Just calling it a photograph might suffice. And if it's a bad photograph, printing it with an alternative or expensive process with a fancy name won't make it a better picture.

I don't like to confuse or mislead people who just might become collectors of photography. End of rant.


May 4, 2011: Some comments on digital printing (not a how-to)

There are several ways to print images digitally, but I prefer to use one that applies fade resistant pigment inks to an archival substrate. This method typically produces prints with a reasonably long life expectancy (in excess of 100 years*) with excellent color or black and white quality, depending on the printing device, inks and media employed. The art community generally refers to this process as giclée printing, but I dislike that term and will not use it in my following remarks. Why? Because it was devised some years ago as an attempt to make what amounted to a high quality ink-jet print made on an Iris (brand name) printer acceptable to the fine art market which might have recoiled at the mention of something that sounded like it was made on a common office printer. In that sense, the term is fundamentally dishonest, even though the source of the name–the French word gicler–means "to squirt, spurt or spray." How about that for a piece of trivia?

To be honest and descriptive, I generally call my digital prints simply pigmented ink prints, and when anyone asks, I offer a candid explanation.

At Bubble Pond, Acadia National Park, Maine
In 1995, I used this is image to test the stability of color in a digital print (discussed below). The original, made on 4" x 5" Fuji Velvia film, was scanned for reproduction as an Iris print which faded significantly in a short time. I bought an Epson 7600 about a year after that model was introduced, scanned the image again, made a print on my Epson 7600 printer and framed it to hang in my office. That print reveals no apparent fading despite constant exposure to room light.

Just for the record, there are other ways to reproduce the digital image, and some employ traditional photographic media and chemical processing. If you want to explore all the options, I suggest you begin with Wikipedia, using the key words "digital printing" and follow the several links to be found there. For now, I'm only going to talk about the kind of printing that is done with equipment manufactured by Epson, Canon and Hewlett-Packard (HP).

Whatever printer you select, there are other considerations that are critically important if you want to achieve the best results. You must process your images using a properly calibrated monitor if you want reliable results (see my April 4 posting) , you must maintain a clean working environment, you must use the proper printer profiles for the media on which you print and you must use the best quality inks. Most paper manufacturers offer profiles as plug-ins to your image processing/printer software, and while these are reliable starting points, in some cases you may have to tweak them or develop profiles of your own.

When it comes to substrate surfaces (papers, canvas, etc.) there are many more choices with digital printing than we had in the days of the chemical darkroom. You can print on heavily textured watercolor paper or board, smooth glossy papers, a variety of matte surfaces, velvet textured and cotton rag papers, vinyls and fabrics. And, unlike printing in the chemical darkroom where the light projected onto a textured surface would scatter, making the image appear "soft" or less focused than it would appear on a smooth glossy surface, the digitally printed image appears sharp on any surface because the "dots" of ink don't scatter like light.

I'm very concerned with the quality of my black and white prints. Blacks and neutral gray tones are essential in my work, and color casts are taboo. Earlier printers produced an effect called metamerism that was especially noticeable in the black and white print. This described a change of color quality when the print was viewed under different light sources. In daylight, a print might exhibit a greenish cast; under tungsten light it might have a red cast while under subdued or fluorescent light the image might appear acceptably neutral. Newer digital printers have resolved this problem by using special black and white profiles and multiple black and gray ink cartridges instead of the single black cartridge found on earlier models.

The intensity or brilliance of color is an issue that has been addressed by all printer manufacturers. Generally, color has improved by the addition of extra colors and increasing the number of print cartridges used by the printer. The earliest printers, like common office printers, offered only four basic inks; black, cyan, magenta and yellow. My current Epson printer, has nine cartridges including two grays and two solid blacks—only one of which is used at a time (either matte black or glossy photo black). Some printers incorporate an orange ink, others a green.

