Monday, December 19, 2011

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A New Assistant

Sunday was one of those days. My son and I hit the grocery stores early. First Trader Joes, then onto Costco, then over to the local produce market, and finally to Safeway for some dill that I just couldn't find anywhere else. In between we divided up the food and packed it into the pantry, the fridge, or the freezer.

Somewhere along the way, I began to feel it. I've talked about it before, that feeling I get inside when I just know the light will be great that night. That overwhelming need to grab the camera and go. I looked up wistfully at the passing clouds in the sky, back at my shopping list, and returned to my chores.

Believe it or not, my son had never been on an actual photo shoot. I know that may seem strange, but my images frequently involve being near cliffs, waves, and rushing water, not to mention using expensive gear on tripods that just beg to have little feet knock over. He's been on many hikes (some near cliffs, waves, and rushing water) but I have always had my hands free to help him whenever he needs it. He also tends to want to explore on his own schedule, stopping to check something out for an hour or deciding to head back as soon as we get to our destination. Although that's just fine for an outing in the woods, it doesn't match very well with the concentration I need when shooting.

I can't tell you what changed that day. I was driving along and something made me look at him in the rear view mirror. I suddenly saw him differently. He wasn't a little child who required his hand to be held at every step anymore. Instead I saw a young boy who was looking at and learning about the world passing by outside his window. I saw a young boy who was perfectly capable of handling a shoot at the beach. I knew today was the day for his first real photo shoot. I didn't know how I knew, I just knew he was ready. "How about going down to the beach and watching sunset tonight?" I asked. "I'll bring my camera and you can watch how I take pictures. What do you think about that idea?" He responded with one simple word, "good." Not exactly a ringing endorsement but I took it. We were on our way.

We arrived at Mukilteo Beach about an hour before sunset so he could run around the playground for a short while before heading over to the water. We set up the camera and fine-tuned compositions. He took a turn looking through the viewfinder and approving the shot. He practiced tripping the shutter with the cable release and taking his own photos. The sun dipped toward the horizon and the clouds began to glow. It was going to be great and then, at that very moment, a little voice behind me simply stated urgently. "Daddy, I need to go pee-pee." I looked back at him, sighed, picked up the camera gear, took his hand and began the trek back to the restrooms.

By the time we got back, the sun had set, the glow was gone, but there was some pretty color left in the sky. I set up quickly and took a couple of shots. I glanced back at my son and soaked in an image that will stay with me forever. He stood at the edge of the ocean and at the edge of his journey through life. He stood watching the waves roll in and out, his red curls bathed by the soft light of the sky. He stood smiling. "Are you glad we came tonight?" I asked. He looked at me with slight irritation and stated what seemed to be obvious to him, "I always want to see pretty things Daddy."

How did the images I took that evening turn out? I would have to be honest and say they are pretty mediocre at best. It doesn't matter though. It turns out my intuition was right, I just had the context wrong. It was not about the light but about my son. I have a new assistant.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Salton Sea

It's been a pretty cold and wet month. Yes, yes, yes, I know it's November and it's been supposed to be cold and wet in Seattle but it seems just a little colder and wetter than normal this year. I should use these long dark evenings to work on my backlog of images, blog more, or post more on the myriad of social sites I try to keep up with. Instead I've been finding myself on the couch reading in front of the fireplace or in the kitchen making extra dinners to stuff into the freezer far too often. Tonight I vowed I would get back to work and I still managed to put it off till 11:00. In an effort to accomplish something, I opened up my files, pointed the cursor, and picked a random image from the past to post this evening. Where did I end up? A shoreline on a warm winter night (shot while in shorts) in Southern California. Sometimes the world seems to have an ironic sense of humor. Sunset over the Salton Sea, Imperial County, California.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Larrabee State Park, Washington

If you wait around for the amazing evening light in the Seattle area, you might be waiting for a very long time. Living for the last decade in the Pacific Northwest has forced me to seek out the quieter moments when the clouds, sea, and land blend together seamlessly. Besides, posting this photo is just another chance to shout out one of the sayings I'm so fond of annoying people with. There is no such thing as bad light...only bad photography.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Cholla Garden in Joshua Tree

The Cholla Garden in Joshua Tree National Park is a great place to visit anytime. At sunrise though, the sun skips across the landscape and the cactus literally seem to glow. Just don't arrive too early while it is still dark. You really need to see where you are walking!

