Friday, January 20, 2017

Revisiting Familiar Places - Frozen Gorge

I love to visit new places and have new experiences.  I can't deny that.  It's exciting, activates different senses, creates new memories and all that good stuff.   I'm all for going on an adventure.

What I have found though is to produce some of my most meaningful work, I like to visit more familiar locations and cultivate and take advantage of a deeper connection to a location to tell more intriguing stories, bring out subtle nuances and overall have a more satisfying experience.

The Columbia River Gorge is truly a magical wonderland.  And, since it's in my backyard it's a location I've visited mroe times that I can count.  In fact I've bene there so much on my own, or showing other photogs the area, that it has lost some of it's appeal or magic for me.  I haven't stopped going there, it's just that I've told many of the stories that I'd like to tell with that given landscape in most every season and weather condition.

Real magic happened recently in Oregon when a winter storm came through the area and gave us a week of sub-freezing temperatures as well as a dumping of over a foot of snow, alot more in some locations.   In these kinds of conditions I knew that this familiar location would be magical and it would be transformed into an almost "new" type of landscape.

I ventured out on a cold morning towards the end of the unique weather period...I waited a bit more towards the end to give the conditions enough time to fully mature, as well as the trails and roads to become relatively safe to travel.  What I found when I got out there was a sight to behold and a renewed sense of energy, invigorated sense of discovery and adventure all bubbled up inside of me. 

I haven't yet processed many of my pics but here are a couple to share.

Latourell Falls

I have shot this falls so much and I know it so well, but when I dropped down into the area, the footpath was covered in snow and ice and as I got closer, the trail became caked with frozen water, the spray from the waterfall.  I had traction devices on my boots which were basically mandatory for navigating the frozen landscape.     The spray at the turn of the trail was insane, hitting me as frozen pellets and coating my jacket and backpack in rime.    When I got down to the footbridge that crosses the creek, I stood for a full 5 minutes just soaking up the scene, knowing that this is a very rare event.  Normally the falls drops dramatically into the splash pool below, however on this day, the build up of ice in the splash pool from the spray was so high, I'd estimate over 20 feet tall, that I couldn't even see the pool any longer.  The pool is usually an element in the composition, but on this day it wasn't going to happen and I adjusted my comps to show the ice, but accentuate other elements in the scene.

Horsetail Falls

I like Horsetail Falls, yes, however I've never enjoyed shooting it that much.  It's a standard type of shot, not a lot of room for too much creativity or originality of vision.  And, it's been shot to death!    But on this day as I crunched, slipped and slid in to the parking lot, Horsetail was not like I've ever seen it before.  The ice encrusting the main flow of the falls was built up in to so many crazy patterns.  I shot the tradition shots showing the full falls and splash pool, I shot showing the frozen pool and foreground elements with the falls in the background, I shot from high and I went down and shot along the shore.  Horsetail Falls is always one to kick out a lot of spray and even on the best days it seems you're always wiping off the lens. On this day, down along the waters edge, I literally needed an ice scraper for the front of my lens.  I would take one shot and then have to spend several minutes cleaning the element, warming the ice enough to be wiped away.   Having tired of that activity, I went back along the road and put a long lens on my camera, fascinated by the intricate patterns and shapes that had been created, wanting to do some abstract work.  I think these might be some of the most creatively satisfying images of the day. 

I also made several stops at Multnomah Falls, Wahkeena, Sheppards Dell and some other small spots.  My last stop of the day was at Oneonta Gorge.

Oneonta Gorge

In normal conditions, this gorge is a magical place to be with steep dramatic walls closing in on you, walking up the creek, over the log jam and then deeper in to the gorge (unfortunately this location is also being over-run).  On this day however, it was other-worldly!!!!  Descending the steep and slippery steps down to the creeks edge I was mesmorized by the transformation.  The creek was almost invisible under the snow and ice.  Large ice formations hung down from each overhang.  Every where I turned it was breathtaking.  The transformation was so complete and this was such a "new" landscape, I had to readjust my preconceived visions for this area and think differently.  Comps that I wouldn't shoot before looked amazing, and vice versa shots that I would normally take didn't look good in this new condition. 

No matter how familiar you are with a location, revisiting it in different conditions can bring a renewed sense of creative energy and quite possibly some amazing results.  

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Creative Goals

Well, now that we've entered in to 2017 my energy is split in two different ways; finishing up processing the images from 2016 that I want to include in my yearly retrospective book, and then, thinking about what I want to accomplish in the coming year.