I have a personal preference for Epson printers. But I recognize that Canon and HP make excellent products and each has its merits. One has to consider their individual needs, the environment in which they are working and their own sensibilities about image quality. When I last considered a new printer, I asked a number of my fellow photographers about the products they used, did on-line research on several printers, examined samples from all three of the manufacturers mentioned above, and visited showrooms. I weighed all the factors, including cost, and when I thought I was ready to place my order, I called my representative at my favorite resource and discussed the decision with him.

Now, based on all past experience, I know that next time I buy a printer, I'll simplify the process and place one call to my favorite resource–LexJet Corporation. That's not being lazy and I'm not being paid to say this. It's been at least seven years since I placed my first order with LexJet, Since then, I've discovered that they employ knowledgeable staff, experienced in serving the professional community. They sell virtually everything I am likely to need, represent all the major manufacturers of printers, papers, inks and peripherals, offer very prompt and reliable service and, most importantly, they have never led me down the wrong path. What's more, while LexJet media may not be as recognizable to consumers as those offered by Epson, Hahnemuhle, Harman and Moab, I've found that their fine art papers and canvas are first rate. I've used them both in rolls and pre-cut sheets with extraordinary results.

*Based on stringent testing, some papers and inks have been shown to offer fade resistance well in excess of 100 years. Were that not the case, I'd still be working in a chemical darkroom. Some of the prints I made on early ink jet photo printers faded in less than five years, even when stored in a dark environment. An early Iris print placed in a north facing window and periodically compared with a control sample stored in the dark exhibited significant fading within twelve months.

Tomorrow, I'll talk about terms used to describe digital prints on gallery labels--a personal pet peeve.


May 3, 2011: On keeping a journal...

In the summer of 1952, my family traveled for a month by car from our home in Tennessee, through Arkansas Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, California, and Nevada, a circuitous route that provided my first exposure to the American west. I was fifteen and fascinated with our family's 8mm movie camera and my new 2 1/4" x 3 1/4" Century Graphic camera that I had bought ($50 used) with my first photographic earnings. My mother encouraged me to keep a written journal of that experience and I will be forever grateful, for her encouragement to write an entry for every day of the trip, for without that, I probably would have forgotten a large portion of the detail I still recall.

Perhaps as a result of that experience, but more likely because of my obsessive compulsive nature, I still keep journals today–much more thorough records of my experiences than that of 1952, which showed more of a preoccupation with where and what I ate than what I saw and photographed.

My later journals describe primarily my emotional and sensory responses to the subjects I photographed–the landscapes, the people, the architecture, the events witnessed, the weather, the quality of the light, the smells and even the sounds. Except in extremely unusual circumstances, I don't keep records of typical photographic minutiae. In my opinion, lens apertures, shutter speeds and the focal length of the lens are not details worth recording, because the likelihood that someone else will be able to use those exact settings is not great unless they encounter identical conditions. Besides, knowledgeable photographers can probably look at my images and figure out how they were exposed without my help.

On the other hand, what I was experiencing at the time I made an exposure is a guide in the preparation of the print and it calls to mind what I wanted the photograph to communicate to the viewer. It also serves to remind me what I'm likely to be looking for, if and when I return to the same place and have an opportunity to give it another photographic interpretation.

I encourage students to keep a journal for all the reasons already mentioned. Moreover, it can have great value from very personal perspectives. Some portions of my journal are like diary entries, recording happy occasions with children and grandchildren, the death of a friend or family member, or significant political and social events. Each of us sees the world in our own unique way and, as a photographer, how I see things usually depends on how I feel, not just about my environment, but how I perceive myself at the time I'm working. I've often observed that if you put ten people in the same place and ask them to make a photograph of the same subject, you are likely to see ten different results.

Some people find writing difficult, but keeping a journal does not need to be hard work. Remember that you are doing this for yourself and not attempting to produce a great literary work. Start with a phrase like, "Today I traveled to ____ for the purpose of..." and just keep recording the details."I saw...I felt...I took a picture of..." You don't have to use complete sentences and you can check your spelling later. Just get it all down for the record. Later, if you feel like transcribing your notes, you can polish your phrases, but the beginning does not need to be so refined.

