If you didn’t know before, you know now –
To many people the word desert conjures up images of dunes, rippling sand, cactus and brutal temperatures. While some of that might be true, many deserts are far from that. Their lushness and color just might surprise you. Even though I’ve never lived near one, I’ve always loved the desert. High desert especially. That’s one of the reasons I keep returning to the west. The immensity of it just gets to me. The ever-changing face of it. Here are some of my favorite desert images from my recent trip to California.
First is a sunset taken just outside Bishop at the start of Silver Canyon. Unfortunately no clouds came to play so I was very glad the earth brought its own colors.
I just love this next one. It’s the same sunset, but with the hill in shadow and the sun lighting up that terrifically fluffy plant. I have no idea what it is, but I love it. I think it’s the ribbon of trail leading up and out of the frame that makes it so magical for me.
Ok, so this next one isn’t so much desert as mountains, but in the Sierras they go together. The colors in this are just amazing and again, made up for the lack of clouds. I think this is my first ever shot of alpenglow – that pink glow of wonderfullness on the snowy peaks.
Of course the desert is not all soft colors and gentle hills. It’s mostly a harsh environment that takes willpower to survive in. Except for the sunrise shot, the others were all taken with a pretty stiff wind blowing. So much so that my long exposures lack clarity because my lightweight, travel tripod wasn’t heavy enough. That wind was nothing. A few days later in Mono Basin we had steady wind in the 20 mph range with frequent gusts up to 50mph. Unreal. It made it very difficult to deal with and I worried that my camera would be clogged. The grit flew everywhere! Up my nose. In my eyes. I swear it took 10 minutes to rinse my hair in the shower that night. Mostly it was pumice from the volcanoes that created this whole valley. It’s so light that it flies in wind.
Anyway, these next two shots are taken right near the Mono Craters. It was one of the only times the harsh light actually worked in my favor. The fire was recent; in the last couple of years and not a thing is growing yet. Nothing. Zip. It was pretty creepy actually because other than the unrelenting wind, nothing moved or made a sound. No birds. That was the most noticeable. Compare it to the next shot where the desert has come back after a much earlier fire.
The proximity of a big lake, mountains and desert makes for some extreme weather. No doubt these clouds had something to do with the wind. Aren’t they great? Like the clouds that hid the alien ships in Independence Day.
Not the most intimate of portraits. Believe me I felt my visitor status the whole time I was out there. So overawed by it all I had very little time to really get to know it. Besides that I had to balance my photography with our vacation and not drive my ever-patient husband crazy. Only once during the whole trip did I feel my photo mania irritated him, so I dialed back and we were good.
How are a landscape photographer and a vampire alike?
Neither goes outside at noon.
Seriously, it makes you wonder doesn’t it? Blood-sucking fiend and Fun-sucking fiend, both taking the joy right out of life.
I recently stopped following a landscape photographer’s blog because he just kept going on and on about only shooting at the crack of dawn. You know what? It’s pompous. It makes me wonder if the guy is really any good. Why can’t he get a terrific photo during the day, huh? Why cantcha snooty landscape photographer guy? You know what else? It’s boring. Every single photo looks the same as every single other photo. Lots of pastel-colored snow scenes with blue shadows and a few fences, trees and churches. Nice, but dull. Technically well-executed, but a yawn fest. I mean, if that’s all you do it’s pretty repetitive. Plus you have to stay inside all day and where’s the fun in that?
Don’t misunderstand, I get the appeal of shooting when the sun is low, but I don’t get the strictness about it. It’s almost like religious dogma with some photographers. I mean, hell, I’m out all day sometimes, does that mean I shouldn’t take pictures? Baloney.
I. Don’t. Buy. It.
I took that shot at about midday last spring. No, it isn’t subtle and all soft and glowing with pastel shades, but it’s still a good photograph. Sometimes photography means working with the light you have. It’s knowing how that can help you make the most of what you find. Using this same shot as an example, what did I do that helped? I used a polarizing filter. Knowing that color would be one of the things to make the shot work, I made sure I had the best of it in that reflection.