Each year I try to set unofficial goals or desires for myself in my creative work. I  work to set realistic goals for myself, knowing that I have a full time job and a family which all need to be taken care of.  The one thing I try hard not to do is set goals that are too high, which will invariably cause disappointment at the end of the year when I don't meet them.  I try and set more modest goals, such as finishing one project, visiting one new area during the year, focusing more on a certain type of photography or style, or anything like that that gives me a general direction, yet isn't so specific that I am bound by it.  I do NOT set goals like "shoot one image every day for the whole year" or "photograph the coast once a month" or things like that.  I want goals that are specific enough to give me direction, yet not so specific that I am bound by a narrow definition of success.

The challenge I'm facing right now is that I have a lot of creative energy and want to accomplish many things this year, however I know I don't have the time to tackle them all.  Some of the goals are in my comfort zone, yet several of them are outside of my comfort zone involving things I haven't done before.  I love when I push myself to try new things, however, new things take a lot more time to do because of the learning curve......learning new techniques, learning new software, etc.     The trick for me right now is to temper my enthusiasm and focus my energy on those things that are a high priority for me.  There are so many possibilities in the creative space to support my photography and not all of them involve the actual act of pressing the shutter button.

Here are a few of the project ideas I have in mind so far.....

- Photograph as much or more than I did in 2016.

- Commit to writing in my photography blog more frequently.  I am continually thinking about art, creativity and photography and I should put more of my thoughts down in writing and share them.

- Redesign my website.  'Nuf said.  Long term I'd like to learn the skills to build and maintain my website instead of using a service. 

- Explore and expand my video skills.  This involves taking video, editing and grading video, then composing a finished product.  This requires a new skill set and way for approaching a scene to video.  Color grading and the software used is complex and can be a whole study by itself.  

- Teach more.  Whether one on work or in groups, I want to expand my teaching of others.   This is one thing that brings me so much joy and something I think I'm pretty good at.  However, being a bit of a perfectionist, it also puts a lot of pressure on me to create teaching materials that meet my standards.

- Work on several long term projects.  I have started several long term photography projects in the past couple years and I would like to make progress on them.   These projects are "theme" based projects of photos that someday I will publish in a book.
     "My Writings"

- Write more poetry or thoughtful words to accompany my images

- Create original music scores to accompany my slide shows.   I absolutely love music, always have, and the free music out there just doesn't appeal to me.  I would love to create my own music, using readily available software.  This is also a learning curve to learn the software.  

- Start to write a photographers guide to a coastal location that I'm intimately familiar with.  Won't tell you which one yet :-).  Pulling together all the images, writing the content, putting it together, etc.  This can be a big project and one that will take a while.  I'd like to get started on it.

Whew!!!!    Thats just the list off the top of my head that I would l like to get after this year.  Not sure exactly which ones I'll focus my energy on, but I know I won't lack for things to do in the creative space.

Do you set goals or desires for a year?  

Mobile Editing

Just recently I made a slight change to my editing arsenal and so far I'm quite happy with the choice I made.

In years past I did all of my serious editing on my desktop platform, an Apple iMac with the full Adobe suite as well as many other applications such as the Nik products, Helicon Focus, etc.  And, I've been using a Wacom tablet as my user interface which is a joy to use.  Whenever I travelled I brought a laptop, but mainly as a way to review and store images while on the road.  I never did any serious editing of images, maybe a few quick edits to share on social media.  The laptop I used was an Apple MacBook Pro that I bought used.  It was a brick of a computer, super heavy but a joy to use in the way that Apple products are.

Well, about two years ago I was growing tired of the heavy weight and low horsepower of the computer, so I decided to upgrade.  I decided to buy an Apple Air laptop due to its lightweight and size.  It was super small, almost un-noticeable in the luggage, and very lightweight.  However, there were some downsides to this.  It didn't have a strong engine inside, and, it used an older screen technology.  I used this when I travelled, again to mainly review and do some light processing.  However, after being used to the high-end iMac at home, I was never happy using it.  It took a while to chunk through edits which frustrated me.  And, the screen, oh the screen, I just couldn't handle the low resolution.  My images just didn't pop and that made it not very fun to work on them when on the road.

In the last 6 months I've become even more mobile, spending less time parked in front of my desktop system, and more time in different locations.  This all brought a stronger desire to have a mobile platform that I could do some serious image editing, which means a strong processor and fantastic resolution screen.  All of my computers and software are in the Apple ecosystem, I started looking for a new laptop to replace the Air.

