Tag Archives: long exposure

More Than Meets The Eye

Windmills No. 1. Near Cheyenne, Wyoming, 2020.

I don’t generally get too excited about the mechanics of photographing these days, I’m far more interested in the content of the images.  The mechanics of this image actually are a bit interesting, though.  If you have some photography knowledge, you may know that the blurring of the clouds in the sky is due to a long exposure.  In this case, without looking at the metadata, my guess is the shutter speed was on the order of 15 seconds to two minutes.  Even at the 15-second low end of that range, though, turning blades of a windmill typically would move so fast as to have registered in the image much like the blades of a propeller airplane engine.  Why do the blades appear so still?

Well, obviously, because they weren’t turning.  This windmill field was newly installed when I photographed it, and probably had not been brought online yet.  Importantly, the blades of the windmills were stopped from turning.  But not perfectly so — they were permitted to move very slowly, my guess being that truly stopped windmill blades would undergo an extraordinarily high amount of stress in a stiff wind, and so even stopped windmill blades must be provided a bit of slack to turn.  That is why the blades of the windmill in the foreground appear slightly ghosted.  The blades oscillated back and forth between the positions over the course of the exposure.

As mentioned, I generally don’t get too excited about photography mechanics, and these days am more focused on image content.  Seeing these gigantic windmills up close in the rolling high plains landscape west of Cheyenne, Wyoming was a surreal experience, and the blurred clouds and ghosted windmill blades help evoke that feeling, I think.  Still, the mechanics of the image in this case are kind of interesting too.  More practically, it’s unlikely I’ll be able to get another photograph like this one, because the field has become active and the blades now turn with a fair amount of speed.  Any exposure time sufficient to create blurring in the clouds now most likely would indeed cause the windmill blades to look like the blades of a propeller airplane engine.

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Profile, Spire at Rock Cut Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2016

Profile, Spire at Rock Cut
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2016

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?

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Chasing the Light

Two Stars Over Sprague Lake Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2015

Two Stars Over Sprague Lake
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2015

As has been mentioned before on this blog, I really enjoy reading the blogs of other photographers.  I don’t have many photographer friends myself, so it often becomes the principle way in which I get information about how the rest of the photography community practices this discipline.

I just was reading the blog of one landscape photographer (whose work I really like, by the way) who described how their practice of landscape photography has changed.  This person’s principle method used to be “chasing the light,” which apparently involved road trips of hundreds or even thousands of miles at a time, crossing state lines and studying maps and weather reports to try and line up iconic locations under epic conditions, often in compressed periods of time between a day job or other responsibilities of life.  If I understood correctly, this person’s opinion was that “chasing the light” was the principle – and perhaps most widely practiced – way to practice landscape photography.

Their new approach was to spend several weeks at a time living on the road, bringing their day job responsibilities with them and working them into a more relaxed schedule of spending a week or more at a given location.  While perhaps sometimes missing the alignment of iconic locations and epic conditions, this approach allowed more time to become familiar with the location, often yielding quieter, more personal images than were achieved under the chasing the light approach.

Both good points for sure, but neither of which really resonates with the way I work.

Here’s a typical way that a photography outing works for me:  I’m at my day job (Monday through Friday, 9-5, with limited options for flexibility in scheduling) and I keep an eye out the window on the weather.  If it looks like interesting conditions are developing – or often even if they’re not – I’ll head out after the workday to a location within an hour’s drive.  Since I live on the Front Range of Colorado, this means I have the flexibility to end up either up in the high mountains or out on the sparsely-populated prairies, so I’m fortunate to have access to a diversity of landscapes.  There’s usually no real plan for a subject, I just drive around and look for interesting things that catch my eye.  Photograph until there’s no light left – which often is well after the sun has gone down – and call it day.

Or try this:  I’m up in the mountains doing something non-photography related.  In the winter maybe it’s skiing, in the summer maybe it’s hiking.  Throw my camera stuff in the car just in case I see something interesting.  When the day’s activity is done, if there’s still an hour or two of light, maybe drive around a bit and see what catches my eye.

Or here’s another example:  at the end of the work week, maybe I  just feel like getting out of town.  So I take off on a last minute road trip to a location within an evening’s drive away.  Maybe it’s somewhere I’ve been to before, maybe I try something new.  Usually I’m going for the sightseeing and novelty of being away from home for awhile, but I always bring my camera along and plan some time to do some photographic exploring as well.

Or something else:  it’s a family vacation, with much time, effort, and planning expended to go somewhere really interesting.  Most of my time is accounted for with family or sightseeing events, as it should be.  But I always keep my eye on my surroundings, and here and there I steal a few minutes to follow up on something that seemed photographically interesting.  Maybe it works out, maybe not.