I enjoy going back over my old journals and reading my responses to places and events. Some things seem silly in retrospect, and sometimes I am surprised by a thought that now seems profound. I've recorded several rants over the years that my grandchildren may some day find amusing. I've kept everything as it was originally recorded. The words record more than details or facts about pictures and they keep me humble. They remind me of important values. They keep me focused on what is really important in my life. And I couldn't have written Pilgrim Eye without them. (Does that seem a rather shameless plug for my book?)

Oh...the picture of the Grand Tetons (above) is a composite panorama made in 2005 from six separate exposures. I had returned to a place I first photographed and described in the 1952 journal. Sadly, the 2-hour 8mm film that I made of that early experience was destroyed in a fire the following year. That's another reason why the journal is so important.


April 29, 2011: The resurrection of a fantasy landscape project

This experiment began in 1989, after I served the first of two sessions as artist-in-residence at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument (now Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park).

While studying my 4" x 5" negatives, I was struck by the appearance of two almost identical negatives as they lay side by side on the light table, one image mirroring the other. Though my sensibilities tend to favor straight, unmanipulated photographs, I was so taken by the bizarre appearance of the combination of these mirror images that I immediately went into the darkroom, made two prints and combined them physically so that I might better examine the possibilities.

I was excited by the effect and subsequently made two large combination images for display in a local exhibition, but the reaction of the audience was disappointing. It was the only time in my career I can recall experiencing total rejection. So, in 1989, I put my experiments away, though they were not out of mind.

In 2002, I resurrected the Canyon fantasy project. The production of these images is so labor intensive that one hesitates to become deeply involved in the process without the resources necessary to fully control the quality and consistency of the final product. By that time, my computer capabilities had improved significantly and I had both the tools and skills needed to modify and reproduce the images as I wished.

My enthusiasm for this project faded once again after 2002. I wasn't interested in emulating the work of artists like Jerry Uelsmann and John Paul Caponigro, though I much admire their images. I was and still am more interested in exploring new "straight" landscapes. And, of all the subjects I've photographed, the Black Canyon images produced the most exciting possibilities I've encountered, especially because the combinations occur "naturally." That is, they require no special alterations or manipulations to force them to come together.

Still, I thought these were worth sharing with my blog readers. Maybe they will offer some stimulation to you and perhaps someone will see an opportunity here that I haven't fully appreciated.

The original image on which the composite above is based was made at the narrows, at the bottom of Echo Canyon, the narrowest point in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The image below is based on the view from Gunnison Point on the Canyon's south rim.


April 24, 2011: Poster images—How do you know what will sell?

In 1986, encouraged by a Colorado gallery owner, I decided to self publish two posters using images from my Rocky Mountain National Park portfolios. It turned out to be a great learning experience. I selected my favorite 1984 image of Ouzel Falls, and one of Longs Peak, the highest of the park's mountains. I liked both of the images, but preferred the one of Ouzel Falls for aesthetic reasons, while the Longs Peak image was selected primarily because of the subject's iconic importance. Both posters were designed by a very skilled graphic designer and the printing was done by a firm well known for its ability to produce high quality work. The posters were priced identically and were competitive with other posters of their type. Both are shown below.



To my surprise, I discovered that all the dealers I approached accepted the Longs Peak poster, but only half of them were willing to sell the one of Ouzel Falls, though their comments about the image were favorable. Among those dealers who agreed to carry both posters, customer preference favored the Longs Peak poster by a wide margin. The reason soon became obvious; people tend to buy posters that show subjects they themselves have seen. Of course, there are many people whose artistic sensibilities lead them to buy posters because they like the image whether or not they are familiar with the subject, and there are others who buy posters because of the artist's name that appears on them. But, in the setting of a National Park, a poster of a subject that can be clearly identified by even a "drive-by" tourist is most likely to be the best seller. Longs Peak is seen by virtually every person who visits the east side of the Park. It also can be seen from distant points on the prairies to the east. Hikers willing to walk the 2.7 mile trail from the Wild Basin trailhead to Ouzel Falls, with its 950' elevation gain, are far fewer in number.

