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Tag Archives: 2016
I’ve lived on the Front Range of Colorado for a number of years now. When you mention Colorado to someone who doesn’t live here, my observation is that most people tend to think of pristine, snowy, mountain-filled landscapes.
I love that Colorado. But there is another Colorado, too. Roughly half the state is flat plains, having more in common with places like Kansas or Nebraska than Vail or Aspen. That’s a Colorado worth knowing as well, equally compelling in its own way.
I’ve been listening to a lot of EDM lately (that’s Electronic Dance Music – check out Deadmau5!). It fascinated me to realize how much that kind of music makes me think of photography. The way the music works there feels to me like the way light works in photographs. The steady beats feel like the visual rhythms in the composition of an image, like the earthy, shadowy areas in a landscape. The rises and falls of the crescendos and drops feel like the way light spills from one corner of the frame to another, like a dramatic backlit sky on a stormy day. The way the bass kicks after a quiet break feels like the abrupt transition of a dark tree rising above the bright line of a distant horizon.
Maybe it seems like an odd connection to make, but to me it’s perfectly logical. I think creativity is something that resides within you. You bring it to bear on all of the things you do in your life. Creativity doesn’t seep into you from the outside, it’s something from within that colors the way you perceive the world. It’s an internal logic all of its own, personal to you, that allows you to see connections where others don’t. That’s one thing about it that makes it so wonderful.
I gave away for free a small print of the image in this post to a good friend of mine who voiced a special connection to the subject matter. I do that kind of thing from time to time, and as the creator of these images, I’m happy to be in a position to do so.
However, it’s the exception, not the rule. I do price my work and if people want to acquire it, I generally expect them to pay for it.
It’s not that I’m after the money per se. I sincerely appreciate it when people take an interest in my work, and part of me would like to provide everyone who sincerely enjoys one of my pieces with a print to enjoy.
But I just can’t do that. Why? Put simply, it’s because I value my work. Whatever other functions it may serve, a price at least demands some level of acknowledgement of the value of the work. If I were to give my work away for free, or even for less than I think it’s worth, that would be tantamount to me saying my work has no value. And if I signal that I don’t think my work has value, how can I expect anyone else to think it does?
I remember vividly the evening that the capture for this image was made. The weather forecast called for thunderstorms in Rocky Mountain National Park. This often is a bit risky from a photography standpoint, because it seems there’s about an equal chance of seeing something really cool happening with the conditions, or getting simply a flat, drab sky or a persistent downpour that washes away all of the visual interest in the landscape.
On this night, I got the really cool conditions. In fact, the conditions were unreal, I’ve never quite seen anything like it in several years of visiting the park during evenings in the summer. A rolling fog filled Forest Valley, the valley just behind this spire, and curtains of mist moved in and moved out with alacrity over the spire itself. But the fog and the mist were uneven – a clear sky would sometimes develop, even as most of the landscape otherwise was covered by the fog or draped by the mist. In summer, this location usually is quite crowded with tourists, but on this evening, warned away by the weather, there were few people about, and perhaps none by the time I made this capture. Photographically, it was one of those evenings I probably never will forget.
But there’s something I remember even more – the profound sense of peace and well-being I felt while I was working that evening. This particular image was a long exposure, two minutes or perhaps more if memory serves. While I was waiting for the exposure to run, I simply was sitting with myself, watching the scene unfold, and being at peace with my inner life. There were no regrets about the past, nor anxiety about the future, just being, truly being, a part of the moment. The feeling was all the more remarkable for occurring at a time otherwise rife with personal turmoil.
Photography is like that for me, and there’s a lesson in there somewhere, I suppose. Wouldn’t it be nice to carry that feeling with you all the time?
My Canon 24-105 L lens is broken.
Well, maybe not broken exactly, but it’s developed a habit of creeping. If you point it straight up, for example, and set it to 105 mm, it will slowly creep down to 24 mm because the mechanism that holds the zoom at a fixed focal length apparently has become loose. I’ll be sending it in to Canon for warranty service, but in the meantime I’ve been needing to hold the barrel by hand if my exposure is more than a fraction of a second.
For the image in this post, the lens was pointed up fairly steeply at the cross on the roof of the old St. Vincent’s hospital (now a hotel) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but I checked it before I tripped the shutter and it seemed to be holding steadily in place. I was wrong, though. Over the course of the exposure (probably somewhere in the 10 to 30 second range, I forget exactly), it crept back a bit, effectively zooming out as the exposure was made.
Turns out I like the result. This troubles me a bit, because I’ve never thought of myself as someone who would seek to achieve optical effects by moving the camera around during the course of an exposure. It’s always seemed kind of gimmicky to me. Nevertheless, I think the image here has some emotional impact, at least for me. Though the effect in this case was produced by accident, certainly it seems possible to do the same thing intentionally. I may have to rethink my position on moving the camera around during long exposures.
Most of my photographs are pretty carefully chosen, set up, and executed. I believe that one of the things that marks a photographer as an artist rather than simply a snapshooter is the ability to see potentially good images in an otherwise cluttered and chaotic world, and to take deliberate, considered steps in a controlled and repeatable process to realize them, rather than simply snapping the shutter a lot and relying on large numbers of captures to get a few that turn out well.
Still, whenever you’re working in real time in the real world, there will be things you can’t control. Chance will play a part, sometimes serendipitously so.