Ever hear the expression “perfect is the enemy of good”? Well, that’s how I think of these other golden hour only photographers. They sacrifice good images on the altar of perfect (or their ideas of perfect) and who knows if they ever please themselves. Yes, there is such a thing as perfect light, but it varies by subject matter and what kind of photograph you want. I’d rather be flexible than rigid. I’d rather know how to deal with “imperfect” light than only venture out twice a day. With the vampires.
So what else. Oh yeah, how about vacation. For most of us it means going to a place we probably won’t go back to again. Once in a lifetime kind of thing. You have to work with what you find. What if the sky doesn’t have nice, puffy clouds in it like that first photo? What if the sky is boring and dull? Well put something in it –
Or find something in the foreground to take its place –
Another one shot when the sun is high and guess what? It doesn’t suck. Who wants to drag their asses out of bed at dawn on vacation every day? Not this little gray duck. Once, maybe twice, but not every day. Hell. It’s vacation.
All right, what if the light itself is flat and dull? Isolate. Get out your telephoto, baby. Sometimes tightening up on big vistas can give you little slices that are just as interesting.
Another thing you can do is scout your location beforehand. This can present you with ideas you can use when the light changes. Take this example –
I shot this on my 2nd or 3rd trip to this location. From past visits I knew how the light would track in the afternoon and because I’d seen it in the trees before, I knew that it would also light up the ice in the gorge. Ta da! It worked. And it’s what makes this photo. Not the subject – the LIGHT. And it’s not sundown either. By the time the sun sinks that low up there, the light is gone from this gorge. Mr. Snooty Landscape Photographer would have missed this completely.
See…you don’t need to only photograph during the golden hours (roughly ½ hour before and after the sun rises or sets, also called civil twilight), but if you know how to manage the light you have, you can usually come up with something you’ll be happy with. After a little practice you can make almost any scene work for you. Good light is what you make of it. Of course, getting there early is never a bad idea –
The other day someone asked what made a good black and white photograph. He went on to say that he only uses black and white processing when he’s trying to achieve an old photo look, but noticed when someone converted one of his color images to black and white it looked better because the distracting color of an object was eliminated. While both might be good reasons for sometimes converting to monochrome, I find the approach puzzling. Why use monochrome to “save” a picture only? Or to fake a vintage look? Then I thought about it a little more and wondered if this kind of thing happens because people new to photography have never shot film. My initial conclusion was borne out in a limited way by conversations I had with two photography buddies. One has a good eye and often produces excellent images, but only has digital camera experience where every image starts in color. My other friend on the other hand shot a lot of Tri-X in the past and we agreed that if you do this enough, you can get a feel for the gray value of color.
But it’s not the grays that make a monochrome image sing – it’s the blacks and whites. You’ve got to have both extremes to make it work. Even if you clip a little in the highs and lows, it’s better than having a dull, lifeless image swimming in gray. Depending on the mood you want to strike, lots of contrast can work to make an image sing as well. Don’t get carried away, but don’t be afraid to play with those sliders.
You can’t do all your work in post processing though. You’ve got to put the camera to your eye and envision things in black and white. Because there will be no color to catch or lead the eye, you must be especially careful about compositional elements and the forms and structures you’re photographing. A black and white image has to be even stronger in composition and framing than a color photograph. If it’s weak in color, it will be doubly so in monochrome. Remember that the eye instinctively looks towards white and light shades first. We also react very well to strong shapes defined by dark and light areas.
One exercise that may help you is to set your camera to record black and white jpegs. You can have it give you raw files, too, if you want color renditions. But if you really want to figure out what works and what doesn’t in black and white, set your camera to monochrome (most DSLRs and many high-end compacts have this mode, you just need to find it). You will still see in color through the viewfinder, but live view will be in black and white. Look at the differences. How differently does your eye follow through the image in color versus B&W? Are your forms strong enough? Can your subject be recognized (identified) without color? Are the gray values of the colors too close and without definition? Are you working with strong leading lines? Do you see pure white and black? It shouldn’t take you long to get the hang of it.