The lessons learned have served me well in the years since and the most important of these were 1) let someone else bear the expense and marketing responsibility that goes with publishing posters and postcards and 2) accept the royalties and use my time to travel and continue making photographs.

More recent posters have sold out, but I still have a number of my Rocky Mountain posters...just in case someone calls.


April 23, 2011: Making it look right in black and white

On April 1, I discussed contrast and making the most effective black and white image of a high contrast scene. On April 5, my subject was pre-visualization of the image. Today, I'm going to go a step further and give you a specific example that shows why so many photographers have trouble making effective black and white conversions from color images. This is a prelude to a workshop I will do in October entitled "Seeing in Black and White." I'll have more to say about that later.

The subject is an ancient bristlecone pine tree that I photographed at Bryce Canyon in 2004. The color version on the left is the original image, made in very warm light late in the afternoon. The color is richly saturated and in this version the color provides all the contrast needed.

The middle image is a straight conversion made in Adobe® Photoshop using the default setting (Image>Adjustments>Black & White). The quality of this conversion is what I call "Mud on mud." Without the aid of contrast filters, the camera sees all colors as shades of gray, and in this instance, the "values" of the blue sky and the orange tree trunk are very similar. In order to produce contrast in the digital image, the contrast filters available in Photoshop need to be employed judiciously, just as we would have used various over-the-lens contrast filters when we recorded our images on film. Photoshop allows us to select from a variety of programmed-in filters, and while I consider those a good starting point, I often modify the settings, as I did in the example on the right, to produce the desired effect.

As a simple record of the tree, the default conversion serves the purpose. It shows the texture of the tree, all necessary detail and it is correctly focused. However, this image lacks qualities necessary to arrest a viewer's attention. It's dull, lacks depth and, of course, lacks contrast. On the other hand, the image on the right draws the viewer's attention to the tree trunk because that subject is brighter and the texture in the wood is more apparent and better defined. (The effect is similar to what I would have obtained with a medium orange filter when recording the image on panchromatic film.)

Not all people have the ability to see in black and white, and not all who are color blind perceive images in the same way. But understanding color theory and the application of contrast filters can condition a photographer to be more sensitive to the black and white image—and become more attuned to colors at the same time.

We'll talk about this subject more in future postings.


April 18, 2011: Did you hear this? (From Meet the Press (NBC), Sunday April 17, 2011)

This is a comment that was made by Dr. Alan Greenspan: " I watch what's going on, we have to remember that over the next 10 years or so we're going to find that the baby boom generation, highly skilled, highly educated, is going to fade from the scene. It's going to be replaced by a generation who are now in school and creating grades which don't make us look very good in the international spectrum. This means that we are probably dealing with an economy which isn't growing fast enough or creating much real resources to fund the entitlement programs that we have already made."

I don't take Dr. Greenspan's comments lightly. This speculation about the next generation of Americans, from someone who has been a thoughtful observer of what is going on in our society (regardless of whether you agree with all of his decisions as Chairman of the Federal Reserve) troubles me and should trouble all of us. It points to a need to place more emphasis on the quality of education in this country, and I'm not simply talking about funding our schools adequately and giving raises to teachers. We need to be sure that the skills and dedication of the men and women who prepare tomorrow's workers, parents and leaders are up to the task and that they are given the tools and administrative support to do a difficult job that is becoming more challenging with each passing year.

At the State and local levels, our economic hardships have resulted in cutbacks, school closings, consolidations and staff reductions that will have long-term impacts. The threats to our education system— from pre-school through college—must be overcome if we are to make a real recovery and become stronger. As we're tightening our belts— and as much as we don't want to talk about new taxes—we must recognize that education plays an indispensible role in assuring the future of our nation.


April 14, 2011: I promised myself that I would not discuss politics on this blog...

