Southwest Roadtrip: Spring '17

In late March I spent a week photographing and traveling though southern Utah and northern Arizona. After a miserably wet and cold Portland winter the opportunity to experience sunshine, wide open spaces, and relative warmth was beyond welcome. Along for the trip were my good friends Brian Kibbons, Paul Bowman, as well as Paul's son. Dustin Gent met us for a few days as well. There is no way to communicate just how much we laughed or the how many pranks we pulled on each other. Just picture five dudes in the desert acting on little sleep and emboldened by a few evening beers and you get the picture.  Good times with good friends in stunning locations -- that's what makes a great road trip. Anyway, on to the photography!

"Exile in Guyville" -- A line of strong rain and wind moves though a section of otherworldly badlands. 

Nikon D800e, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 @ 14mm

Utah Badlands

We left Portland at 9pm and drove nineteen hours through the night until we reached our first destination -- the badlands of the southern San Rafael Swell. The Swell's popularity within the landscape photography world has increased in recent years -- for good reason. Even a brief exposure to the region's graphically striking eroded buttes, mesas, and channels is enough to instantly understand the area's vast potential. What's more, the location doesn't necessarily rely on classic landscape weather. Clear skies work just as well as clouds with gaps. A full range of lenses will serve you well. Intimates and smaller scenes are everywhere. If you feel the need to shoot grand landscapes, the area will gladly scratch that itch as well. 

The first two images in this post were taken from an overlook which I will always equate with Guy Tal. His body of work from the area is thoughtful, comprehensive, and stunning. If you haven't already, spend time familiarizing yourself with his images. 

"Cross Channel" 

Nikon D800e, Nikon 24-85mm @85mm

"Silent Sea" -- erosion at work along the North Caineville mesa.

 Nikon D800e, Nikon 70-200mm f/4 @ 112mm

After a LONG day trip to shoot a remote slot canyon along the Dirty Devil river we headed toward that little slice of geo-heaven which is the borderland between Utah and Arizona. We based ourselves at the Little Wave just outside Page, Arizona and spent the next couple days shooting slots. On the way down we passed the Paria badlands just as a storm cleared creating a superbly dynamic scene. 

"Paria Flareup" -- dramatic storm clouds soar over the colorful Chinle formations of Paria .

Nikon D800e,  Nikon 24-85mm @ 28mm, five image panoramic stitch

The most impressive slot canyon we visited was Canyon X.  I'd heard about Canyon X on a previous visit to the area and, even though it wasn't at the top of our tick list for the trip, I found myself pretty excited for the experience. Canyon X holds many similarities with Upper and Lower Antelope except for the crowds. Although there were a few other people in the canyon that day there was never a feeling of needing to rush or having to wait for a long time while others finished up. 

"Navajo Spirit" -- swirling sandstone patterns carved by centuries of flash floods frame a daylight opening in Canyon X

Nikon D800e, Nikon 14-24 @ 16mm.  Multiple exposures for depth of field and to reduce glare

The Pocket

The final destination of the trip was White Pocket, a place which has loomed large in my mind over the years.  As it was my first visit I didn't really know what to expect. I was pretty pumped to be finally visiting the area, but can admit to feeling another less familiar feeling -- pressure. Normally, I try to stay as relaxed about finding a compelling composition or the need to bring home a solid image. Any pressure I place on myself work against that outcome so it gets forced from my mind. Having said that, the potential for a strong image at White Pocket is high but my ability to make multiple visits to capture it is pretty much zero.  We budgeted just shy of two days. In the end I found the place so inspiring that any added pressure dissipated rather quickly. After shooting sunrise the first morning I spent quite a while exploring and walked back to camp with enough image ideas to fill a week or more. Mother nature had other plans....

"Desert Striations" -- the otherworldly geology and colors of White Pocket 

Nikon D800e, Nikon 14-24 @ 14mm.  Four image blend for depth of field and to control dynamic range.  Moon = Nikon 70-200 f/4 @ 98mm.  Yes, the moon was very nearly in that exact spot.