Once you’ve got your images on your computer, process them in the normal way, adding contrast, sharpness and cropping if needed. You can further enhance your images with white balance, color sliders in B&W mode and curves. If you can add grain, play with it. Tri-X film had some beautiful grain back before they changed it to T-Max and we loved using that as part of the mood of our images.
Oh and one more thing – don’t be afraid to take chances with black and white. Go for the unconventional. Do a black and white rainbow picture. Try a sunset in black and white. How about a flower? The beach? If your subject is strong in terms of form and you’ve nailed the composition, there’s almost no reason a B&W image can’t be as strong as a color image. Identify what’s interesting your subject – is it shape? Texture? Light and shadow? Framing? Mood? Use black and white to enhance those things that might be overwhelmed by color.
Here are a few more images that I think work particularly well in B&W. All were shot in color since I work from raw files, but each was done with a final B&W image in mind. Some were done this way because there was little color in the scene, some because the forms, lines, shapes or shadows made me go hey – I don’t need color for this one. They are all from my Black and White Gallery.
So to recap –
1. Set your camera to monochrome jpeg mode
2. Use live view to ‘see’ in black and white
3. Check for strong compositions and recognizable subjects
4. Make sure you have pure white and black in your picture
5. Take chances and have fun
Check out Black and White Photography 201
I can’t help it. Discouraged and in my weird place I still had the urge to go out after a storm and take pictures of my front garden. The process itself made me happy and that hasn’t changed.
I basically just walked the driveway and the shoveled path and used the legacy OM 90mm f2 lens. The light was lovely and it was freezing, but I enjoyed myself. That’s important, but this new feeling of purposelessness is not good. I used to shoot for it’s own sake, but now it seems empty somehow. I don’t know if it will wear off or if this is really the impetus to take the next step and try to make this into a business. A small one anyway. But will that remove the enjoyment? See…this is what I’m bent around the axle about. Part of it anyway.
My husband is a runner and goes to races in the area. Sometimes I go with him if there’s something interesting to photograph in the vicinity. On New Year’s Day he went to Salisbury Massachusetts and so I went to walk the Old Eastern Marsh Trail that runs about a mile and a quarter. I wore the completely wrong shoes and ended up with wet feet from the sloppy slush, but I did get some gems –
I did a bit of research and found that the Great Marsh is the largest uninterrupted stretch of salt marsh in New England. It is protected to preserve habitat for all kinds of birds, fish and other wildlife. The Merrimack River empties here and so there are many tributaries in the delta, some of them still with open water making for some great reflections.
At one time people harvested hay from the marsh, and although there weren’t any staddles that I could see, there was this lone fence post. I really liked it with the cattails and grasses all matted down. As it was a bit far off and I couldn’t get closer I used the legacy Olympus 135mm f2.8 lens.
It looks like last year there was a boat tour of the marsh and I’ll have to remember that for this coming summer. Alive with birds the Great Marsh must be wonderful.
Isn’t it funny how time gets away from us when we’re in the zone? Most of the time it’s when you think you’ve been crouched down photographing for just a few minutes, but really it’s been an hour and your companions have deserted you in search of warmth, shelter or just something more interesting than watching you. A bit of a mind flip and you’re into the time slip!
Sometimes though, it can go the other way. What seemed like at least 1/2 hour the other day, I realize now was barely 10 minutes. The sounds of nearby dogs and owners playing faded away and even the sound of the ocean, just a few feet away, slipped out of my consciousness and I tried to remember what it was like to play.
While I didn’t shoot a ton of frames, I experimented with a lot of angles and compositions. I at first didn’t like the complexity of the backgrounds, but then decided I did and included the old military fort next to this playground.
My husband stood politely aside, exiting from shots as I moved around. Noticing his shadow in the way even before I did. Patiently watching me. Even brushing me off when I got up from the sand. I felt bad about taking so much time on what was a beautiful, but windy and cold day. Then when I got home and looked at the time stamps I realized only 10 minutes had passed from first to last. He got off lucky, really. I’ve been known to really lose track of time when we’re out. Hikes take at least 1/3 longer than estimated because I stop so much. Vacations always include lots of time exploring weird things or areas. He doesn’t mind though. I think in some way he enjoys it. Like when I go watch him run 5ks or other races. Sure, I’m standing around doing nothing. Sometimes freezing. But it’s part of togetherness and I don’t mind at all.