...and I'm trying hard to keep that promise. However, I have strong beliefs about the state of contemporary American society and the issues of the day. I don't care what political party you belong to, where you come from, what religion you practice or don't practice, or if your views on various social issues differ from mine. I respect every individual's right to believe what he or she chooses and to speak their minds. But, I also believe that every right implies a responsibility—like the responsibility to be informed and the obligation to try one's best to do no harm. Acceptance of these responsibilities requires a certain selflessness, and while that isn't easy to achieve, it is vital to try, especially when the obstacles we face could topple the order by which we maintain the principles embodied in the preamble of U. S. Constitution. (If you don't know what they are, get a copy and read it.)

It deeply troubles me that in times like these, the leadership of our nation, the media that reports on the events of the day and a large percentage of the American people seem to think that it is more important to keep score of partisan victories in the battles over the budget, medical care, and a host of other domestic issues as opposed to focusing as one people on our common interests. To score points and achieve these victories, the tools employed are the promulgation of half truths, biased opinion research, and stirring up the least informed, most malleable individuals whose emotions and prejudices are easily exploited.

I don't find anywhere in our founding documents a statement to the effect that the duty of our elected representatives and officials shall be to fight among themselves and achieve victories over those who disagree with their personal views. Honest debate and compromise are essential elements of our governmental process, but when winning battles with ones colleagues is more important than solving problems, everyone stands to lose in the long run. Today's politicians seem most interested in standing for sound bites before microphones like victorious gladiators in suits.

We don't have time for the kind of partisanship that has taken over politics in this country. We are struggling to conclude wars, reduce our national debt, achieve economic stability (which includes full employment, maintaining the value of our currency, and restoring belief in the "American Dream"), assure affordable access to medical care, save lives, feed the world's growing population, become energy independent, save our environment, and restore U.S. credibility among nations of the world. Despite these daunting tasks, some people seem to think we can afford to indulge in gamesmanship. Well, I don't buy into that. The facts alone are hard enough to sort out and reaching consensus in a critical, cooperative and thoughtful manner should be the paramount objective.

Like many people, I would like to see a significant reduction in national spending and I would like to see government tighten its belt and become mean and lean. Like most of you, I can't fathom a multi-trillion dollar deficit and I don't like the idea that foreign nations own our debt and might control our destiny. I also believe that you just can't cut a head off the Hydra and expect it to slink into the underworld and die quietly. We didn't arrive at this juncture suddenly and we can't cure our ills in one fell swoop; nor is there a single genius who has all the answers.

It is time for some uncommon sense, cooperation and national resolve. Yes, I'm an altruist—a dreamer—but there comes a time in the life of a people when we must realize that survival of our society demands something more than we are currently doing to ourselves. The least of us deserves much better than they are getting, all of us deserve a fair chance at the dream my parents had, and we need to start acting like the best of all nations we pretend to be.

From my perspective, in today's political arena, a victory for any side is a pyrrhic victory.


April 8, 2011: It snowed yesterday above Santa Fe.

It was one of those days when I could work in sunshine here in town while heavy wet snow fell on the pine trees at higher elevations. And this is one of those images you can imagine turning into a jigsaw puzzle.


April 6, 2011: A Celebration Worth Remembering (or, what I did this past weekend.)

I attended my first Mexican-American birthday celebration last weekend. It was a new and wonderful experience and I came away with an appreciation for a culture that, while not fundamentally different from the one in which I was raised, can teach me a lot about relationships and nurture a greater appreciation of cultural diversity.

I had been invited by a friend whose wife is a sister of the birthday celebrant. Except for them and one other person, I had never met any of the other guests, and I knew that would be the environment when I accepted the invitation. I also knew that it would be a large celebration and I felt some trepidation at the thought of feeling as if I didn't "belong."

The setting was festive. Family and friends had spent days preparing massive amounts of food for the large throng of invited guests. They had dug a pit and roasted a whole pig. There was lamb, too, and tamales, ceviche, tortillas, enchiladas, salads, beans, salsas, guacamole, fresh fruit and beautiful desserts...all tempting and delicious.