 

 

 

The turn off for White Pocket lies 20 miles or so down House Rock Valley Road.  On our drive we found the road to be scoured with deep ruts formed when a previous vehicle plowed through rain soaked dirt road to avoid becoming stuck.  We joked how whoever carved them was probably white-knuckling it, not sure if they were going to make it out or not.  For our trip, the forecast called for extremely high winds for a twelve hour period accompanied by the chance for a couple hundredths of an inch of rain -- nothing too alarming.  In the end this forecast turned out to be optimistic.

By mid-afternoon of the second day the winds, as forecasted, began to crank. Grit and sand blasted into our eyes as we roamed the Pocket. Even though the sky was now filled with clouds we wore glasses to shield ourselves from these airborne projectiles. In the distance the distinct tails of localized downpours reached toward the ground. I'm sure we each privately wondered how far to push our luck. We needed to leave early the following morning to make it back to Portland in time for obligations. Getting stranded by weather this far out wasn't an option. I kept at it, selecting a composition which offered moderate protection from the wind as the storm continued to wind up. I squatted over my camera consumed by the process of making micro-adjustments to my camera's position, a little higher, zoom in a bit, pull the tripod back a tad, etc.  A phenomenal wind gust came through followed in short order by a sudden, bone-rattling BOOM of thunder. OUT! The plug was about to be pulled. We all packed it in and headed back to Paul's rig.  A brief discussion ensued then we tore down tents and were on the road within fifteen minutes.

The rain began soon after we left and continued for the next several hours. The sandy road leading to House Rock Valley Rd would be no problem but House Rock Valley Road itself was a major concern. Getting bogged down and stuck was a real threat. I thought back to how we laughed at the poor fool plowing down the road in a torrential downpour only to find ourselves in exactly the same situation.  We turned on to House Rock Valley Road, opting to head south to AZ 89-A instead of back north the way we came. This would shave ten miles off our drive along House Rock Rd, but cause us to loop all the way back to Page, AZ. The rain poured yet Paul's FJ kept cranking over every rise it encountered. Finally we reached pavement and safe passage on to Page. Felt really good to be out. The rain pounded the rest of the way to Page.  We were pretty fortunate to get out. 

The next day we began the 1,150 mile drive from Page back to Portland. Twenty-two caffeine fueled hours later we were home.

 

 

White Pocket, wind, and an approaching storm

"Stones of Silence" -- brain rocks glow under a star filled sky

Nikon D800e, Nikon 14-24mm @ 18mm, f/ 11 for the land.  Second exposure at f/2.8 for 20 seconds for sky.  Exposures taken several hours apart but from same position 

Behind the Image: Khumbu Fog

Kkhumbu Fog

Kkhumbu Fog

When the editor of ISO500px first approached me to write a few articles for the blog the first request was for a behind-the-scenes account of my image Khumbu Night Fog.  D.L. thought the story of how this shot of the Nepal Himalaya was created would be an interesting read.  Sounded great, BUT the image is actually derived from a slide scan.  How could this in any way be relevant in today’s digital age. I was assured it would be both relevant and interesting. With so much that has changed in the photography world with the advent of digital technologies I thought I’d break this post in two sections: the first covers the behind-the-scenes of creating the image; the second delves into similarities and/ or differences between how I approached shooting film vs. digital.

The Shot:

Nepal’s Khumbu region is known world wide as the home of Mount Everest, also known as Chomolungma to the Sherpa people who populate the Khumbu’s high altitude valleys and pastures. Each spring and fall thousands of trekkers spend two or more weeks trekking slowly toward the upper reaches of the Khumbu valley, acclimatizing slowly to increasingly higher altitudes. Most set their sights on Everest’s base camp or the famous viewpoint of Kala Pattar.  In 2003 my wife and I joined this seasonal pilgrimage.  At that time I shot, like a majority of photographers, solely film and slides. I did bring along my first digital point and shoot, a 3.2 megapixel Canon A6000, but the low resolution made it more appropriate for on-the-go, everyday documentation of the trek rather than creating images to last a lifetime. For those images, including Khumbu Fog, I used a Nikon N80 loaded with Fuji slide film. As this was my second trip through the Khumbu I had mental tick list of images I wanted to capture. Near the top of the list was capturing golden, pre-sunset sunrays striking Everest and its neighbors, Nuptse and Lhotse.

