Random Thought of the Day

I managed to motivate my lazy, procrastinating self to clean out my junk drawer in the kitchen last night. I found an old fortune that I’d kept from a meal long ago.

At some point, every photographer has heard the advice to not pass up an opportunity. I’ve missed many over time, and I’ve slowly learned to take the time, stop, and take advantage of any scene or event that I think has potential.

Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it doesn’t. But you never know unless you try.

Which reminds me… my camera is doing me no good sitting in the closet at home ;-)

Visual Diary

I’ve tried many times in the past to keep a personal written diary or journal. I would love to document the events in my life and keep a record of it all. But as much as I’ve tried, I am not disciplined enough to keep writing.

near the summit of Guadalupe Peak

Several weeks ago, I got a new phone with a camera in it. It’s a low quality 2-megapixel camera that’s even worse than the first digital camera (also 2-MP) that I bought 8 years ago. But for the first time in my life, I have an accessible camera with me at all times (because my phone is always with me).

What I’ve discovered is, despite the poor technical quality, I use this on-phone camera on a daily basis. I can whip the thing out and snap a pic in little time. The ease of use is primarily the reason why I’m taking photos often.

The result is that I’m creating somewhat of a visual diary of my life. These little snapshots capture seemingly ordinary events, but stuff that I will want to remember (like taking the kids on an evening bike ride or trying a new beer that I might want to buy again).

This isn’t new and I’m coming very late to this new technology. But it’s new to me and I’m enjoying it. The other benefit I’m enjoying is being able to send these phone shots via message to other people.

Regarding the photo above, it’s a phone-photo snap I took just after we left Guadalupe Peak last weekend. I took it so that I could send it and quickly share it with other people back home. It did feel a little weird because I had my proper camera gear with me at the time :-) But it was a great moment in time to capture and share instantly.

The Sabinal River

The Sabinal River near Utopia, Texas:

click to see larger

Two weekends ago, my family and I spent 5 days vacationing in the Texas Hill Country. We stayed in a house on the Sabinal River near Utopia. I’m slowly going through my photos, and I will post a few more of them in the coming days.

My wife asked me the other day how I was doing photography-wise and if I felt like I was back in the game. I really didn’t have an answer then and I still don’t now, despite thinking about it a lot lately.

What I do know is that I definitely had an urge to get out and photograph. I came home with 1245 photos :-) of course about half of that take were action shots of us using the rope swing to jump into the river (and my mom used my camera to take a bunch of those).

What was interesting is that my usual super-eager attitude and desire for photographing was not there. Or rather, it was quite diinished. I guess you could say that my desires have matured perhaps. I moved slower, picked through the landscape slower, and really didn’t care if I took a photo at all. I had no expectations and no stress (I guess it was a real vacation then :-) ).

Something has definitely changed in my photographic attitude and drive. I realize this is boring to you and probably not worth stating. I doubt you’ve even read this far (maybe you just looked at the photo and nothing else… and that’s just fine :-) ). But I wanted to write it down just as a journal-type entry to capture how I’m developing. And right now I kinda don’t care. I’m just going with it… and we’ll see what happens.

Gray Skies Over Big Bend

I used to sigh and put the camera away at the sight of heavy, gray clouds hanging over the landscape. The flat, dim lighting used to not inspire me photographically. But my approach to photographing in these conditions has changed in the past year and I think it has a lot to do with the realization of my photographic style.

Essentially, what I’ve realized is that the form of the land can be visually described with great clarity and impact. The landscape is distilled to its basic shapes and lines, i.e. it’s core content. It’s like looking at a pen and ink sketch instead of a color photograph.

Well, that’s sorta obvious :-) No revelations there. But there are a couple of tricks that can help to make better such photos of dimly-lit landscapes with gray skies: 1) using the patterns and shapes that are present in the clouds, and 2) strong compositions. It is, however, a matter of taste and subject to your own personal photographic vision.

These type of photos usually convey a moody emotion – typically sadness, isolation, or deep calm. I get that too sometimes, but I also feel like I’m experiencing the raw landscape on a deep level. It’s not colored by pretty light, and I prefer black and white to take away the typically muted and dull colors found in dim, diffused light (this isn’t always the case; one example being the bright yellow and orange leaves of trees in the fall season, but this post is more about exposed landscapes that have little color in such lighting conditions).