Monday, October 10, 2011

5 Tips For Better Composition

Some people have a natural knack for composition. They can just look a scene and effortlessly create a perfect image that you could stare at for hours. These five tips are for the rest of us.

Rule Of Thirds:  Draw a Tic-Tac-Toe board on your frame with two horizontal lines and two vertical lines There will be four points where the lines intersect. These are your "sweet spots" and are great areas to put your subject in to create a dynamic composition. If your subject is tall, place it along one of the vertical lines. Place subjects like horizons along one of the horizontal lines. Put your subject in the center and the viewer only looks at one spot. An eye stuck in one spot tends to get bored. I'm getting sleepy just thinking about it.

Lines Create Depth:  Most landscape photos have a foreground and background. If these two are divided in half, the viewer's eye gets trapped in one spot. Use natural lines (like patterns in the sand, driftwood on the beach, or meandering streams) to lead the viewer back and forth between the foreground and the background. An interesting composition keeps the eye constantly moving back and forth across the image. Connect the "sweet spots" with the lines and now we're talkin' composition.

Patterns Are Fun:  Repeat this phrase...Repeat this phrase...Repeat this phrase. There is something comforting about repeating patterns. Maybe it is in our nature to try to create order, maybe we like things neat and tidy, or maybe we can't find anything else to photograph. Look for ripples in the sand, leaves scattered across the ground, or clouds floating across the sky then fill the frame with that and nothing else. Repeating patterns keep the eye moving and the viewer interested.

Keep It Simple: Less is more. There is nothing that can ruin an image faster than visual clutter. Unless you have an amazing pattern in front of you, try everything you can to eliminate every single bit of unneeded stuff in your photo. Change your camera angle, use a longer lens to fill the frame with the subject, or blur the background to eliminate the dead tree branches behind your subject. Just please, for the love of Kodachrome, keep it simple.

Find A Frame: No, I'm not talking about  scouring the local garage sales for pieces of wood and glass. When you are composing the image, look for natural subjects like trees, clouds, or cliffs to frame the image and direct the eye towards the subject. If an eye wanders out of the frame, it will probably keep on wandering until it finds something else interesting to look at. Chances are it won't be your photo.

Next time you are setting up your camera, try to keep these five tips in mind. If you use even one of them, you will create a better composition and come home with a better photograph. If you use all five, you may just create a work of art.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Devil's Golf Course, Death Valley

Several years ago, I decided to try my favorite technique of driving through winter storms to be on location when the rain stopped and the skies began to clear. I set up my tent in the campground and proceeded to wait for sunrise when the expected clearing would hopefully produce some great images.

It rained all night, and the next day, and the next three days and three nights after that. I was evacuated from two different campgrounds because of flash flood concerns and ended up pitching my tent between two RVs on a gravel pad. Seeing me soggy and depressed, one of my neighbors took pity on me and invited me in for a hot dinner and a movie on his satellite TV set. It was one of the most welcome moments of generosity I have ever received.

I would like to tell you that I was rewarded for my efforts with amazing light but the truth was I threw in the towel the next morning and headed for home. This image was taken a month later when I returned to "get that monkey off my back." This time the storm did clear, the clouds parted for a few minutes over Devil's Golf Course, and the sun shone through.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Pacific Swell Meets The Big Sur Coast

Wintertime can be fickle along the Big Sur Coast. Mountains right next to the shore means it can rain heavy and often. When I lived in the Bay Area, I would try to time my trips by driving through the storms and arriving as it was clearing. The result would be great light and/or incredible swells. For the photo junkies, I used a shutter speed long enough to blur the spray but still short enough to keep the rest of the ocean sharp (1/15 second) and set the exposure manually so the white spray wouldn't fool the meter.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Aspen, South Fork Bishop Creek

You may not know the names, but most people can immediately recognize most of the iconic views of the west. Tunnel View in Yosemite, The Narrows in Zion, and Oxbow Bend in The Tetons come to mind. As a photographer, I know where most of them are but there are a few spots that you stumble across by accident.