Apple just released a new MacBook Pro about the time I was looking for a new laptop.  I normally try and buy the newest computer I can afford in order to maximize the length/usability of ownership, however in this case, the price/performance of the new MacBook didn't add up for me.  And, they have removed the USB ports and other normal features that I'm used to.  So the new MacBook was out of the question for me and I started combing the use market looking for a deal on what I wanted.

Right before Christmas I found a barely used MacBook Pro, less than 8 months old, fully loaded with the fastest processor available and a sizable hard drive.  What was most important for me was getting one with a Retina display, which this one has.   It was owned by someone who had it as a secondary computer and barely used it.  After a bit of negotiation, I was the new owner of this wonderful machine.

It took a few days for me to load up all the software and configure it to my work style, but once complete, the system is outstanding!  I'm so happy that I made the switch to a Retina display and a strong engine to process images.   Even though I don't have my Wacom tablet to make edits, I can still do most everything I want/need to do to my images.     The extra size and weight over the Air is not a concern to me at all considering the increase in performance and usability, enabling me to process images confidently no matter where I am.

I can't tell ya how happy I am to have the "right" tools for me while I am on the go, enabling me to work on all of my creative endeavors while on the road.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Fuji 100-400mm Lens and 1.4x Teleconverter

Having just returned from a photography trip to the Grand Teton National Park, I wanted to share a couple of thoughts about one of the lens systems I used while there. 

if you've ever been to the Tetons, you know that there are a lot of grand landscapes and wide open spaces, as well as an abundance of wildlife to photograph.  Sometimes access is limited, especially in winter when we were there, so that means having a lens with a long reach in order to capture the animals in their habitat.

When I transitioned to the Fuji X system, they didn't yet have a long lens for sale, however, the Fujifilm 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 it was on the roadmap and I anxiously awaited its release.   Several months ago they finally released this wonderful lens along with the Fujifilm 1.4x teleconverter and I immediately added them both to my arsenal.  

Over the course of the summer and fall I managed to shoot with one or the other a bit, enough to get comfortable with their performance. I hadn't yet had the chance to really give them a workout.  it wasn't until I went to the Tetons that I put them both to the test.

I have to say, I am majorly impressed with both items.  The image quality on the 100-400mm is outstanding and it is natural and easy to use, it's solidly built and performed in temperatures down to 2 degrees without fault.  Needing extra reach to capture the wildlife, I slapped on the 1.4x TC and was equally impressed with the image quality.  You do lose one stop of light with it, as you do with any TC, however that never became an issue.   As I reviewed the images after the first and second days, I could not tell ANY loss of image quality with the teleconverter installed.  That is amazing!!!!    I was so impressed with the outstanding image quality that I left the teleconverter on the 100-400mm the entire remainder of the trip (except when I used it on the 50-140mm)

I shot both on the tripod as well as handheld, which I don't like to do all that often.  I felt so confident handholding this lens!  Its weight is manageable and the lens is well balanced and the Image Stabilization works fantastically.  

Combining the long reach of this combination, with the awesome speed of the Burst mode on the new X-T2, I think I can finally sell off the remaining Canon system that I had been keeping around for sports/wildlife/action.

I even started shooting landscapes with the 100-400mm + 1.4x!!!!!!!   Working with big distances to the subject, wanting to isolate the subject in the composition, as well as not wanting to lose any IQ by cropping, I shot many images with the long zoom on!  

If you are a Fuji X shooter, you NEED to have this lens!

Here are a couple of images and one of it (and me) in the field

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Tetons 2016

I've just returned from a winter trip to the Grand Teton National Park and Jackson Wyoming, which is turning into a yearly tradition.  5 days, over 1900 miles driven, (one cracked windshield and one nail in tire with a slow leak, 700 frames captured, good times and some laughs with others in our group.  All in all it was a successful trip by most measures. 

There's nothing like being in the park without all of the tourists, just the solitude of the surroundings, snow gently falling, perhaps watching a coyote hunting for food, or sometimes simply watching the clouds pass across the cold landscape.  With out a doubt this a beautiful park any time of the year.  Spring sees the snow slowly retreating and the foliage making an appearance along with the animals increasing in activity.  Summer is fantastic and fall is sublime with the amazing colors in the park.  However, the park is so crowded that it is sometimes very difficult to have an "outdoor experience" or connect with your surroundings.   

At the beginning of winter, all the tourists have left, the animals are preparing for the long winter ahead, some of the roads are closed already so access is somewhat limited and it feels like you have the entire park all to yourself.  the quietness is amazing!   We saw a few park rangers, maybe 5 other photographers and a couple of sightseers......otherwise, nobody!   

