Sunday, October 31, 2010

Warm and Cool

I hope everyone is not too tired of fall scenery yet, because I have a lot of it coming up:) I must say, it's really good to get back to creating some new work after taking most of the year off to deal with moving and resettlement issues.  All that stuff is pretty much set for now, so with luck I can stay on a creative roll for a while.  The weather is finally changing here in the mountains as we get later into the fall and I should be able to find some interesting subjects locally as we move into winter.
We were lucky to pick just the right time and the right area to stay in Utah this year.. I could get up before the sun and drive only a couple of minutes down the road each morning to a great spot for the twilight and first light, then return to the lodge for breakfast, allowing my wife to sleep in and not have to stand around freezing and bored. The colors were absolutely peak perfect everywhere and even the weather cooperated; that's usually the wild card that you can't do anything about, given the narrow time frame of the trees' schedule.  I found a great variety of subjects within this one small area, which is always a convenient and relaxing way to work and bagging some good shots early makes the rest of the day seem more relaxed.. kind of takes off the pressure to get out and find that perfect scene and light.
I decided to leave the slight blue cast of the cold early morning light in the brighter areas of this image.. it makes for such a nice color combination with the yellow of the aspens and the cool green grass; kind of a fantasy look in the soft light.   

Thursday, October 28, 2010

SkyWatch: Head's in the Clouds

No kidding.. we WERE in the clouds all last week.  Nothing but fog, rain and cold every day, until Sunday when it started to clear up a bit.  Right after a storm is usually a great time for beautiful skies, so I was heading out to Joshua Tree for an afternoon of shooting among the rocks.  On the way down our mountain (Mt. San Jacinito) I had to hit the brakes and grab a quick panorama of this scene, looking across to the 11,500ft. (3505m) Mt. San Gorgonio sitting there quite contentedly, with it's peak clear and above the clouds.  Click the image for a bigger view on this one~!
For those of you not familiar with southern California, the I-10 freeway that heads directly from LA to Palm Springs, Phoenix and beyond is running directly below that low-level cloud layer... Palm Springs is just about 15 miles to the right.  The area you see in the foreground shows the foothills of Mt. San Jacinito and was devastated by a major fire in 2006.  Looks kind of recovered now from this far away, but up close you can still see evidence of the recent burning.  It was started by a nut job arsonist down near the freeway during a Santa Ana (powerful, hot, easterly winds that we tend to get in the Fall) wind event, with the intention of burning up the whole mountain, I suppose, but luckily it never got up into the forest where we live.. had that happened it would have been even worse that it was. 35 homes and 20 or so other buildings were destroyed and five firefighters were killed when they were suddenly overrun by the flames while defending some houses in the area that you can see in this shot. The guy who started it was convicted of arson and murder last year and sentenced to death.
Visit the SkyWatch site every weekend for beautiful sky shots from all around the world.
More fall colors from Utah coming up next...

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Serenity in Blue and Gold

After my last, rather long-winded post I'll try to keep it short and sweet for today.  So enough of the technical talk and back to the pretty pictures:)
While in Utah, we stayed just a mile or so from this peaceful little aspen-rimmed lake, named appropriately enough Aspen Mirror Lake, so I was able to get out there quite easily every morning before dawn and have the whole place to myself for a while, before even the fishermen showed up.
I will just mention that I needed no post-processing at all on this piece.. shot it on Velvia 100 and took it right from the scan, as-is.  Velvia is so naturally vibrant and saturated that you really don't need to do much if you get the exposure right... love it.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Why Film Still Rocks