The extended family of the celebrant (who I also had not met before) was large and close. There were all ages, from infant to octogenarian. Their friends were many and diverse. Conversations were interesting and inclusive. From the moment I arrived until I left three-and-half hours later, I was warmly welcomed and made to feel comfortable by everyone I met, though I will never be able to recall all the names of the people to whom I was introduced.

You don't reach my age without attending a lot of birthday parties. This one was unique in my experience. People embraced and seemed genuinely glad to be in each other's company. Handshakes were strong as if intended to draw me in to the circle of friends. It was not the kind of party where people tend to consume excessive amounts of alcohol and engage in inane conversations, or sit on the sideline and make judgmental remarks about other family members and guests.

Obviously, this birthday celebration impressed me immeasurably, and nothing was more memorable than hearing, for the first time, the beautiful song "Las Mañanitas" the Mexican birthday song. Previously, I thought everyone around the world sang the familiar "Happy Birthday" song, because I've heard it sung in several languages. I only speak a bit of Spanish, but someone explained a few lines of Las Mañanitas, and after I returned home, I searched the web for a copy of the lyrics in both Spanish and English. It is a truly beautiful "Serenade," expressing the beauty of the day and respect for the individual's life. A mariachi band played and there was no hesitation among the participants to join in singing with gusto.

When I was a child, my parents and their parents perpetrated the myth that our country was a great melting pot where everyone, regardless of their origins, strove to become Americanized, without accents or other distinguishing characteristics. I am thankful that they never achieved that goal and I don't look at that reality as failure in any form. They became good Americans who simply didn't always recognize how much of the "Old country" ways they retained. The thinking people became aware that there was value in being who we are, influenced by our pasts, mindful and respectful of the good qualities that each society has developed in the course of its existence and appreciative of the diversity that adds color to a stronger America that can, in its best moments, demonstrate a capability to see beyond cultural, racial and ethnic lines to embrace all of humanity.

By accident of birth, I am Jewish. My friends and neighbors are--and for almost as long as I can remember--have been members of all faiths, from diverse origins, rich and poor, straight and gay, of all colors, occupations and persuasions. Because of these people, my life has been a continuous and rewarding learning experience.

My weekend reminded me once more how much stronger we are when we embrace each other, overlook our differences and appreciate the strengths each of us brings to the whole of our society.

April 5, 2011: The value of pre-visualization 

On April 1, I concluded my comments with the statement, "Digital technology has changed the way we approach a lot of our photography, but it shouldn't allow us to turn off our brains and rely solely on software adjustments." I was talking about the importance of pre-visualization—a term used by Ansel Adams many years ago when he made us recognize that it was possible to anticipate the qualities of our prints, not at the moment we examined the developed negative, but as we were contemplating the scene before our cameras, even before we exposed the film.

I was an impulsive teenager, just beginning to think seriously about my photography when I was exposed to that concept and while I remembered the words, it took me a while to grasp the importance of it. It was years later before I truly began to regularly adopt the practice. There came a time when I consciously said to myself, "Hold on! What is it in this scene that you're trying to communicate and what do you need to do to assure that the final print will convey the desired impact."


Alexandre Hogue, the wonderful artist who gained international acclaim for his Dust Bowl paintings like "Mother Earth Laid Bare, and was chair of the Tulsa University School of Art when I came to know him in the early 1970s, once chided me, saying, "Photographers ought to be able to create pictures; they just click click click at everything they see and they go into the darkroom later and figure it out." We later laughed about that when at the opening of one of my shows, he told me he liked an image we were discussing, and I looked at him, held up my index finger and said, "One click." Happily, I had learned many years before that encounter that I could plan my images before I released the shutter.

Mindful of earlier days when I excitedly shot frame after frame without realizing how often I was duplicating the same mediocre composition, I became a student of the landscape and the light and would often study a scene until my hiking companions became impatient. Once, while accompanied on an assignment by a corporate client and his graphic designer, I overheard the client remark, "This guy is pretty good, once he picks up his camera." I offered no apology for taking the time to understand my subject before making pictures of it.