I was working on a slightly different composition of the Cross of the Martyrs in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The cross was to be largely as you see it here, but the sky would have been a clean background, and the bottom of the frame would have had the hills that rise to the west of Santa Fe to ground the composition.
I spent a fair amount of time setting up the composition how I wanted it, metering the scene, choosing a graduated ND filter to bring down the brightness in the sky, adjusting the polarizer to whiten the cross and darken the sky’s blues (this was to increase the contrast in the final black and white version), setting the focus at the hyperfocal distance, etc.
Just when I was ready to trip the shutter, I noticed the airplane. The airplane’s path and the contrail behind it were such that they would make a perfect compositional placement in relation to the cross.
But it would mean recomposing the scene. There were literally only a few seconds available before the airplane would pass through the scene and be out of position, so there was time only to unlock the ball-head of the tripod, roughly position the camera to include the cross and the expected position of the airplane in the composition, and quickly trip the shutter. No checking if the camera was level, no checking if the metering needed to be revised, no checking if the new angle of the polarizer would create unevenness in the sky, etc. The last thing I noticed before tripping the shutter was the glare produced by the sun, now very close to the edge of the frame, and I figured it was long odds that I would get something useful.
Well, I think I got something useful. That glare turned out to be, to me, magical. It still took a fair amount of editing after the fact. I’ve included the jpg straight out of the camera below so you can see the capture and the final result. But, at least the basics were there in terms of exposure and focus. I was a bit sorry to lose the hills in the background, which I feel would have given the image more of a sense of place. But I was glad to make this trade-off, since I think the composition and impact of the final image is much stronger, if a bit more abstract.
Northern Colorado, where I live, is a great match for me photographically. If I want to photograph architecture or urban environments, there’s Denver and the cities along the Front Range. If I want to photograph rural and pastoral scenes, there’s lots of farming and agriculture on the Eastern Plains. To the north, up towards Wyoming, are the wide open spaces and big sky country of the high plains. We have cold winters that offer up beautiful snowscapes and warm summers that bring dramatic monsoon storms. A day’s drive can put me in the spare landscapes of northern New Mexico or the red rock canyons of southern Utah. Oh yes, and there happens to be a dramatic range of rocky mountains just to the west of where I live here in Fort Collins.
I get out and photograph a fair amount, and I’m very aware that I’m fortunate to have so many opportunities for photography around me. Even if I didn’t live here, though, I’m confident that I would still photograph just as much. I’ve always believed there’s good opportunities for photography anywhere, not just in “marquee” locations like here in Colorado. I think those who feel they have to travel to special or exotic locations to photograph are missing the just-as-good options for photographs closer to home and fooling themselves into thinking that locations make a difference in making good images. It’s not the subject matter that makes good photographs, it’s the photographer. The drive to be creative and express that creativity through photographic images comes from inside, and I believe I would be producing just as much work at the same level I am now whether I were to live here in Colorado, or in Dover, Delaware, or Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, or Bakersfield, California.
Still, the foregoing notwithstanding, I have to admit I got lucky that my environment matches my photographic interests so closely. It’s good to be in Colorado.
If you work on photographs using image editing software, maybe you’ve heard that you should set a true white point and a true black point. In Photoshop, this would be accomplished, for example, by using the Levels tool to move the black point slider to where it just about touches the left side of the histogram and the white point slider to where it just about touches the right side of the histogram. The idea is that having a true black and a true white ensures that the full range of tones from black to white will be present in the image, and that images without the full range of tones will tend to look flat and lifeless.
Well, it’s a good idea and most of my images in fact do have a true black point and a true white point. But not this one. From memory, I believe the blackest point is about RGB = 15, 15, 15 and the whitest point is about RGB = 240, 240, 240. Given that the RGB range for a black and white image is from 0, 0, 0 to 256, 256, 256, this means there’s a non-trivial gap at each end of the image’s histogram, and instead of having the full range of tones from black to white, the image tones here are somewhat compressed into a band from dark grey to light grey.
But I like it this way. If I had used a true black and a true white, the image would have been more crisp, vibrant, and dynamic. It also would have been louder, punchier, and more in-your-face. That’s not what this scene is about. It’s about the peacefulness and calmness that was present in the (very cold) air that day and what I was feeling about it when I tripped the shutter.
I think the more compressed tonal range is an effective tool with which to communicate that calm and quiet feeling. I also should note that I think you can get away without using a true black and a true white in this image because it is an image of snow – the presence of so many white tones means you can still get sufficient contrast between the snow and the fence to keep interest, even without having the full range of tones present.
Perhaps more importantly, I think it’s okay for the image to be calm and quiet. Computers and software make it so easy to pump up the contrast and (for color images) saturation that a good number of photographs these days tend to make me feel like I’m being shouted at.
I have a theory that if you have an artistic vision and you follow it honestly, then your work will always look like yours and not that of someone else. I think this is true because one’s vision directly follows from who one is, and we are all unique individuals with our own unique ways of seeing the world. For this reason, it doesn’t matter what we photograph because, assuming we stay true to our visions, our photographs can’t help but look like they’re ours, no matter what the subject is.
Well, I think I’m really putting that to the test with this image. Grain bins are a very popular subject among photographers, and have been photographed in countless manners and iterations. Is there really something in this image that is uniquely mine? Does it really have some attribute or characteristic that reveals the evidence of my own hand?
Perhaps you’re expecting an answer from me to my own question. It’s true that I often set up questions and answers, but here I really don’t have one. I do like the image, though, so it just will have to remain an open question.