I was driving up the South Fork of Bishop Creek in the Sierra Nevada, when I noticed a grove of Aspen. across the canyon As soon as I set up my tripod and put on a longer lens, I knew I had seen these trees countless times before over decades of pouring though books, calendars, and magazines. In face, these trees may have been photographed more than nearly any other patch of fall color. As I worked every composition I could think of, I thought about how many photographers had stood at this very same pullout alongside the road, camera on tripod, shooting across the valley. Yeah, it may not be my most unique image, but there was something rewarding about putting my own stamp on this popular spot. If you find yourself in California near Bishop, take a drive up the valley and see if you can find them. If it's a sunny autumn day, I bet you can.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Falls Creek, Washington

There may be taller, grander, or more spectacular waterfalls in Washington but my favorite, without a doubt, is Falls Creek Falls in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest (even with the uninspired name). There is something about the way the water looks and sounds as it pours over the rocks that I've never found anywhere else. A short and easy one mile hike through a mossy forest brings you to an overlook perched across the canyon from the falls. Just before the overlook, a short and difficult scramble trail leads to the base of the falls but is not recommended for inexperienced hikers. I suspect weekends on the trail tend to be busy but I have yet to ever meet a single person mid-week when I have visited.

Click here for another image from the base of the falls.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area

The Oregon Dunes on the coast of southern Oregon are the largest coastal sand dune complex in North America. Most of the dunes allow OHV use. While very popular and fun, the constant use of the dunes by vehicles does mesh well with landscape photography. However, there is one area that is hiker-access only. If you wander a little ways into the dunes, it is easy to find a trackless stretch of sand. The evening I was there, the onshore wind was relentless and I did not dare to get my camera as close to the ground as I would have liked to. Most of the images were taken at eye-level but the dramatic contrast between the clouds and evening light on the dunes made for some great shooting. As soon as the light started to fade, I left my camera gear in a protected area and slid down some of the nearby dunes. A sandbox is a sandbox after all....

Sunday, September 11, 2011

South Fork Snoquamlie River

Another shot from my "Day Of Freedom." This is the South Fork Snoqualmie River along the hike to Franklin Falls in the Cascade Mountains.  For much of the year, the river runs far too fast and high to ever think about getting out on the rocks to get a shot from the center. Even a few weeks earlier, when I was on this trail with my son and some friends, the river was still swollen with snow melt. When I made it back by myself last week, I could safely hop the rocks to the center and set up shop.

For you tech junkies out there, the exposure was 2 seconds at f/11 using ISO100

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Sunset-September 10, 2001

I'm sure everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing on the morning of September 11, 2001. Merril and I were on a camping trip in Sequoia National Park in California.  I remember waking up and hearing the noise level in the campground rise as the news spread from tent to tent. I remember leaning into the window of a park service vehicle and listening to the news on the radio set. I remember seeing the rangers with semi-automatic rifles at the entrance station as we left, and I remember seeing the first footage of the attack in a McDonalds somewhere in the Central Valley. Most memories of that day are surprisingly hazy, but I do remember the night before with crystal clarity.

We hiked up to the top of Moro Rock after dinner. If you have never been there, you really should some day. Summers on the Rock can be packed but after Labor Day, the crowds thin out and the trek up the stairs and across the granite can be downright relaxing. Throw in the scent of baking pine needles, the cool early autumn breezes off the high country, rocks radiating the heat of the daytime sun, and the short hike can be the perfect evening experience. We watched the sunset over the foothills and I ran enough rolls of film through the camera to be able to justify deducting the trip as a business expense (it really was a personal getaway for the two of us). The sunset was mediocre but it did light the granite walls across the canyon with enough color to create a few nice frames. More importantly, we held hands and watched the sun set on our little corner of the planet. We walked back to the car, drove back to the campsite, and ducked into the tent with no idea what would happen over the next morning, days, weeks, and years.

For some, their world truly changed the next morning. Many families lost loved ones, and over the next decade, many families endured hardships as loved ones fought battles overseas. My thoughts and prayers will always be with them. For most of us though, our world didn't change much that morning. We suffered minor inconveniences but in reality, only our perceptions of the world changed. It suddenly seemed a much more tumultuous and dangerous place. 

The next decade seemed decidedly less smooth than the previous one. In reality, the economy had started to fall apart before 9/11. The tech bubble had popped earlier in the year and we were already sliding into a recession, but the attacks seemed to put the nail in the coffin. The easy life of the previous decade was over. During the next years, we fought multiple wars and endured seemingly endless economic and political crises. We also had successes. We developed new technologies and made major advances in science. We learned and we adapted.