Of course, there are times when one doesn't have time to study the subject at length. When a subject is in motion or a unique opportunity presents itself, the experienced shooter becomes conditioned to react and recognize the "Decisive moment," as exemplified in the classic work of Henri Cartier-Bresson. And, believe it, sometimes this applies to landscapes, especially during storms and in the early and late hours of the day.

Pre-visualization continues to make sense in this digital era, despite high dynamic range software and numerous computer enhancements that increase and decrease the apparent depth of field, add motion blur, replicate numerous filter effects or remove people, overhead wires and fence posts. For me, it is still more satisfying to make a correct exposure, select the best perspective, properly adjust focus and choose the shutter speed that best expresses the power of water or wind. I may not have to place a contrast filter over my lens and set the mode on "black and white'" but I can be conscious of what I can convert from color to a very effective monochrome image so that I don't have to challenge the capabilities of Photoshop to create an effect I thought of only after I walked away from the subject.

The "Well considered" photograph is not a thing of the past, and there is value in knowing how to deliberately achieve desired effects and not rely on chance.

This fall, I will teach a workshop entitled "Seeing in Black and White" The participants will learn how to interpret the light and colors they see, understand how to convert these to desired monochromatic shades, and produce prints with a rich long tonal range or high-key qualities. In the process, by practicing pre-visualization, they also will enhance their abilities to produce the most effective color images.

I'm looking forward to this experience.


April 4, 2011: How do you select the monitor for your image work?

A few years back, I was visiting a commercial printing plant that did some very impressive work. As I was walking through the pre-press production department, I stopped to visit with a technician I knew who was assembling images on his computer. "What do you use to calibrate your monitor," I asked.

"Oh, we don't do that regularly," he answered to my obvious surprise.

"So," I responded, "If the color isn't right, you wait for the client to catch it on the proof, or you make adjustment on the press. In any event, the responsibility belongs to your client." I also saw that he wasn't using one of the recommended high-performance monitors so often recommended as essential for optimizing the quality of my work.

I have had many similar experiences over the years and they have led me to the conclusion that monitor selection tends to be governed by a relationship between one's willingness or ability to spend the bucks and one's perception of what is good or acceptable color. Perfectionists will insist that the high-end brands like Eizo, LaCie, and NEC are best, and I won't argue with that. However, my own criteria when selecting a monitor include perceptual color accuracy, calibration controls (i.e.: contrast, gamma, color temperature, and user color adjustments) consistency of color and contrast through a wide viewing angle, ergonomics and price. The bottom line however is that the image that comes off my printer must be a close match to what appears on my screen, taking into consideration the fact that my monitor emits its own light and the print is evaluated by reflected light.

Having prepared all my own images for several books produced by different suppliers, and a large number of exhibition prints, I understand the frustrations that others experience. My early efforts taught me the value of having printers (when using an offset press) pull press proofs and calibrating my monitors with a Pantone ColorVision Spyder to match the on-press results. Press proofing hasn't always been essential, but if the investment is large, as when publishing a book, it's worth paying for the "Insurance."

My workflow isn't typical because I work in two locations using two PC computers that are identical. The monitors are identical and I carry the same calibration device back and forth, using it regularly on both of them. The result is a satisfying consistency in the appearance of my files and assurance that when I print my own images, what I see is what I get. And, since most of the images I create are reproduced on my own printers, I'm my own harshest critic.

So, what monitors do I use? The answer is VP series ViewSonics and has been for several years. The two primary monitors are model VP2365wb; with excellent features and great value. I also have a separate computer set up to drive my 24" printer. Since that computer is not used for processing the images, I don't consider the monitor as critical for that one, so I use and older VP series ViewSonic for that purpose. Before I started using these LCD models, I used ViewSonic CRT monitors, so I have a lot of history with that company (and no, they neither pay me to say this, nor do they give me the products.)

One more point...I do not play games on my primary computers. I've read a lot of reviews that are critical of these monitors for playing games and looking at videos. I can't confirm or rebut those criticisms but I do know how my ViewSonics fit into my workflow.