On the way home from an appointment I took a rather long detour which brought me by the Hopkinton-Everett Dam. It was built in the early 60s as part of a flood control measure. In 1938 there was a powerful hurricane that caused immense damage and destruction. The Piscataquog, like other rivers, overflowed its banks and raged unchecked for days. It’s one of the most picturesque rivers in NH and important part of the Merrimack river basin.
Anyway, I got there after the peak color, but the golden glow is still pretty spectacular in the afternoon sun.
The Everett lake is a popular spot in the summer for swimming and boating. I hunted around on the shore to find just the right foreground framing elements and really like the results, especially the white of the birch trunks –
I walked up top in the bright sun and couldn’t help a few perspective shots –
As you can see, the tower platform is guarded with chain link fence, but more importantly it is guarded by swarms of hornets that made me so mental that I got out of there fast. I guess the unusually warm day and bright sun had them active, but with so few flowers or whatever they had nothing to do except buzz around in little swarms and terrorize me. They were even on the railings and flying between the slats. Ick. I made my escape.
I didn’t exactly run, but I was really glad to be away from the bored, buzzing, kamikaze hornets.
Props to the writers of Fringe for the great company name. I’m surprised it is still available for TV to use and I couldn’t resist borrowing it for this series of photos. I think it encapsulates the industrial authority of the bridge and the persistent ecology that it spans. That being the Merrimack river.
A funny story led me to photograph this bridge. My mom has a neighbor who we think isn’t right in the head. If it’s the person I remember from my childhood, she used to be married and had a couple of kids. Now it’s pretty clear she’s alone and probably a hoarder although our only evidence for this is the couple of junked cars in the yard. This is not the strange part though. The strange part is the fact that she walks to work. Ok, by itself that’s not so weird, but it is a long way. Probably 8 miles one way on secondary roads with no sidewalks or other pedestrian aids. And she has to cross a river. The Merrimack.
Only problem is the one footbridge I know of is in the city and quite a bit out of the way. The other bridges are highways and the one nearest her isn’t open to pedestrians…like any highways are. So that leaves a disused train trestle. At first I pictured something rickety, dangerous and falling to pieces, inducing visions of stumbling and watching my shoe drop away from me into the raging water below. I should have known better. This is a train bridge after all. Infrastructure built to last.
Maybe 20 years ago it was still possible to get a car over this bridge. My husband’s friend surprised him by showing up at the house a good 15 minutes before expected because he used this bridge instead of the legal one. He was so casual about it – “oh I used that old train bridge down the road” – like it was nothing. Now though it’s blocked off by a berm. Supposedly some assholes dumped some stolen cars off it. Looks like that would be really hard to do. And what’s the point of stealing cars just to dump them in the river? Ah, urban legends.
Damn, look at that bridge. Isn’t it great? I can’t believe I’ve gone by it thousands of times and never stopped to look. It’s visible from a main road that connects my neighborhood to the highway. Incredible. And you can see it from the car when you’re on the main bridge over the river. I’ve seen it hundreds of times that way, but never close up.
When I explored it was a nice day. High 60s or low 70s. Breezy. The sun was out most of the time. Pretty much perfect if a tad cloudy. Not so bad for this lady to make her way across every day. The scenery is worth it even if she didn’t need to get to work. Looking up river gives the best view –
Pretty cool. But what about at night? What about winter? What about winter at night? Apparently this doesn’t give the walking lady a second thought. Or a first. She wears black and nothing reflective. I don’t even know if she uses a flashlight. She’s gonna get smacked by a car one of these days. Either that or she’s going to run into a bunch of kids out drinking on the beach under the bridge. It’s crazy. Why doesn’t she get one of the junked cars working? Or take a bus…I’m pretty sure it’s possible, but she would still have to walk a few miles to the nearest stop. Why doesn’t she get a job on her side of the river (there’s another Macy’s over there, so it shouldn’t be that hard)? Freakin’ weird. Maybe someday she’ll turn into an urban legend, too. Must be the bridge.