Kala Pattar is a “small” 18,541 ft hill rising 1500 feet above Gorak Shep, the last outpost of teahouses positioned at the far end of the Khumbu valley.  Go any farther and you’ll be in Tibet.  From its rocky, prayer flag strewn summit, Kala Pattar offers commanding views of one of the planet’s classic mountain vistas -- the Everest group rising above the great sweep of the Khumbu glacier.  My wife and I decided to make the trip up for sunset when I knew the direct rays of the setting sun would illuminate the summit regions of several of the Himalaya’s most famous peaks: Everest, Nuptse, and Ama Dablam.  The plan went off without a hitch and I came away with the shots I’d been after.  Before packing the gear up I took one last long look down the Khumbu valley and noticed the daily encroachment of fog drifting up valley.  The soft post sunset colors sweeping over the scene were too much to pass over.  I unpacked my gear and fired off a few more frames.  While shooting film I always metered scenes much more thoroughly than I do currently. This usually entailed following one of Galen Rowell’s old maxims of “expose for your most important highlight”.  For the scene before me this meant using center-weighted and spot metering to determine the relative brightness values of the mountains/ fog and sky. I didn't mind if the rocky moraine in the lower portion of the frame was silhouetted as long as all of my highlights were in check.  As I was working with post sunset light the contrast of exposure values was well within the exposure latitude of slides, so no additional filters were required.  I released the shutter, packed my gear up, then started the long descent back to Gorak Shep through an amazing, cold Himalayan twilight.  

Post-Processing

Yes, post processing.  Post processing of film and slide scans was gaining traction among photographers even before the onslaught of affordable digital camera bodies flooded the market. Galen Rowell, before his untimely death in a plane crash in 2002, had written several articles related to the potential benefits and pitfalls of the looming digital revolution. In his words “Digital is the major difference between the clean reproductions in magazines of the nineties and the murky ones of the not-so-distant past.”  (Digital Decisions, Galen Rowell, Outdoor Photographer, April 1998).  Galen even experimented with blending more than one exposure to bring back detail in an overexposed moon, although he ruminated over public perception and whether ethical lines would be breached.  Although he appreciated how Photoshop could help produce a final result more closely in tune with what the eye can see, he felt the general public, ironically, would find it too unbelievable and, perhaps, no longer consider it a photograph.  Pro photographers were already digitally enhancing images in a multitude of ways and, if it had taken another five years for consumer priced DSLRs to become readily available, there is little doubt digitizing and then processing film and slides would have become a normal part of many photographer's workflow. Cleaning up dust spots, adjusting white balance, contrast, sharpening, dodging/ burning, etc. are all helpful tools to employ when working with a slide scan.  The ability of Photoshop to enhance scanned slides merely took many darkroom tools an allowed them to be applied to color images, although today modern Photoshop techniques have advanced well beyond that point. The result of all of this is the continued debate over where the line exists between a photograph and digital art.  This debate is nauseating in its omnipresence, but nonetheless remains an important discussion for the photography world to openly hash out.  

So, after having the slide scanned at a local photo lab I imported it into Photoshop where I ran it through a series of very common adjustments. First job was to clean up any dust, scratches, or other unwanted artifacts using the healing and clone tools -- tedious.  The color of the scan was cooler than the slide so next I adjusted the color balance to bring back more of the warm tones, especially in the sky. I then used localized selections and luminosity masks to accentuate color, increase exposure on the mountain faces, and bring exposure differentials even closer. Finally, I de-speckeled the sky portion of the image, sharpened the edges, and called it finished.  That’s it. 

 

 

 

 

Lessons from the analog age

Every once in a while I get asked if there are any habits or relics of knowledge I still employ which I learned while shooting film. The simple answer is no. I no longer spend time center or spot metering a scene to determine proper exposure. Checking histogram provides immediate feedback so I can adjust settings quickly, eliminating the need to bracket and much of the exposure guesswork. I no longer spend long minutes trying to decide if pushing the shutter release would be a good use of money. Because money is no longer an issue I don’t play as safe as I once did. Digital allows me to push creativity to another level. If a particular composition doesn’t work, no huge loss.  Digital allows me to push harder, freeing me to shoot compositions which have a long shot at working, but if they do, might just be magical.  I can react to the environment around me without the slow down of technical and financial choices. This in turn places me more deeply in the creative process.  