After the last decade, anyone who tells you what will happen during the next ten years is a fool. Maybe we will triumph over all our differences, maybe we will be in for another decade of bubbles and bursts, or maybe our modern savior of technology will solve every problem known to mankind (sarcasm intended). As I look at this photo, I gain strength knowing one thing. No matter what happens, the earth will spin, economies will surge and sputter, people will live their lives, and the sun will still shine the last light of day on the granite walls of the Sierra Nevada. You just have to be willing to see it.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Parenting and Photography

I am a parent first and a photographer second. I didn't realize this four years ago when my son, Z, was born. Instead, it has slowly crept into my mind over a period of time. My wife, Merril, works long and hard hours at a local hospital so we can afford some basics of life that my career of photography can’t always provide (like shelter, food, etc.). I stay at home most of the week and try to figure how to take care of my son. We have only a few days together as a family and when we do, it never feels right to use them for photography.

In between my responsibilities, I carve out minutes here and there to do some shooting. When Z was young, I trained myself to type one-handed while I held him during his naps. I spent late-night hours scanning film and uploading images to stock agencies. What I didn’t get was time to immerse myself deep in the woods or high up on the mountains. I keep trying but attempts to find large amounts of time to spend on photography are always blocked by the realities of life that parenting demands.

When Z first began to walk, I began my quest to combine my nature photography and parenting. We started with walks around a small pond and, as he grew older and stronger, we graduated to longer walks in the mountains. We explored together, taking time to stop and talk about all the twigs, bugs, and leaves along the path. He was still small though, and required my constant attention. The camera gear got left at home.

Last week, we took Z camping for the first time. I chose Dungeness Spit on the Olympic Peninsula. It had flush toilets, a playground, plenty of trails, and close proximity to civilization should the youngster completely rebel at the idea of camping. It also had the longest natural sand spit in the country and maybe, just maybe, the chance to sneak away for a little photo excursion. I started to pack the car and quickly filled the back seat and cargo area. No matter how hard I tried, I could not fit everything the three of us required into the car. I knew what had to be left behind, my camera gear.

The trip was a success anyway. Z never complained or asked to go home. In fact, he desperately wanted to stay on the final morning. I had a blast watching him and was another step closer to joining my parenting and photography life into one.

I had a hard week after that. Merril went back to work, there was no camp or school to give me a break during the day. I could not seem to get a moment to myself and I guess it showed. Merril came home Monday night and told me she was staying home the next day. She also stated in no uncertain terms that I was to leave, take the day for myself, and not show my face around the house till well after dark.

I drove as fast as I could to the mountains the next morning. All day, I hiked to waterfalls and lakes. I stopped the car whenever I saw something I wanted to check out. I sat by rivers and watched the water pour over the rocks. I relished driving the rough dirt roads, throwing a plume of dust in the air, and singing with the stereo as loud as I could. There was no little voice in my head (or from the back car seat) telling what to do. For one day I was free. Free like I was before my son was born. Free to wander. Free to explore. Free to do whatever the hell I felt like. And yes, I took some photos (quite a few as a matter of fact).

I got home well after dark, kissed my wife goodnight, and crept into Z’s room. I sat in the chair and watched him sleep like so many long nights before. I watched his fingers move as he tried to complete some task during a dream. I watched his face change expressions and I could feel the connection between us; the bond that has been built up over the years. It felt great to be away for a day but it felt even better being home. I closed my eyes and just listened to him breathe.

I’m taking Z hiking again this weekend. It will be just the two of us (Merril is working again.) Maybe we will hike to a lake, to a meadow, or perhaps we will never make it anywhere and just hunt for sticks along the trail instead. Wherever we end up, we will have fun. There is only one thing that is certain. The camera gear will have to stay home and I am OK with that.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Franklin Falls

Franklin Falls is on the South Fork Snoqualmie River in the Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest. The spot is a very heavily visited area frequented by families with children. I've been there several times with my son but finally went back with just the camera gear. On a Tuesday night shortly after dinner, I had the place completely to myself.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sunrise in the Alabama Hills

The Alabama Hills are probably the most well known and least well known area in California. Most residents of the state have never even heard of the spot but every nature photographer across the western hemisphere knows where it is. Lying in the middle of the Owens Valley on the eastern face of the Sierra Nevada, they are very remote and long drive from any major city but a treasure trove of opportunity for a photographer. As a result, the area has been shot to death over the last two decades by hoards of professionals and amateurs. In addition, the rocky hillsides have been used to film several car commercials every year and many major Hollywood Westerns were filmed around these same boulders. Even so, the Alabama Hills remain one of my favorite parts of California. I just make sure to arrive mid-week.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Spooky Gulch

There is probably no wilder or more remote area in the lower 48 states than the canyon-laced lands southeast of Escalante, Utah.  Most of the canyons are located long distances from the roads and require difficult hikes to get to but Spooky Gulch is an exception, lying less than a mile from the trailhead. To get to the trailhead though, requires a bone jarring drive of nearly 30 miles over washboard dirt roads.