Tornillo Creek near the Hot Springs, #1
(click for slightly larger pic)

Canon 5D with Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L
25mm, f/11, ISO 100, blend of 2 exposures: 1/50 & 1/20 sec.

On a recent trip to Big Bend National Park, one afternoon I experienced unusually heavy, gray clouds that blanketed the entire sky. This condition would have turned me off, photographically speaking, but I became very inspired because of the patterns in the clouds. I knew that I could work with those patterns and find strong forms and lines in the landscape to create photos that featured the essence of the land.

Tornillo Creek near the Hot Springs, #2
(click for slightly larger pic)

Canon 5D with Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L
27mm, f/11, ISO 100, blend of 2 exposures: 1/50 & 1/20 sec.

Whether you like them or not, again, is a matter of your personal taste. Nearly all photos of Big Bend are in color and a good many of them feature some sort of dramatic lighting condition.

I see a lot of photographers whose style focuses on the light, particularly golden, directional, and dramatic light. You’ve probably seen this style announced with a statement of their creed of “chasing”, “following”, “capturing”, or “being led by” the light. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I’ve done a lot of that in my own photography. I think nearly everyone is attracted to dramatic lighting conditions and finds them appealing and moving. At the very least, they are certainly eye-catching.

But I also think that amazing light can be very distracting from the true form of the landscape. The land is beautiful even when distilled down to its basic components of shape and line. If you take away the warm light, dramatic shadows, and eye-piercing colors, you are then left to focus entirely on (and enjoy) the core essence of the landscape. (Like when I tell my wife that she’s just as beautiful without makeup on – but she never believes me.)

BTW, my portfolio of photos from this trip to Big Bend is now complete and online:

There is also an extended gallery that is a visual trip report:

The Window, Part 2

Part 2 covers the second morning I spent shooting in the Basin of the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park. This morning produced dramatically different clouds and light than the previous morning.

Parts 1 and 2 cover my attempts to document the Window in my own way for my ongoing photo project on Big Bend.

click for slightly larger pic

Canon 40D with Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L & polarizer
24mm, f/8, ISO 200, blend of exposures from 1/30 to 1/10 sec.

I wasn’t inspired to take a tightly composed, cropped-in photo of the Window. I’d say the majority of the Window shots I see are just that – only the Window, i.e. a tight shot of the classic V-notch (and also the view through the Window to the lower desert beyond, but the air is often too hazy to make out good details).

The photo above is the tightest composition I could stand to take, but I still included a lot of the surrounding mountains and sky.

What I think best reflects my experiences in Big Bend, and particularly in the Basin, is more of the whole package rather than some isolated component. What pleases my eye is seeing the surrounding components and the stuff that connects to the main feature to tell the story better and put the main feature into proper context.

click for slightly larger pic

Canon 5D with Canon 17-40mm f/4L & polarizer
19mm, f/11, ISO 100, blend of exposures from 1/15 to 1/2 sec.

The shot above puts the Window about as small as possible by using almost the widest focal length I have, and it’s my favorite shot from that morning. It’s perhaps a little ordinary because of the simple composition – the Window is dead-smack in the center.

But when I look at it, I feel something. It stirs up some emotions. It possibly captures more essence of the Basin than just specifically the Window itself. You see how the Basin is this fertile, green pocket that’s walled-off by mountains and clouds. Yet, despite the wide angle of view, the main feature (the Window) is highlighted by direct light.

I like it, but that’s just me. What do you think?

The Window, Part 1

The Window is a feature of the Chisos Mountain Basin in Big Bend National Park. It’s a notch in the mountains that ring the Basin, and it’s the primary drainage path for rain water. It’s also a great “frame” for watching and photographing the sunset (you face west when looking through The Window from within The Basin).

These two photos (below) were taken at sunrise when the light was hitting the Window directly. I spent two mornings in a row, during our recent trip to the park, observing and photographing the sunrise from atop a large boulder in the Basin.

click for slightly larger pic

Canon 5D with Canon 17-40mm f/4L
17mm, f/11, ISO 100, blend of two exposures: 1/4 & 1/2 sec.