The advancements in digital technology and techniques have essentially buried much of my approach and thinking from film-days.  The lone holdover is the continued appreciation of a more deliberate, contemplative approach rather than arriving on a location then spraying and praying.  Shooting without first sensing and seeing what it is I want to shoot almost never produces results which satisfy. I still find myself going through a subconscious vetting process when determining whether to pull the camera out or not.  This often means initially walking around the location without a camera in hand, absorbing any bits of visual information which might be useful to incorporate when putting an image together.  If I do have my camera out I usually notice myself focusing more on what the camera is showing rather than sensing what the scene can be about. There’s a lot to this process and this post isn’t the best forum to go deeper, so I'll leave it at that.

I know I'm not the only landscape photographer to witness the change from analog to digital.  If you have as well, feel free to share your thoughts on the subject.

 

                                                                                                     Khumbu Fog (slide scan)

 

                                                                                                       Khumbu Fog (final version)

The Power of Mentor Images

Over the past few months I've been attending an author's lecture series as part of my professional development as a licensed educator.  The course has been fascinating in that much of the advice the authors give for developing their craft overlaps with my own musings and experiences on developing as a photographer.  This overlap is often a source of inspiration.  This month's featured author shared some great words of advice for aspiring writers (and teachers of aspiring writers).  His advice: read as many good books as you can get your hands on.  Sounds obvious, right?  But, what the author made clear was merely reading a bookshelf full of good books is only a first step.  The true value in reading these benchmarks of literature lies in learning to see from the author's perspective, analyzing the technical and creative choices they made during the creative process.  A well-written book is meticulous and deliberate.  There is reason behind every sentence, every period, and behind how every chapter begins and ends.  As photographers we don't have the luxury to exert such extreme control over our art, we are forever constrained by working with a concrete world, yet the advice to dive deep into the creative decision making process of admired photographers is absolutely golden.  Studying mentor images can be a valuable exercise regardless of experience level.

Before you hop online and wade into the photographic weeds, there are some ways to approach this process which may lead to better outcomes. First, It's important to choose photographers, not photographs.  Stay away from 500px or Flickr, or Facebook, or Google+, or any other photo sharing website which overwhelms with an eclectic bombardment of images and personality.  Instead make a short list of old masters, well respected modern photographers, and lesser known photographers whose work repeatedly speaks to you.  Visit their websites and get comfortable.

Mount Jefferson Wilderness, Oregon

Mount Jefferson Wilderness, Oregon

View a series of their images, not just a single photograph.  Spend time contemplating an entire gallery's worth of images as you try to uncover the mindset of the photographer.  Linger over each image for a minute or two as you ask questions and formulate answers. Consider the season the image was made. What was the weather?  What conditions or mood was the photographer after?  How did the photographer use the frame?  Why were compositional elements arranged the way they are?  Why were they included in the first place?  Why was this particular camera level chosen?  How would lowering it or raising have changed the image?  How about left or right?  How were lines, shapes, size relations, and tonal values used in composing the scene? How does this arrangement move the eye around the frame?   What is the quality of light and how does it benefit the shot?   What if the image was taken a little later or earlier, what effect would that have?  How was focal length selected?  Why did the photographer choose a longer focal length?  To isolate?  To compress?  To create an intimate or abstract image?  How was a wide angle lens used to create a more dynamic, near/ far composition?  Are there any similarities or differences in approach between images?  If the photographer shared camera settings you can go deeper into the technical side of things, considering how a particular combination of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO was used to the photographer's advantage.  How did the combination effect the feeling of motion, or lack of motion?  Were sacrifices made, and if so, why?   Another exercise is to picture  yourself out in the field preparing to capture this scene.  Visualize physically getting your tripod out, mounting your camera, carefully choosing the perspective, and then making the exposure.  Finally, visit  your own images and ask a similar line of questions.  This may make you want to drag a few images into the trash bin, but it'll pay dividends down the road!

Give it a try.  You'll most likely discover that photographs, much like well written books, have a creative history to share.  Information unearthed by studying them can lead to a deeper understanding of why and how successful images work.  There's one additional benefit to spending time with mentor image-- it plays a role in developing shooter's intuition, a powerful force to harness while shooting in the field.  That's definitely a topic for another day...