Spooky Gulch is over 30 feet deep, rarely wider than a few feet, and narrows down to under 18" in spots. I had to take my backpack off and hike sideways for a good chunk of the time. While I am always nagging people to use the time around sunrise and sunset to do most of their photography, slot canyons are different. The slots are so high and narrow, the sun has to be nearly overhead to bounce any light off the walls and down to the floor of the canyon. Save you sunrises and sunsets for the sandstone landscapes above, slot canyons are best during the middle of the day.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Autumn in Leidig Meadow, Yosemite Valley, California

A little fun with Photoshop for a special project. The original color image was converted to black and white and then toned. The opacity of the black and white layer was then reduced to allow a little of the original color to bleed through. The grain was added into the image to create a raw film-like quality. Finally, the image was printed on stretched canvas.

Friday, August 5, 2011

5 Tips For Better Beach Photography

Get Down Low:  I've said it before and I will say it again, "it ain't nature photography until you are getting your knees dirty." Lowering your viewpoint close to the ground is one of the easiest things you can do to improve your composition. Try using a wide angle lens and catch the waves rushing across the sand inches in front of you. Get down low next to that interesting rock formation at your feet and make it seem larger than life. Go get some sand on your pants and pebbles in your shoes. You will come home with some great images. Just remember to keep an eye on the waves and the camera out of the salt water!

Get Up High: Photographers spend most of their time on the beach when they are at the coast. You can consistently get great images on the sandy or rocky shores but don't pass up opportunities to shoot from the bluffs above. You can use wide angle lenses to include the details on the ground near you as well as the beach below. This is also a great opportunity to pull that long telephoto lens out of your bag and shoot down the beach. Longer focal lengths compress the foreground and the background, creating some very unique and interesting effects. But please, please make sure your tripod is secure when you are close to the edge of the cliff. I learned that the hard way (a story for another time).

Change Your Speed: Put your camera on a tripod and use a small aperture to lengthen the shutter speed. Moving water will blur as it breaks across the sand. Shutter speeds near 1 second can create a soft silky ethereal effect to the water. You can also use faster shutter speeds to freeze the water in mid air, showing the power of a wave crashing against the rocks. Shutters speeds faster than 1/500 of a second can record spray as a myriad of drops suspended in mid-flight. Try varying the shutter speed and experiment with the results.

Stay Up Late-Get Up Early:  Time of day...Time of day...Time of day. I can't say those three words enough. If a scene is beautiful during the afternoon hours, it will be spectacular during the evening hours. Eat an early dinner and get out there near sunset. Drag yourself out of bed before sunrise and you will be rewarded. Warm tones and long shadows give depth to subjects and create visual lines through the image. And please don't leave the minute the sun goes down. Professional photographers call the next hour of light "the magic hour" for a reason. The colors can reflect off the clouds in spectacular fashion and the entire landscape is frequently bathed in a soft diffused glow. Oranges and reds give way to dark blue skies as night begins to fall. Don't forget your tripod. Exposures are frequently several seconds long. You have my permission to leave when you can't see the controls on the camera any more.

Bad Weather-No Problem: Many photographers frequently cancel their photo shoots outdoors as soon as the rain begins. I promise that there is no other consistently dramatic moment than the first minutes when a storm begins to clear. If you are not there, toughing out the weather, you are not going to be there when the clouds begin to part. Every time I get depressed as the rain continues to fall, I try to stay motivated by remembering most of my best images were taken after enduring bad weather (sometimes for days on end). If nothing else, storms always lead to great stories to tell your friends.

The next time you are visiting the ocean's edge, try some of the techniques above and create some images that  live up to your memories.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Story Behind The Image: Letts Lake Reeds

It had been one of those summers in the Sierra Nevada. I would like to believe my skill was what led to the great images I kept producing but I really believe a monkey with a point and shoot camera could have come home with some pretty salable shots. It was really that good. Every morning the sunrise was fantastic and every evening...well that was addictive. The colors were so intense and so frequent that I began to expect them. All I had to do was to show up. Every evening it worked. Well, every evening until now.