It’s a very pragmatic, time-available approach to practicing photography because 1) given my real-world schedule, it’s unrealistic for me to be able to chase the light for hundreds of miles at a time, and 2) given my real-world schedule, it’s unrealistic for me to be able to spend weeks at a time away on the road.  If you’re serious about photography, then it’s important to make time for it, but if you can’t chase the light or invest weeks away, you work it into your real-life schedule as best you can.

I suppose the thing that got me on about all of this is the between-the-lines implication of this photographer’s blog post (and those of many others as well).  The implication seems to be that if you can’t chase the light, your photographs won’t be as good, and that if you’re unwilling to invest an inordinate amount of time, you’re not serious about photography.

I disagree.

Going to great lengths to get photographs is unrelated to the quality of those photographs.  It’s a crutch –  just like obsessing about expensive camera equipment is a crutch – that people substitute in the place of practicing good photography.  Good photography is about possessing a strong, personal vision about the world around you, and having the ability to translate that vision into compelling images.  This can be done both within a radius of one mile or 1000 miles from your home, and it can be done both within a time period of one minute or one week.  It’s in the mind of the artist, not where you are or how long it took you to get there.

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The Obvious View

Great Sand Dunes National Park No. 4 Colorado, 2014

Great Sand Dunes National Park No. 4
Colorado, 2014

In landscape photography, sometime it’s the obvious view that’s the best (or, if not the best, at least pretty darn good).

On the day I made this capture, I arrived in Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park with the idea of hiking out into the dunes, far enough to get away from all the tracks and footprints near the parking lot, in order to photograph the dune forms and shapes in their pristine condition.  Unfortunately, as so often is the case with landscape photography, the weather had other plans for me.  Specifically, it was a terribly windy day, and the wind was whipping up sand in the dunes like spray on the ocean.  I’m usually pretty willing to take my camera out into all kinds of adverse conditions, but one situation I avoid is wind-blown sand.  It’s just too easy for sand to get into the lens and camera, which can really pose a problem for those moving parts.

Instead, I had to make do with what was available.  I drove around to different ends of the park, seeing what there was to see, occasionally snapping a photograph or two, but not really coming away with anything that spoke to me.  As the sun began to set, I figured I would call it a day, and I pulled into the now-deserted visitor center parking lot to pack up my things before getting on the road.  As I was stowing my gear, I noticed a short trail making a quick loop around the visitor center – from the trail, one could take in the view of the dunes as seen in this photograph.

Turns out it’s a pretty nice view!  So I grabbed my camera and spent 20 minutes or so experimenting with some long exposures.  The one benefit of the windy day was that the clouds were really moving through the sky.  As a result, I was able to capture the movement of the clouds over the dunes as seen in this image.  On this day, at least, it was the obvious view that was the best.

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Five Day Challenge: Day Three

Grasses in Still Water Frisco, Colorado, 2014

Grasses in Still Water
Frisco, Colorado, 2014

I’m posting five black and white photographs in five days as part of the Five Day Challenge over on Google+, and today is Day Three.

Having spent several weeks’ worth of evenings photographing in Rocky Mountain National Park over the summer, I found myself unexpectedly burned out on big landscapes and grand vistas.  So, for awhile now I’ve been turning my attention to smaller, more intimate subjects, such as long exposures of still water of the kind seen in this image.  Unlike the national park experience, where I was trying to convey the grandeur of the scenery and often was working quickly to accommodate rapidly changing light and weather conditions, photographing these smaller scenes has been an unhurried, contemplative experience – just right to fit my current mindset.

This image is the first I’ve posted from these efforts, there may be more yet to come down the road.  See you tomorrow for Day Four!

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Turn, Turn, Turn

Longs Peak, Six Minutes at Twilight Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014

Longs Peak, Six Minutes at Twilight
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014

So, for the past couple of summers I’ve been in the habit of driving up to Rocky Mountain National Park (about an hour from my home in Northern Colorado) a few nights a week after work.  There’s about a six week window of opportunity, from about the middle of June to about the first week of August, when it stays light out late enough to be able to make the drive and still have anywhere from an hour or two to photograph.  It started a couple of years ago, when I felt I needed a source of regular field practice to improve my photography skills.  It’s developed into a contemplative respite from my workaday life that I look forward to every year.  It’s been a great summer for me up in the park.  I’ve met some great people (hi to everyone I’ve met!), seen some incredible sights (some of which I even managed to capture with my camera), and continued to hone my photographic skills.

