Tag Archives: Longs Peak

A Sense of Place

Longs Peak, Low Clouds. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2018.

I’ve talked with some photographers of landscapes who have told me they need to travel away to distant places in order to be inspired to make photographs.  I’ve also heard it said that a real photographer should be able to stand in a random place and make an interesting photograph based solely on what’s available to see there.  It’s opposite ends of the spectrum.  One view says it’s preferable to be in a special place to make a good photograph, and one says a good photograph should be able to be made anywhere.

There’s merit to both positions, I think.  Myself, I think I lie somewhere in the middle.  My approach generally is to put myself in an interesting place at an interesting time, but to then, as much as possible, have no particular agenda and let the photographic opportunities fall where they may.

In general, though, I do try to imbue my landscape images with a sense of place.  But this is interpretative – the sense of place I’m seeking is what a place means to me personally.  It probably doesn’t take much imagination to connect the subject of this photograph, Longs Peak, to the sense of place of being in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.  Sometimes, a sense of place lies with obvious things.  But other things that have connected with me as embodying a sense of place for Colorado include mundane things such as grain silos and railroad cars, both of which are well represented here on the Front Range of Colorado.  If I were to put together a “Colorado” portfolio, it would include mountain peaks, pine trees, railroad tracks, industrial agriculture, and modern architecture, all having nothing particularly in common with one another other than embodying what “Colorado” means to me.

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Those Crimson Peaks Stir My Soul

Longs Peak, Cloud Crest.  Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2015.

When you have an interest in photography, like I do, you tend to look at a lot of photographs.  It’s natural, I think, to begin to form opinions about what you like and don’t like, what works for you and what doesn’t, etc.  Eventually, you may find yourself asking whether certain photographs are “art” or not, or maybe if they are “good” or not.

I’m not even going to wade into that debate.  As far as I’m concerned, you could doodle a stick figure on a cocktail napkin and call it “art” and you probably would be right, and the question of whether something is “good” or not is largely in the eye of the beholder. 

But I will say for myself, having looked at a lot of photographs, a hallmark of the ones that stand out to me is that they tend to have a degree of nuance, subtlety, or sophistication in the way in which they communicate their message.  Photography being a visual medium, it’s a bit hard to describe what I mean.  But, by way of analogy, it’s kind of like the difference between the sentence

“Those mountains are pretty at sunset”

and the sentence

“Those crimson peaks stir my soul”

Okay, granted, neither of these sentences is a literary masterpiece, but the point I’m trying to make is that the second sentence (hopefully) communicates its message with more nuance, subtlety, and sophistication than the first sentence. 

Photographs are like that too, except of course that the language of photography is visual communication rather than written communication.  Some photographs simply are executed with more nuance, subtlety, and sophistication than others.  It’s something to perhaps consider if you find yourself asking whether something is “art” or not, or whether it’s “good” or not. 

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Landscapes are Landscapes, Photographs are Photographs

Longs Peak, Range of Clouds Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2015

Longs Peak, Range of Clouds
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2015

“My interest in photography did not begin with books or mentors, or with any burning desire to see the world through a camera.  It evolved from an intense devotion to mountains and wilderness that eventually shaped all the parts of my life and brought them together.”

— Galen Rowell

What an interesting quote by the great landscape photographer Galen Rowell.  It’s interesting to me personally because it is almost exactly backwards from how my interest in photography developed.  From a very young age, I remember being interested in photographs as objects in and of themselves.  I remember when my Dad would travel on business, I would ask him to bring me back a postcard from where he had been and spend an inordinate amount of time getting lost in the photograph.  Conversely, I did not grow up with much of an outdoorsy lifestyle, and to this day I have no appreciable wilderness skills to speak of.  Most of my landscape photography is done by the side of the road or maybe, if I’m feeling adventurous, down a well-marked, well-traveled trail in a National Park or somewhere similar.

This is not to say that I have no connection to the land or to landscapes.  To the contrary, I feel a photographer interested in producing expressive photographs should feel a strong connection with the subject matter he or she is photographing.  It’s just that my connection with landscapes has not developed as a result of lots of time spent in the back country or otherwise outdoor adventuring.  I love to travel and to see new places – most of my eyes on the landscape likely has come through the windshield of my car.