What was I doing standing by this boggy little pond in the middle of the Mendocino National Forest? It seemed like a good idea at the time. Try something new. Go explore something else. Use my highly honed skills in a different area. On the map, Letts Lake looked promising. It lay up on one of the higher ridges of the area, a long and bumpy drive over dirt roads. It even had a campground near it. If they put a campground there, it had to be good, right? Yet it seemed to not even live up to the term "lake" at first glance. It was a more of a pond in a raggedy meadow surrounded by a scraggly pine forest. I lowered my head and walked back to the campsite thinking the whole trip was a colossal waste of time.

I downed my canned soup for dinner and began to think I should give it one more try. I sat down by the lake, closed my eyes, took a couple of breaths and then opened my eyes. I slowly began to notice things. The sky was a pretty amazing shade of blue and the lake was like a mirror. It was at that moment I saw the reeds. They were about twenty feet out in the water and they seemed to float in a pool of blue. Now there was a subject I could work with. I spent the rest of the evening working different angles on the reeds and waiting for the light breeze to stop blowing the blasted things around.

I would like to say that moment was a turning point for the trip. I would love to tell you that my mind opened up and I began to see things in that dusty forest but I didn't. If you want to know the truth, I packed my bags the next morning and headed home with my tail between my legs.  It was later that week, when I looked at the images on the light box (yes it was back in the olden days of film) that I saw what I had and the lesson sank in. No matter where you are, no matter how crappy the light is, always take a moment to sit down, breathe and really look around at your surroundings. An instructor at school must have had this in mind as he yelled out to my class long ago, "there is no such thing as bad light, only bad photographers."

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Lessons in Photography - Exposure 101: Controls

Of all the questions that beginning photographers seem to ask most often, the majority of them seem to involve exposure. Why is my photo so dark? Why is my photo so light? I don't understand what all these numbers mean. Photography is the art of exposing light onto film... I mean digital sensor (sigh). If you don't understand exposure, you don't understand photography. It is as simple as that. Yes, you may get some good or even great images but it is akin to guessing at the horse track and coming home a winner. It may happen for a while, but when that perfect light is shining on that perfect mountain peak on the third day of your perfect backpacking trip, you probably prefer to not leave your results up to chance. So grab a cup of coffee, clear you brain, and try to get a handle on the basics of exposure. It is easier than you may think.

Exposing an image is similar to filling a glass of water at a faucet. You can turn the faucet on very slowly and dribble the water in for a long time, or you can open the faucet wide for a very short time and fill the glass quickly. The goal is simply to fill the glass full with the correct amount of water.The lens acts in a similar manner. You simply want to expose the sensor to the correct amount of light. There are three basic controls on every camera to accomplish this task.

Aperture: The aperture is the size of the opening of the shutter. They are those funny numbers on the barrel of the lens (4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22). You might see them referred to with a f/ in front of them like f/8 or f/16. Modern digital cameras may only have the aperture on the LCD display screen. Counterintuitively, the numbers are inverses. The smaller the number, the larger the opening and the larger the number, the smaller the opening. The aperture acts like the faucet on the sink. Small openings (f/22, f/16) are similar to dribbling the water into the glass. Large openings (f4, f5.6) act like turning the faucet on full force. To fully fill the glass, you need to leave the faucet on for a certain length of time which brings us to...

Shutter Speed: The shutter speed is usually found on a control dial on old film cameras and on the display screen for nearly all digital cameras. The numbers may be as short as 1/5000 of a second (it may be displayed as 5000) to as long as several seconds or even minutes (usually referred to as 2 sec, 2", 2 min, or 2' on the LCD screen). The shutter speed is analogous to how long you leave the faucet open. If you open the faucet just a crack then you need to leave it open for a long time to fill the glass. If you crank that sucker wide open, then it takes a very short time to fill the glass. On a camera lens, the shutter speed is simply the time the aperture is open and letting light stream through to strike the sensor.

ASA or ISO (same thing): OK, this is where the water glass analogy breaks down. The ASA is simply the sensitivity of the sensor to the light falling on it. Lower numbers (ASA 100, ASA 200) are less sensitive to light and require longer shutter speeds or larger aperture openings. Higher numbers (ASA 1000, HI) can use faster shutter speeds and smaller apertures.