April 3, 2011: Remembering my mistakes


This image always reminds me of a mistake I made the day before I made it. In the summer of 1992, I was working as artist-in- residence in Glacier National Park and decided to take a day hike to Siyeh Pass on my own. It was a fairly strenuous hike, made more so by the fact that I was carrying a 4"x5" view camera and a heavy tripod. I had not hiked all the way to the pass before, because the wildflowers in Prospect Park (just below the point where the above image was made) always captured my attention and caused me to stay there until my time and film supply was exhausted. But this day, I was determined to hike above tree line and go all the way to the pass where a large cairn marked its summit. On my descent, I found the afternoon light at this point to my liking and set up my camera to photograph the scene in both black and white and color.

The sky was fairly clear and I used a red filter to create a more dramatic contrast in the black and white image between the mountains and sky. I then exposed two sheets of color transparency film and thoughtlessly neglected to remove the red filter from my lens before making those exposures. Unfortunately, with the hour being late and my being a bit tired, I didn't realize my mistake until I reached the trailhead and was stowing my equipment in my car.

I was very angry with myself and by the time I returned to my quarters I had decided that, weather permitting, I would return to this location the following day, and even though it would require me to make a seven-mile round-trip hike, I would properly photograph the scene in color. My friend Dave Thomas, a seasonal park ranger, hiked with me part of the way, but we parted company at Prospect Park and he climbed a nearby peak while I made my picture. (That says something for my tendency to work slowly.)

I've rationalized that the scene looked better on the second attempt, and I've never made that mistake again. And, since that time, I always remind my students that strenuous hiking, especially at higher altitudes, can affect one's judgment, so always take enough time to catch your breath and collect your thoughts before attempting any serious camera work. That advice still applies in the digital age where one common error is forgetting to lower your ISO setting after you selected a much higher number either to shoot a fast moving subject or a subject in low light.


April 1, 2011: Surprising Contrasts (the beginning of a series of articles)

I had been photographing the American landscape for many years when, in 1988, I first served as artist-in-residence at Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah. I had been asked to go there and interpret the Canyon* in black and white, something few people did, inasmuch as Bryce provides one of the most colorful landscapes one can imagine. Several people on the park staff thought it was a crazy idea, but I approached the assignment with great enthusiasm and spent the entire month hiking the trails, sometimes with my 4" x 5" view camera and sometimes with my Hasselblad medium format camera. And, as I worked, I observed a light phenomenon that I'd not consciously experienced before.

I often found that when I properly exposed the land forms on black and white film the blue sky appeared very dark—sometimes black—even without the use of the yellow, orange and red contrast filters that I was accustomed to using when photographing the mountains of Colorado, the prairies of Oklahoma or the seascapes on both coasts. The reason for this became obvious when I took spot readings with my exposure meter off the highly reflective sandstone formations and then made similar readings off the often brilliant blue open sky. To put it simply, the land was brighter than the sky, and not just a little bit brighter. The contrast was even greater than it had been in many winter scenes I photographed where the land was blanketed with snow. I became accustomed that year at Bryce—and in subsequent visits—to making pictures without the use of contrast filters at all.

Some of you are probably thinking, "So what's the big deal? We're shooting digitally today and most of us don't use contrast filters anyway because we're shooting in color. And if we want to make a black and white print, we just make a Photoshop conversion with a few keystrokes."

Well, if you want to make the most effective black and white images, it is a bigger deal than that, and in a future article on this blog I'll go into what it takes to pre-visualize the print...or to learn to see in black and white. And you'll find that this kind of contrast exists in many places, not just at Bryce Canyon and not just in Utah.

Digital technology has changed the way we approach a lot of our photography, but it shouldn't allow us to turn off our brains and rely solely on software adjustments. And, it's my belief that when you understand how light works and know how best to interpret its effects on your subjects, you will enjoy making pictures all the more.


This picture of Grosvenor Arch in Utah also demonstrates the contrast discussed above.

* Bryce Canyon, technically speaking, is not a canyon, but the eroded edge of an escarpment.


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