I try to avoid photographing subjects that are cliché and obvious because they’re often overdone and boring. The Window is one of the primary features of Big Bend that most park visitors get to see and photograph. If you’ve been to Big Bend, or you’ve seen published photos from the park, chances are you’ve seen the Window, Casa Grande, Santa Elena Canyon, and/or the South Rim of the Chisos. The park’s website even has live photos of the Window from a webcam permanently mounted in the Basin.

But, as I continue to work on my Big Bend project, I realize that I do not have any good photos of this well-known icon. Our recent trip gave me good opportunities to photograph it because we were staying at the lodge in the Basin and taking things very easy (my wife is 8 months pregnant; i.e. we were not doing our usual routine of backcountry camping and all-day hiking). I woke up early for the sunrises and wrapped up my shooting sessions just about the time the sweet light was ending and my family was finishing up breakfast and ready to depart for our morning venture.

click for slightly larger pic

Canon 5D with Canon 17-40mm f/4L & polarizer
23mm, f/11, ISO 100, blend of two exposures: 1/5 & 0.40 sec.

It’s not impossible to come up with fresh, interesting photos of well known subjects but it’s certainly a challenge. Fortuntely, there are an infinite amount of combinations of camera positions, focal lengths, lighting conditions, weather, etc.

I’m not sure I pulled off some good shots here – you be the judge of that. I decided to feature the great clouds present during this shoot and make the Window (the notch in the lower left) smallish in the frame by using wide focal lengths. These compositions also feature another great aspect of Big Bend – the skies. The frequent, huge, and unobstructed views throughout the park allow people to see for miles and that’s quite refreshing for those park visitors confined into city living back home. One thing I always look foward to when visiting the park are the amazing vistas.

At the time these photos were taken, the light had lost its early morning warmness and become somewhat harsh. The scene’s colors were a little boring and muted. I tried two approaches to create more interest – 1) using a color-enhancing filter, and 2) black and white.

The black and white helps viewers to really focus on the subject matter and its form, IMO. Effective monochromatic photos are sometimes hard to make, but having a good, strong composition (and nice clouds :-) ) certainly helps. For me, this works well because what I’m most interested in is the rugged line of mountains (including the notch of the Window) and the wide-open, huge view of the sky. These are quintessential features of Big Bend.

For the color shot, I used a Singh-Ray gold-n-blue polarizer. I’m new to using this filter, but it can produce some garish results. I “dialed” in the filter to a nice warm spot somewhere between its two points of maximum effect. In post-processing, I further subdued the effect of the filter by fine-tuning the white balance in RAW conversion. The end result, as you see above, is a warm, pastel color scheme that I think looks more like the sweet light that comes immediately after sunrise.

Anyway, I’ve got more sunrise shots of the Window from my second day of morning shooting in the Basin. I’ll have these up in the next few days.

Lone Star Trail

Back in April of this year, a friend (James S.) and I hiked a portion of the Lone Star Trail in Sam Houston National Forest. We made a one-way 11.25 mile hike.

Before the hike, I decided to keep things as simple as possible and take only one camera body, one lens, and no tripod. We didn’t have a lot of time for the hike which meant that I didn’t have too much time for quality photography. Covering 11+ miles takes a while, especially when it’s hot and humid. At least the trail was fairly level!

I took my versatile, beater lens – the Canon 28-105mm f/3.5 – 4.5 USM II. I’ve blogged about the merits of this lens before – it’s a great all-purpose, lightweight, and relatively small lens that provides pretty good results (especially at f/8). I wish it was just a tad wider (24mm would be perfect) but I really like the zoom range, close focusing distance, and having just over 100mm at the long end.

click for slightly larger pic

Canon 5D, 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5 USM II
f/8, 28mm, 1/25 sec., ISO 800

James took me to a special spot to visit a mighty oak that spanned a creek. We spent some time exploring and photographing the old tree. At this point of our hike, I really wished that I’d brought my tripod.