As you might guess, there are trade-offs and advantages to all of these controls and we will talk about those in the next lesson. While you are waiting with anxious anticipation, try fiddling with your camera. Set the camera on automatic mode and change the aperture. Watch how the camera adjusts the shutter speed to compensate for your changing the size of the opening. Next, set the camera controls to manual and pick an aperture and shutter speed (if it is sunny, try starting at 1/125 of a second at f/8 at 100 ASA). After checking the exposure in the LCD screen, try adjusting the shutter speed while leaving the aperture alone. You should start to see a change in exposure. Have fun and I will see you for the next lesson.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Story Behind The Image-Half Dome At Sunset

The young boy sat next to his father at the Glacier Point Overlook. He looked bored and obviously didn't want to be there as his father set up his tripod and camera. The boy shuffled and complained, whined and sulked, while the minutes ticked by and the sun slowly sank down to the horizon. I walked past the pair and headed further away from the viewpoint to escape the crush of photographers and visitors waiting for the evening show.

It was going to be great light that evening. I could feel it inside of me.  I can never explain how I know. Intuition, that crazy combination of experience and luck, has lead to some of my best images in the past and I hoped it would prove true that evening. The cracks is the clouds allowed colored rays to shoot across the sky and illuminate the mountain tops. The next five minutes gave me some of the best sunset light the Sierra Nevada could provide. The rocks glowed with gold, then yellow, then orange, and finally red. The show ended with the highest and furthest peaks bathed in a surreal purplish haze of alpenglow.

The entire experience lasted about twenty minutes and I shot over 12 rolls of film during that time. I had never before, nor since, changed rolls so quickly, barely taking the time to stuff the film back into the canisters. After it was over, I slowly made my way back to my truck and passed the man and the young boy again. This time the man was trying to get the child to move and the boy was planted firmly on a rock, not wanting to budge an inch. He turned to his father and pleaded, "just one more minute Dad. I want to see if the mountains will change color again." The father sat down next to the boy and they stared out into the darkening sky. I thought to myself as I opened the door to my truck, "I couldn't have said it better myself."

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

5 Tips For Better Nature Photography

Did you ever go on a walk with the camera and not shoot a single frame? Did you ever come upon a great scene and not come home with an image that lives up to the memory? Are you just plain bored with photography? Here are five easy and simple ideas to fix your photographic dilemma.

Look Down: In our quest to find the next great vista, many times photographers forget to look down at the ground in front of them. At your feet is an endless supply of graphic designs waiting to be recorded on film. Pine cones nestling on a bed of needles, a tiny wildflower swimming in a sea of grass, or layers of rock sweeping across a desert are just a few of the millions of possibilities. If you don't live anywhere  near a wilderness, or you are just plain bored with your surroundings, or you are stuck watching the kids in the backyard, looking down is a sure-fire remedy to get out of a rut and start creating images.

Look Up: More than once, while photographing a scene overhead, hikers walk by, gasp, and confess they never would have noticed the scene if I hadn't been by the side of the trail with my camera. Many times a mediocre photo trip has been saved by a pocket of mist in the canopy of the trees far overhead. The message is simple, don't forget to look up. Above you might be soaring tree trunks, brilliantly lit alpine peaks, or a crescent moon peeking around a cliff. At the very least, you will stretch your aching neck muscles.

Change Your Perspective: If you ever run into a professional nature photographer in the field at work, chances are they are on their knees or even on their stomach. Why do we spend all that time on the ground? Well, frankly, images taken at eye-level are for the most part (how should I put this delicately?) BORING! We spend most of our lives seeing the world at eye-level. Any photograph taken at a different height becomes unique and interesting. So the next time you are framing the image, remember to try to get low. It just might make a world of difference.

Narrow Your Focus: Most closeup images I see suffer from distracting backgrounds. As nature photographers, we may be tempted to try to get as much in focus as possible, but that can be the death blow to a macro image. Use the largest aperture as practical (think f/4 or f/5.6). The large opening in the lens will only allow for a very narrow depth of field. That, however, is exactly what you are looking for. Shoot wide open, focus perfectly on the subject, and watch the background change from your neighbor's cluttered lawn to beautiful curtains of pastel draped across the image. As an added bonus, wide open apertures allow for faster shutter speeds. That allows you to freeze that flower in a slight (and I stress slight) breeze. A win-win situation and those rarely happen in this business.

Isolate Your Idea: My college instructor shouted this suggestion out at critique twenty years ago and it still rings in my ears today, "FILL THE FRIGGIN' FRAME!" I have one complaint about most photos I see; the subject is lost somewhere in the rest of the clutter on the image. If you want to include the foreground in your shot, that's fine. However, if you really want the viewer to be amazed by the brilliant last light of day shining on that distant peak, you better use a telephoto lens to isolate the mountain in the frame. If you don't have a long enough lens you can always crop the image in the computer later on.