There’s nothing wrong with the Galen Rowell approach, of course, and indeed my experience is that most photographers who photograph the landscape come at it from this perspective.  I’m a little fearful, however, that the Galen Rowell quote may create an expectation that reverence for the landscape is all that is required to photograph it expressively.  It is not.  It my opinion, it’s far more important to have an interest in photographs – what makes them work, what make them fail – to produce expressive landscape photography.  Being an accomplished outdoorsman is admirable, but landscapes are landscapes, and photographs are photographs.  It is being an accomplished photographer that is required for photography.

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Longs Peak

Longs Peak, Cloud Dance. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2013.

Longs Peak, Cloud Dance.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2013.

Longs Peak is a landmark on the Front Range of Colorado.  At 14,259 feet, its summit is readily visible from Denver, and indeed can be seen for many miles up and down the Front Range.  Its distinctive, flat-topped profile is easily identifiable and recognized, even in the image in this post, where I deliberately placed it toward the left lower corner of the frame, unobtrusively behind the Never Summer Mountains in the foreground and beneath the dancing display of clouds in the sky.

It’s not very difficult to photograph Longs Peak.  Some of the best views are on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park.  There must be at least six or seven pullouts or parking lots that offer tremendous, breathtaking views of this gorgeous mountain.  In the evening, the position of the setting sun produces very dramatic sidelight that creates extremely compelling shadows on and around the peak.  Throw in some dramatic clouds in the sky – not an infrequent occurrence up there – and you have an excellent base of ingredients for good photography.

Having captured many images of this peak, I will confess to having a bit of insecurity about them.  Isn’t there something wrong with capturing what are basically variations of the same image over and over again?  Aren’t these images just derivative of what others have photographed before?  Shouldn’t I be devoting my scarce time for photography to other, less discovered subject matter?

For a long time I’ve resisted building a collection of Longs Peak images, for the reason of not having great answers to these questions.  But the truth is, I’m really drawn to this mountain.  I feel a connection to this subject matter, it speaks to me.  What better reason is there to photograph something than this? If I build a collection of images, perhaps there will be documentary or artistic value in the collection as a whole.

So I’m setting my insecurity aside and going with the flow.  Trail Ridge Road opened for the season this weekend, and I’m looking forward to many summer evenings with this peak in the weeks ahead.

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Photography and Experiencing the World

Longs Peak, Cloud Wave

Most of us experience the world through a common framework of references:  we walk and talk, we see and hear, we act and do.  These are very basic experiences that we all have in common.  Beyond these basics, however, are whole worlds of perceptions and awareness that we each also have, some that we share with other people, and some that we experience individually.  The practice of photography is one of these kinds of experiences.

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I’m constantly looking at the sky.  I’m truly amazed and awed at the variety of displays that can happen there.  The image in this post, “Longs Peak, Cloud Wave,” is a perfect example.  Over the course of several hours in Rocky Mountain National Park, I observed this cloud come together.  First, it slowly gathered its shape from the formless masses of clouds around it.  Then, it hung in the sky over Longs Peak and the Never Summer Range, sometimes advancing, sometimes receding, but always delicately balanced over the peaks.  Finally, it gradually dissipated back into the formless masses of clouds from which it came from.  It truly was fascinating and awe-inspiring to watch.

It’s come as a bit of a surprise to me to realize that not everyone watches the sky like I do.  In fact, as near as I can tell, most people don’t.  Perhaps it’s the photographer in me that pays attention.  There are other things, too.  Even before I took up photography, I always was fascinated by how light would reflect off of shiny surfaces, smoothly and gradually building up from inky black shadows to piercing silver highlights.  Or how a city skyline could be abstracted down into different arrangements of lines and shapes, creating different feelings of weight or movement.

The practice of photography has channeled these perceptions and awareness even more.  Now, not only do I walk and talk, see and hear, act and do, but I also highlight and darken, frame and exclude, arrange and compose.  On some level, I’m always thinking in terms of images.  I use photography as a way of experiencing the world.