I certainly count the image in this post as supporting that last point.  I’ve always been one to stay out late with my camera.  Some of my favorite images have come well after the sun dips below the horizon, and I’m always surprised when I see other photographers packing it in quickly after the sun sets, missing the magical, radiated backlight that fills the sky.  Even I would reach a limit, though, as night closed in and there just wouldn’t be enough light left to properly expose the image.

That is, until I expanded my skill set.  I’ve been experimenting with long exposure photography, principally in the form of using neutral density filters in front of my camera’s lens to cut down the amount of light reaching the camera’s sensor, thus allowing for exposures of several minutes in bright daylight.  In the process, I’ve become more proficient with the tools of the trade to do this, such as using my camera’s bulb mode, operating the shutter with an intervalometer, etc.

Here is where preparation meets opportunity.  As night was closing in on this particular day, I noticed what looked to be some interesting motions in the fast-moving clouds that were present that evening.  It was already quite dark, well too dark to use my camera’s manual mode, for which the maximum shutter speed is 30 seconds.  So, I switched to bulb mode.  It was too dark to use the camera’s meter, so I guessed the exposure time – six minutes – based on what my shutter speeds had been earlier, as the sun was going down.  It also was sufficiently dark that I really couldn’t see the shapes of the landscape in the foreground, so I guessed the composition based on my knowledge of the area from the many trips I’ve made.  I don’t think I could have predicted the shapes of the clouds in the final image, which represent their motion over the span of the six minute exposure.  The star trails also were a pleasant surprise, since I could only see one or two stars with my naked eye.

As mentioned, I’ve greatly enjoyed my time in the park this summer.  Unfortunately, I think my 2014 season is drawing to a close, as the days grow shorter and leave me without enough light to justify making the weeknight trips.  Still, I’m looking forward to turning my attention to other subject matter – which I think will benefit from my experience in the park this summer – and to my next summer up in Rocky, only a little less than a year away.

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What is Beautiful?

Wellington G. Webb Building No. 2, Denver, Colorado

Is this building beautiful?  Is this image of it beautiful?  Why or why not?

I don’t know the answers to these questions.  If anyone has any insights, I certainly would enjoy hearing them.  All I can say for sure is that it is beautiful to me.  I could spend a lot of words trying to explain why, but ultimately I think trying to explain why something is beautiful probably is a pointless exercise.  When I saw the building, I was immediately enamored of it.  When I was working with the camera, I could see many possibilities for the images.  When I made the prints, I was really happy with the outcomes.  It’s all very mysterious and subconscious.  You can try to rationalize if you like it or not, but ultimately the decision is made in an irrational part of the mind.

The image in this post is called “Wellington G. Webb Building No. 2.”  It is a long exposure photograph of a building in Denver, Colorado that I suspect is not photographed very much.  I find it beautiful, and I hope you do, too.

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All Art is Illusion

Wellington G. Webb Building No. 1, Denver, Colorado

One of the powers of art is the power to move people, and that’s a good thing.  Photographs mesmerize, paintings captivate, songs beguile, and stories enchant.  I sincerely hope that everyone reading this post has, at one time or another, been moved, challenged, or otherwise responded to a work of art in a way that has stayed with them over time and added to their life in a meaningful way.

Sometimes, being moved by a work of art crosses the line from the ordinary to the transcendent.  I hope it’s not a stretch to say that art can make you rethink your assumptions, question your beliefs, or look at the world in a different way.  Sometimes, it can make you look at yourself in a different way.  Experiencing art in this way can be challenging, even difficult.

At such times, it’s worth remembering that all art is illusion.  A well-crafted work of art can make you think that it is the truth of what it represents.  It is not.  For every photograph, painting, song, or story, there was a man or woman who made choices about how to use a camera, or place paint on a canvas, or about how notes would fit together on a score or how words would follow one another across a page, all with the goal of creating a specific illusion that he or she wanted you to see.  It is commonly suggested that art reveals truth about the real world, and that may be true, but if so, it is a specific, contextualized truth about the real world, not the reality of it.  A work of art may be relevant to reality, but is not itself reality.

As a simple example of the foregoing, I share the image in this post, “Wellington G. Webb Building No. 1.”  It is a quintessential illusion.  This building and this sky did not look this way on the day I captured this photograph.  They have never looked this way, and they never will.  The image was made this way because the photograph was a long exposure – the shutter of the camera was open for a period of several minutes, as compared to a fraction of a second for more conventional, everyday photography.  What I observed with my eye – the reality of the scene – was low, fast-moving clouds hurrying across the sky on a gray, November day.  What the camera recorded – the illusion – was the streaks made by the clouds as they moved across the camera’s sensor over the duration of the exposure.  Does it present a truth about this subject?  Perhaps.  But it does not present the reality of it.


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