Most people spend their lives in a form of tunnel vision, viewing the world through eye level. Most nature photographers spend most of their lives trying to escape that viewpoint to create amazing photos. On your next photography trip, try some of the ideas above to mix up your life's viewpoint a little bit and come home with a great image.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Story Behind The Image - Dream Forest

Sometimes concepts are born out of necessity. The deep forests of the Pacific Northwest are some of my favorite places to photograph. I never seem to grow weary of the endless patterns of green and brown that blanket the mountains, valleys, and coastlines of this corner of the country. The soft diffused light of an overcast day is the perfect situation to capture the colors and contrasts of the deep forests Oftentimes though, I find myself wandering among the trees as the afternoon sun filters through the forest canopy creating a less than ideal situation. While the sunlight creates an atmosphere of dramatic majesty, the harsh contrast between the brightly lit trees and the shadows on the forest floor is too great for a single exposure to handle. In the modern age of digital photography there are many ways to compensate for this problem but during the age of film, it was another story.

On an afternoon trip to the Oregon coast, I was hiking a trail through the forest to a small secluded beach. I came to a small grouping of tree trunks that stood in a striking formation. I was about to file the location in the back of my brain for future reference when an idea popped into my head. Why not expose the film for the highlights to capture the color and then bleed the exposure across the image by panning the camera using a slow shutter speed. If it worked, it would effectively eliminate the shadows. With no way to preview the images, I stood in the forest for the next hour, panning the camera using different shutter speeds and different exposures. I tossed the four rolls of film into my camera bag and continued down the trail toward my planned destination. Two days later, I saw the results for the first time when I picked up my film at the lab. Most of the frames were filled with beautiful swirling color but they failed miserably to provide any context to the scene. There was one image where the trunks of the trees and the sunlit canopy were aligned just enough to understand what I was looking at.

Today, I can check exposure on the LCD screen of my fancy digital camera. I can take multiple exposures with my camera and combine them in my computer to create an image that captures the deepest shadows and the brightest highlights. Today, there is no need to wait for two days to see if you captured your vision on film. I still miss that moment of anticipation at the lab when the technician hands over those rolls of developed film. Sometimes I think I should turn that screen off and wait two days to see the results....but I never do.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Influences-Joel Meyerowitz

It was the summer of 1988 and I had left the Grand Canyon to work in a bike store on Cape Cod. After tinkering with gears and hawking bikes for the day, I checked the surf report and usually found it flat. After I grabbed my camera, I hopped into the car and headed up the Cape for the evening light. On one of my rambles, the clouds rolled in,and I found myself wandering though a bookstore in Provincetown. I picked up a copy of Joel Meyerowitz's "Cape Light" and it changed the way I looked at photography forever.

The scenes did not explode off the page like the garish colorful visions of the west I was used to. The colors were muted, if they were even present at all. The horizon line sewed together the water and sky seamlessly. The entire image ebbed and flowed like water across the page. The scenes did not command you to take notice, rather they tempted you to wade in. The images were not meant to be experienced, they were meant to be savored. The more time you spent with them, the more you appreciated them. They captured the emotion of the landscape perfectly.

I still love when the light colors the landscape with that crystal clear intensity that occurs so often in the American West.  But when the colors are more subdued and the horizon line begins to fade, Mr. Meyerowitz's images taught me to be a little more patient, to look a little deeper and appreciate your surroundings for what they are and not what you hoped they would be. You can see more of Mr. Meyerowitz's work at

Friday, May 20, 2011

Story Behind the Image-San Diego Sunset

The gray settled and blanketed the coastline one hour before sunset. The overcast robbed the beach and ocean of their color and left me sitting on a rock next to my tripod, hoping for a little luck. Ten minutes before the scheduled sunset, I finally gave up, packed up my gear and began the trek back down the beach to my car. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a little ray of light peeking through the smallest opening in the clouds. I kept walking, refusing to believe anything would come of it. The hole cracked open a little more and the clouds began to glow. I ran back to the spot I had chosen and set up the camera as the color spread second by second across the sky. The entire sky exploded into pastels, followed by oranges, and then reds. The clouds seemed to realize their mistake and closed the hole as quickly as it had opened. The color drained from the scene like water down a drain. I looked at my watch and realized the entire event took place in less than five minutes. Good gifts really do come in small packages.