I don't talk about techniques or equipment very often, because there are so many blogs and websites devoted to those subjects already... and I am generally more concerned about the artistic result, not how I get there. Today's post will be an exception, so if you're not into the finer points of image quality and printing your work, this one probably won't interest you much.
Many, perhaps most, people are satisfied if their photos look good on their blog or on-line photo gallery, which is fine and good... and almost any image WILL look fine in those environments. I won't imply that any tool or technology is right or wrong, but I wanted to try to explain how and why my own particular method has changed. 
So as an example, here at the top we have a full frame 4"x5" image that I just shot in Utah, scanned from a Fujifilm Velvia color transparency. (This is not the actual full-resolution image, of course, but the following crops are. Please click on the full frame for a bigger version first, though).
This was scanned at 1200 ppi, which resulted in a 5735 x 4584 (26.3 megapixel) image and a 75+MB file size (.tif format... a jpeg file would be much smaller, but jpegs are destructive, as you know:)  This is nowhere near the maximum resolution that film can be scanned, it just makes an easily manageable file size for most common purposes, i.e. web posting or small-to-medium sized prints.  In this case, if printed at 240 ppi, which I find to be very adequate on my printer, the resulting print would measure 19" x 24", a pretty healthy size for framing. Bigger than that, I would simply increase the scan resolution to 2400 ppi, or more if necessary.  The film itself remains intact and unchanged as your analog "RAW" file.. you can always go back and start over from the original source, just as you would from a digital RAW file.
To demonstrate the incredible amount of visual information captured here, I have framed four quite small areas of the larger image in pink and included a 100%, full-resolution crop of each highlighted area, so you can see the detail to be had. Click on each to get the full 1-1 pixel resolution. These are unadjusted and unsharpened, as is the top full frame, other than the standard optimization used during scanning. With a little work any of them could stand alone, I think. Pretty cool, eh? Notice the clarity and definition in the blades of grass, tree bark, small twigs and the individual leaves (you can count 'em if you want!) and the lack of colors bleeding into each other from overblown pixels, or fringing in high contrast areas that you often see in digital-capture files.
The last sample is a side-by-side matchup to a digital capture, shot from almost the same spot one day before.. I tried to get as close to the same spot as possible with the crop.. (you can see a round spot on the rock and a tilted tree that match) and you will notice how it resembles an impressionist painting by comparison. I did add a little sharpening to the digital image to make it half-way comparable. Honestly, I was kind of stunned at the difference. Now to be fair, my digital camera is no longer state-of-the-art at 12 MP, but even the highest-end current DSLRs costing $7 - 8K barely touch this resolution, which as I said, is actually pretty low for medium or large format film. I suspect a medium format digital capture would look very close, but medium format (6x6, 6x7, etc) digital cameras/backs can easily cost the equivalent of a luxury car before you even talk about lenses, accessories, etc. This becomes a cost/benefit situation.  The cheapest digital back that would fit on my Mamiya 6x7 starts at a cool $10K for 22MP, just for the back... and I can buy a whole lotta film for $10K. (And, the film is still better, just less CONVENIENT). The new Leaf/Aptus 80MP back goes for about $32K.. I can easily produce an 80MP file from this transparency without spending another penny. There are some more "affordable" medium format digital cameras coming out around $10K (Pentax 645D), but we'll have to wait and see how they do, I'm not sure where the market is for something like that.  The camera that took this photo cost me under $1000 brand new (it is beautifully hand-made by a small company of large-format enthusiasts in China and is a work of art in itself), plus a nice, good-as-new German made lens that I picked up on EBay for $350. Unlike a digital camera, it will not be out of date next year... or in 10 years. The basic design has already been around for the better part of a century.  Workflow after scanning is exactly the same.. process with Adobe Camera RAW as far as possible, add adjustment layers in Photoshop to fine tune... and then off to print, website, or wherever. I actually find I need less messing around with "film raw".. the colors are richer and more right-on right from the start.
Does any of this matter to the "quality" of a photograph?  Yes and no.  It certainly can't improve improve the light, the composition, the color, the timing, the concept.. all those things that make up a good photograph as a whole, but there IS a certain expectation and respect for detail and print quality when it comes to landscape art, so from that perspective it is certainly a big advantage in at least one area. Disadvantages? Without doubt more cumbersome and slow to work with, no zoom lenses, no sophisticated built in light meter, no instant preview, no instant 5 shot bracketing to cover your exposure mistakes, but somehow it just feels more like the "real deal", at least the way I originally learned and fell in love with it, and had almost forgotten.
I think that's enough about large format, for today at least. Shooting in medium format is much closer to working with a typical digital SLR, while image detail remains superior... and it's very cost-effective. I find it to be an excellent compromise. I'll talk a little about that sometime soon.

Saturday, October 9, 2010


Now there IS an actual area of Bryce named Fairyland Point, but this is NOT it:) I just thought the name so appropriate for this scene, taken not too long after the one in my last post... these clouds are the fringe areas of the storm seen in that shot.  I don't think you can find shapes and textures like this anywhere else in the world.  Although the colors here are fantastic, I find them almost a distraction in a heavily textured view like this, especially in mid-day light where they are much too harsh for my taste, thus the black and white treatment. For most of the day, the clouds were softening the light, making it much nicer to work in color and the rain showers really seem to intensify the red in the soil when it gets wet.
Color stuff coming up next....

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Sky Watch: Clouds with Virga Over the Canyon

I'll be regaling you all with countless, serene scenes of Fall color from Utah soon enough, but I thought I'd tease you with some black and white in the meantime.  This one just looks more foreboding in monochrome:)   I'm really disappointed if I travel somewhere to shoot and see nothing but blue skies... in this case the forecast held true and we had lots of interesting weather to go with the beautiful colors.  (No snow like I experienced a couple of years ago during the same weekend, though.)  This thunderstorm started as a little puff of cloud in the mid-morning and grew very rapidly as we were making our way down Bryce Canyon from point to point (my wife had never been here), finally dumping rain... and cooling the temperature from comfortable in a tee shirt to cool in a jacket, in a matter of a few minutes. It was pretty much like this every day, so a couple of times during the trip we had to give up or hurry up due to thunder and lightning, but overall it was very worth it for scenes like this and the temperature was quite pleasant the whole time.
Visit the SkyWatch home page each Friday for more great sky pics from all around the world.