This photo was taken hand-held with me squatting down and bracing the camera with my legs. I fired several bursts – a technique that’s good for this situation. Usually, in a burst of 4 or 5 shots, the second, third, or fourth shot will be sharpest. (the act of pressing and the releasing the shutter button on the first and last shots often adds a little extra camera movement and blurring of the photo) It worked out fairly well, and I got a reasonably sharp image. I did have to shoot at ISO 800, but the 5D produces acceptable noise levels provided the image is well exposed. Shooting at f/8 was necessary to get the depth-of-field I wanted. I had brought a polarizer, but took it off for this shot to get the fastest shutter speed I could, and that was a compromise.

click for slightly larger pic

Canon 5D, 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5 USM II
f/8, 28mm, 1/25 sec., ISO 800

This shot was taken a little later in the hike, just after we crossed the East Fork of the San Jacinto River. I used the same technique as described above, except this shot was taken with me holding the camera atop my hiking stick. I usually take a 4-foot long wood dowel that serves as an impromptu monopod when needed.

I wished I could have used my polarizer (and also a lower ISO). The filter would have helped to cut the white glare off the surface of the leaves and really show the beautiful green glow that the forest canopy generates. Next time I’ll definitely bring the tripod.

hike info
Double Lake Recreation Area and Big Creek Scenic Area are located just south of Coldspring, Texas inside the Sam Houston National Forest. I made a custom map (1 MB) of our route and plotted GPS waypoints. The GPS data was made before the hike using software, i.e. they’re not real points taken in the field. However, during the hike, I found that those pre-plotted points were accurate.

Ghost Beach

I’m finally getting around to processing a load of photos I made earlier this year. These images are from the beach at High Island, Texas. They were taken about an hour after sunset the day after a full moon.

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camera/lens: Canon 5D, 17-40mm f/4L
settings: 25mm, f/8, 102 sec., ISO 200

Archetype The photo above shows a specific archetype. I won’t tell you what it is, so leave a comment and tell me what you see, please! I showed this to my wife, and she didn’t get it. She did, however, see a different archetype, and that was quite interesting because it was something I didn’t see. That’s why I really like showing my photos to others and hearing their views :-)

click for larger image

camera/lens: Canon 5D, 70-200mm f/4L
settings: 154mm, f/8, 15 sec., ISO 400

I love night shooting. There’s something magical and other-worldly about long exposures in the dark. The camera’s sensor will keep collecting light and capture details not seen with the naked eye. The resulting photo contains things not seen au naturel.

Of course the negative aspect is that because our human eyes can’t see as the camera does, we can’t fully appreciate the fine details that show up in the resulting photos as we shoot them. Night shooting often involves a lot of guesswork, trial-and-error, and a lot of time.

Oh, one piece of advice about long exposures taken on a sandy beach: your tripod legs will sink into the wet sand! I took several other exposures (most of them very long, e.g. 3 to 20 min.) very close to the water line and also just into the surf. The photos were a little too blurred to be of any good.

Spectacular Hill Country Sunset

I experienced an amazing suset during my trip to the High Lonesome Ranch two months ago. The skies had been mostly overcast that day and also the day before. About 15 minutes before sunset, I noticed a clearing in the clouds just above the western horizon. The low and heavy cloud “blanket” looked fairly static, so I guesstimated that the setting sun would likely drop down into the clearing and light the place up.

Sure enough, it did.

I ran down to a normally dry creekbed that was flooded with recent rains to experience this event. Within moments, everthing was glowing in golden sunset light. It was amazing. Then, fat raindrops starting falling as if on cue. It had not rained the whole day, but just after the sunlight appeared, it happened.

sunset rainbow
(click for larger pic)

A very strong rainbow appeared due east. It was spectacular. It was one of those moments that take your breath away.

It’s not often that I get to experience scenes like this. I was fortunate to catch a nice sunset and an order of magnitude more fortunate to see a rainbow at the same time.

The low cloud blanket lit up across the sky, from the west to the east, and the sunset colors were nicely reflected by the clouds behind the rainbow.

The rainbow stayed strong for as long as the sunlight was directly hitting the eastern clouds. Shortly after the sun dipped below the horizon, the rainbow faded. I turned to face west and was greeted by another nice light show.

light show
(click for larger pic)

The rest of my photos from this trip can be found HERE.