All this is not to suggest, of course, that photography is the only way to experience the world in a unique or elevated manner.  I’m fairly certain that participation in arts of all kinds probably provides such experiences, and that many other human activities – religion, sports, travel, whatever – probably do to various degrees as well.  Still, to me photography holds a special position in providing an unusually direct and immediate way to achieve this effect.

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Shoot the Icons!

Recent Work

I’ve encountered a line of thinking in landscape photography that argues against shooting iconic scenes or locations.  The thought seems to be along the lines that you will never be able to capture an iconic subject as well as the photographer or photographers who made it famous.  Who’s going to capture the Yosemite Valley as well as Ansel Adams?  Or the California coast like Edward Weston?  If a subject has been captured many times by many photographers under many conditions, what can you possibly add to the accumulated body of work that will be new or interesting?  Isn’t anything that you do simply going to be repetitive or derivative of what others already have done?

No, I say.  There are many reasons and much value to be gained from shooting the icons.  It’s probably fair to say the mountain in this image, “Longs Peak, Rising Clouds,” is an icon of Colorado’s Front Range.  Do a search for Longs Peak on Google Images and you will find countless images of it.  Here are a few of the reasons why I don’t hesitate to shoot it again (and again, and again!):

  1. No one sees the world quite like you do.  Everybody has a unique vision.  The subject matter of an image is just the building blocks by which this vision is expressed.  If people get in trouble shooting the icons, it seems to me it’s because they’re simply trying to copy what’s been done before.  Every subject, big or small, iconic or mundane, has limitless possibilities for interpretation and expression.  If you’re in touch with your own vision of the world, it will come through uniquely regardless of your subject.
  2. Shooting the icons trains the creative mind.  If you’ve ever been to an art museum, you’ve probably seen art students practicing sketching the masterpieces of the collection.  As photographers, it’s probably not very profitable to set up your camera in a gallery and shoot someone else’s photograph on the wall.  However, it is valuable to set up your camera and shoot the iconic landscape, in the same way that it is valuable for artists to sketch copies of masterpieces.
  3. There is no preemption in art.  Just because Ansel Adams became famous for his images of Yosemite, and Edward Weston for his images of the California coast, does this mean other photographers are preempted from ever shooting there again?  Of course not.  Did authors stop writing literature after great works by Tolstoy, Dickens, or Hemingway?  Did composers stop writing classical music after great works by Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven?  Every artistic field has limitless opportunities to be explored, and the potential of iconic landscapes are not exhausted by the great photographers who have worked there before.
  4. Icons are marketable.  Yes, it’s true.  People relate to well-known, iconic landscapes and may give your work a second look if they recognize the subject.  It may or may not be an important consideration to you, but it’s something to think about.
  5. Why not?  Especially for digital photographers, there’s really no downside to trying your hand at the icons.  In fact, I might suggest that any opportunity to practice with your camera, especially when faced with the challenge of capturing a well-known, iconic landscape in your own way, is good practice for your photography skills!
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Having a Vision Beats Being a Technician

Longs Peak, Indian Summer

I’m excited to share that five of my images are being shown in Denver this month, including the image above, “Longs Peak, Indian Summer.”

This image is one of my personal favorites.  It was my first image ever to be accepted into a juried exhibition, and has since proven to be one of my more popular images.  But that’s not why it’s one of my favorites.  It’s one of my favorites because it embodies the idea that having a creative vision is more important than being a master technician.

This image was literally among the first captures I ever made when I started pursuing photography back in 2006.  It was taken with my first digital SLR camera, a 6.1 megapixel Pentax *istDL with a Pentax 75-300 SMC lens.  As might be expected from a novice, it had a lot of technical problems.  It sat on my hard drive for six years before my technical skills caught up to my vision for what the image could be.  In 2012, without any advance planning or forethought that I was going to work on it, I suddenly opened it up one day and over the course of several hours created the image above.

Did technical skills play a role?  Absolutely.  A fair amount of work was involved, including sharpening up some blurry edges, evening out the contrast in the foreground, and creating a tonal gradient in the background.  Perhaps most importantly, cropping to the 3.4:1 aspect ratio emphasized the long horizontal lines of the composition in a way that the initial 3:2 aspect ratio did not.