This is my 6th winter in the park and each year is significantly different.  Of course, a lot depends on the weather and other natural factors.  Likewise, the growth and maturity of my photography has an impact on what kinds of images I capture as well as my "connection" to my surroundings when I'm there.  In reviewing my images, I see a uniqueness to this trip that is very different from previous ones, which makes me happy as I don't try to repeat myself, but continue to grow and evolve and bring new energy to familiar places.  

Because of the weather and the access, landscapes are usually reduced to more simplistic compositions.  When the mountains show themselves, they dominate the landscape and continually draw the eye.  Easy to photograph and get that "trophy" of the park.  However, when they are not visible, as a photographer, that is when the art can really begin.  "Seeing" different compositions, isolating subjects, conveying the mood of the landscape, portraying the cold desolation of what it must have been like to live there way back when....those are the stories to tell.

We chased the light throughout the park for several days, alternating between landscape/nature shots and the occasional wildlife encounters (moose, coyote, bighorn sheep, trumpeter swans, bison).  With massive winter storms moving in to the Western U.S., I made the decision to cut the trip short by a day in order to have a safer return trip home.  Driving through Wyoming and the vast fields of Idaho, then the Blue Mountains of Oregon and finally the Columbia River Gorge, part of a successful trip is returning home successfully.  

Monday, November 21, 2016

Getting in the Zone

Want to pass on an observation about myself as I'm getting ready to head to the Tetons next week for some early winter photography.

One of the buzzwords in photography is around this concept of "pre-visualization"   of an image.  Envisioning what type of image you want to capture when  you get on location.  Actually, you can't "pre" visualize, either  you visualize or you don't.  But I digress.  I personally don't practice visualization of compositions or "trophy" images that I want to come home with. I'm fine if you do, it's all good.   

What I try and practice is just getting in the creative zone before heading out to a location.  Yes there are images that I might like to come home with, however, there is so much beyond our control as landscape photographers.  Weather, environmental conditions, people and access, etc...all of these things can hamper a tightly envisioned thought of what image we'd like to get.  

Instead, my "zone" is more related to 
     a) flexing my creative muscles, getting them warmed up before I go.  If you are not out shooting every day, you're probably not in the creative zone all the time.  So, like any good athlete, you need to warm up and stretch the muscles.
     b) Sharpening my vision - being more attentive to my surroundings, noticing the little things, evaluating light.  I can do this at home, driving to work, walking to lunch, etc.  Any place I'm awake and observant, before I head out I am conscious of my vision and how I am processing the visual world around me.  I feel that this helps me better "see" potential images when I get in the field.

And lastly, the reason I don't visualize a specific image ahead of time.....

For me to practice my art of photography, I need to be in tune, or attuned, to my surroundings.  It is important for me to have a connection to what I'm shooting and it's through that connection that my best images will come about. I need to be still and quiet, listen to my mood, listen to the wind, listen to nature and hear what's it's telling me. I'm very much a "feeling" photographer in this regard.  Less analytical and more moving with the vibe of my surroundings to capture images and tells stories.   

If I visualize a specific image ahead of time, I feel that it would be disregarding any connection I may have to my surroundings once I get out there.  Things may not be "right" to capture the best image I could.   And, if you head to a location with a very specific image in mind, more often than not, you will not see many wonderful images since you are so focused on the "one" image that you specifically visualized.  

I think it's best to let go of specific ideas and be more reactive in the field, listen to what your surroundings are telling you and shoot what moves you! 

So, as I prepare to head to the Tetons, I am envisioning words and feelings, not images......cold, snow, wildlife, textures, starkness, mountains, moving water as well as ice, all the leaves fallen from the trees, windswept, rustic, etc.  It's with these thoughts that I'm setting my mental model to be the most creative I can be in the field.  

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Thoughts on 3 Legs

Tripods always seem to be a hot topic of conversation amongst photographers.  Sort of like camera bags, folks are always searching for the "right" tripod to fit their style of shooting, or the "right" combination of features for their preferences.  "What type of tripod should I get?" is to be one of the most popular questions I get from workshop attendees and other clients.  

Whenever I get that question, a great quote from Bill Fourtney comes to mind.....
"There are two types of tripods.....those that are easy to carry, and good ones"    That usually produces a few chuckles from everyone, but there is a lot of truth in that statement.

I often think back about my progression through tripods and to be honest, it is one of those things that "if I knew what I know now about tripods", I would have done things much differently when I first started out.   Years ago when I started to shoot seriously, I too was searching for the perfect tripod.  I burned through several different tripods and ballheads before I finally settled on a good tripod/head system that I have been using for many years.  I think we've probably all been there.....spending $150 on a tripod and using that for a bit. Getting frustrated with it.  Then spending $300 to buy a "better" one.  Then spending $500 to buy an even better one.  The cost of tripod/heads was one of those things that really was a bit shocking to me as travelled on my tripod journey and the mental block of spending big bucks for a tripod was one of the hardest things to overcome as I invested in my photographic kit.    I wish I would have just scraped the money together to buy the best I possibly could and skip all of the trial and error, and sunk cost, of the various tripods I burned through. 

Eventually i broke through my mental block and spent the money I needed to to buy my preferred tripod/ballhead set up.  For years now I've been using Gitzo tripod legs and RRS ballheads and I don't really want for anything more.  It does what I need it to do and works the way I want it to work.  I've got two different setups right now, a lighter weight set of Gitzo legs and an RRS BH40 head, then heavyweight legs and the RRS BH55 head.  99% of the time I use the heavier combination to do everything possible to extract the best image quality I can. 

These setups are not cheap, heck no, but look at the money we have invested in camera bodies and lenses!   I can't tell you how many times I've seen $8-10k worth of camera gear plunked on top of a flimsy $200 tripod!  Just like in high-end audio reproduction (home stereo) everything in the signal path needs to be optimized to extract the best end result.  In photography, the bodies, lenses, tripods, filters and technique are all in the "signal path" to create the best image, so it's important to address each component of the path to make sure it is the best it can be for what you want to do. 

By now you're probably saying, "OK, so what makes a good tripod?"   I'll just share a few of my thoughts based upon a lot of trial and error, advice from other professionals, observations of other photographers, etc.  Here are some things you need to think about when looking for a new tripod (or evaluating your existing one)

  • Rated to support your equipment - Most tripods and ballheads come with a manufacturer recommendation about what kind of load they can support.  make sure your set up can support your camera/lens weight.  I prefer to have "overkill" in this area, a more supportive tripod that what weight my camera/ lens is.  Why? because of the next point....

  • Reduced vibrations -  Some materials are better than others at reducing vibrations and as you know, vibration(shaking) can make your image blurry.  Having a super sturdy tripod minimizes the chance of vibrations. 

  • Height - Can go tall and short enough to cover the range of what and how you shoot. My tripod goes from 8' down to ground level as I like to shoot from many different height perspectives.

  • Ease of use - Now this one is personal preference and one that each of us needs to decide for ourselves.
    • How easy is it to extend / collapse the legs?  Think about things like when your in the darkness, or, when you have gloves on.
    • Flip lock or twist lock leg adjustment. 
    • Is it intuitive for me to use? 
    • Am I going to hike or travel on airplanes?
    • How serviceable is it? In the field or at  home?
    • How easy is it to make small adjustments to the height as I'm composing my image?
    • Does the ballhead transition from landscape to portrait orientation?
    • What kind of special plates do i need to use the ballhead?  Can I get easy replacements if I'm traveling and need a new one? 
Ease of use is probably the biggest factor in happiness with a tripod.  Unfortunately it's also one of those things that you won't know unless you use it in a real world situation.  I can't tell you how many times I've seen people struggle and struggle with their tripods, trying to get them adjusted to the right height, set up on un-even ground, or just collapse them to put back in the car.  So much frustration and anger can be directed at the lowly tripod. Why?  Because they are not easy to use and aren't the right tool for the job.  Too often I see people working to compose and shoot images hand-held with their tripod standing next to them and when I ask them why, it's because they got frustrated with it and gave up trying to use it!!!

Now, my last point is a bit of a "soap box" for me and I hope I don't offend too many of you.....


The premise of a tripod is to have 3 legs to create a stable platform.  Roger that.  So why would you then put a monopod on top of a tripod? One point of contact, one support beam, between your camera and a stable platform.  If there is one little gust of wind, that center post starts rocking back and forth to blur your image.  If you press the shutter button, your hand movements will cause shake/blur as well.  There is just no logical reason why we should de-stablize our platform by using a center post.     Center posts seems like a good idea in the store and they are easier to use in the field to make height adjustments, but if we are serious about our image capture, they should not be used. The convenience is not worth the loss in image quality.   OK, rant over :-)

The best advice I can leave you with is to try as many different tripods and ballheads as you can.  If you're out with other photogs, ask them what they like or dislike about their tripods.  Honestly evaluate your needs.  Buy more than what you think you'll need, you'll be happier in the end.

Even polar bears value a good tripod