Am I therefore a master digital darkroom technician?  Certainly not.  I know just enough to get me by, and that’s enough.  Don’t get me wrong – I value technical ability and am always striving to improve my technique and skill.   But technique should not get in the way of vision, and skill need only be good enough to communicate the vision underlying an image.

I’m a bit of a perfectionist by nature.  If I had demanded perfect technical ability in the making of this image – both in the initial capture seven years ago and in the digital darkroom editing last year – I would never have made this image at all.  Instead, once I realized my technical ability was sufficient to communicate my vision for the image, I was happy to do so.

For those who are interested, here are the other four images currently being exhibited:

Spire at Rock Cut

Clearing Storm, Mummy Range, Colorado

Longs Peak, Curtain of Clouds

Touch the Sky

You can see them at Alpine Fine Art, 826 Santa Fe Drive in Denver’s Santa Fe arts district.  There’s plenty of other nearby galleries you can visit too, including the John Fielder photography gallery across the street and the Denver School of Photography a couple of doors down.

While you’re in the area, you may as well stop by the Denver Art Museum as well.  The Georgia O’Keefe exhibit is up until April 28th, and I was inspired in particular by a small pencil and watercolor (if memory serves) of an adobe studio doorway I had not seen before.

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Latest Work – “Longs Peak, Curtain of Clouds”

Longs Peak, Curtain of CloudsLongs Peak is fairly photogenic from Trail Ridge Road inside Rocky Mountain National Park.  Depending on where you are, there are several very good vantage points that afford excellent views, and during most summer months, the angle of the setting sun is just right to create dramatic side lighting and shadows, such as seen in this image.

The views are so common, in fact, that I would venture to say if you spend a fair amount of time in the park on a regular basis, you can become somewhat inured to them.  That was the case for me, anyway, when I was spending several nights a week during the summer of 2012 photographing in the park.  Not that I wouldn’t see the views and appreciate them, since they are indeed quite spectacular.  But you can only take so many “trophy” shots of Longs Peak at sunset before they kind of start to look the same.

On this particular evening, there was a stunning show taking place in the sky.  The cloud formations and changing light were simply awesome, just not over Longs Peak.  I had parked my car in a pullout alongside of Trail Ridge Road and hiked a short distance to the north, where I became engrossed in shooting the changing clouds and changing light over the wide, flat expanses of high alpine tundra as the sun went down.  The conditions were changing quickly, and I was absorbed in my viewpoint facing north.  Fortunately, I paused to take in the grandeur of it all, which included a look over my shoulder at the view to the south.  Sure enough, when I wasn’t looking, these clouds had moved in behind Longs Peak, creating to my eye the effect of a curtain, in front of which the peak cut a sharp figure and leading me to title this image “Longs Peak, Curtain of Clouds.”

This image also is one of the first where I was conscious of the idea of apparent contrast.  Apparent contrast is the contrast within the mid-tones of an image, and can lead to perception of improved overall sharpness of an image.  As an aside, it’s my understanding that this is what photographers often are referring to, at least in part, when they say a lens has “good contrast” or “good sharpness.”  Regardless, I used the clarity slider in Adobe Camera Raw (+20) and the structure slider in Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro 2 (+15 in the mid-tones) to try to bring out these qualities in the image, and I noticed a definite increase in my perceived sharpness of the lines defining the peak as well as the details in the clouds behind the peak.

For those who are interested, there is a good article in the February, 2013 issue of Outdoor Photographer discussing apparent contrast and the clarity slider of Adobe Camera Raw.  Regarding the structure slider, I first became aware of this control in Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro 2 from one of my favorite photographers, Bret Edge.  Bret provides great information on using Nik software products on his blog, including a little on the structure slider of Silver Efex Pro 2 here.

But mostly what I remember in creating this image was that I would have missed it entirely if I simply hadn’t paused and looked over my shoulder.  In the field, it’s pretty easy to become very absorbed in photographing the scene you’re working on, at least for me.  But thanks to this image, now I remember you should always check your surroundings to see what else may be developing!

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