Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Vision Incarnate

I read a sample chapter in duChemin's book, VisionMongers, and it got me thinking about photographic vision, craft, and equipment.

Twenty years ago, in discussions on the internet news group, "", I was involved in a conversation about "art" and "expression" in photography.  At the time I was using a collection of used film cameras in various formats and was developing my own film and printing my own images in my darkroom.  I was dismayed at the number of photographers for whom the photographic equipment seemed to be the focus of their interest, rather than the vision and communication involved with the pictures produced.  I said something like: "Equipment shouldn't be so important, an artist's vision will transcend the medium used to express that vision."

Lately, I've been shooting photographs with modern 35mm digital SLR cameras and have been spending quite a bit of time thinking about equipment, more than I used to.  I have a camera body that gives me a digital image containing 21 million pixels and some of the very finest lenses, I have autofocus, autoexposure, auto color balance, all kinds of tools to help make my life easier.  I worry that I've become too distracted by the technology I use to express myself.  I do feel that I'm making some good photographs, and the technology helps make them easier to capture, but part of me still harkens back to the artist who can make art with whatever materials are at hand.  Sigh.

So, I recently got a new cell phone and it has a camera in  it.  The camera is fixed focus, fixed focal length (3mm), allows the user to have some control over exposure and white balance, probably has a fixed aperture (f/2.8), and an unknown shutter speed.  The images contain about 1,300,000 pixels.  This got me thinking about trying, as others have done, to limit myself to this little camera (not all the time, though, I'm not that much of an artist!) to see what happens.

In my last set of images posted to my web site, I have a photograph of an old school bus rusting away in a field in New Mexico that got me thinking about why I took the image.  I decided that I liked thinking of the idea of all the years that school bus delivered children to school, probably in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.  Who where those people?  What experiences did they have on the bus?  Where are they now?  It's like a little piece of history, one that nobody writes about in history books.

Today, I walked over to a nearby neighborhood park that I know is very well used and looked at the playground equipment and thought again about the history, how many children had slid down the big slide and where are they now.  There is evidence of many coats of paint on that old slide that have been warn off by all the little hands gripping the  rails, the bed of the slide is smooth and shiny from regular use but when I was there, nobody was around.

Here is an image, taken with my cell phone looking down that slide, post processed in photoshop to make it black and white.  As ever, click on the picture to see the larger version.

Monday, October 12, 2009

"The Chains" and "Rattlesnake"

Yesterday, I spent the morning in the Page, Arizona area.  I was taking a "photographic" tour in the Antelope Canyon area at 10 AM so I wandered down to Lake Powell at sunrise.  There is a day use area just south of the bridge across the canyon called "The Chains" where you can park and wonder around on the slick rock and go down to the lake's edge.  I photographed in this area for an hour or so and it was quiet and peaceful for a while until the airplanes started flying and the power boats started their journeys on the lake.  Apparently, there are quite a few tours you can take by small aircraft and one of the popular times to fly is just after sunrise.  I photographed smooth rocks that have weathered out of the sandstone, animal tracks in the sand, sandstone shapes and the lake itself.  The photo below gives a wide angle view of what one sees standing on the shore of Lake Powell at this time of day before the boats take to the water and make a lot of waves.

Later on, I went over to Antelope Canyon for my tour.  This area has become a very popular place since I was last there.  When I last visited, probably 14 years ago, I had to go to a particular gas station, hire a Navajo guide, and be driven out to upper and lower Antelope Canyon.  Now there is an entrance station where you pay $6 to get in to park at upper Antelope and there are rows of trucks, each able to carry about 14 people, waiting to take you on a tour.  The first hour of my tour was going along with the less expensive, non-photographic, tour.  When I was at upper antelope, there were about 5 tour trucks there from various tour companies around Page.  In the canyon itself, not a very big place, there were at least 60 people, and it was very difficult to take any photographs without people in them.  One strategy I saw a lot of people using was to point their cameras up at the "ceiling" of the canyon.  However, this approach gives very high contrast images because the upper areas of the canyon are illuminated by the sun while the lower areas are in deep shadow.  For the second half of my 2 hour tour, I was dropped off, by myself, at a smaller canyon, called "Rattlesnake", for about an hour.  This small canyon is much harder to negotiate than the larger Antelope Canyon, but I had it all to myself!  Rattlesnake is harder to negotiate as it has some small drop offs and very narrow areas to squeeze through.  I took the following photograph in Rattlesnake of a nose of sandstone that jutted out into one of the "rooms".

The "regular" tour of Antelope costs $25 and the "photographers" tour is $40. My recommendation for visiting Antelope is to go on a week day, perhaps there will be fewer people then.  Also, if you go when the sun is more overhead, you will see more of the shafts of sunlight that come down through the crack in the "roof".  This time of year, the sun is too low on the horizon to get these shafts. As ever, click on the images to see larger versions on my web site.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Glen Canyon Dam at Night

I'm in Page, Arizona tonight.  I have a photographer's tour of a couple slot canyons tomorrow with a Navajo guide.  I wondered over to Glen Canyon dam to see what sort of night photos I could get.  There was nobody around the visitor's center and it was closed.  There were a couple of guards walking around on the dam and they would shine their flashlights around once in a while.  I took a few exposures, mostly at about 35-45 seconds at f/11, ISO 400.  The photo below shows almost the entire dam as well as some of the machinery at the base of the dam and the water flowing out the bottom.  The distortions are courtesy of a 17mm lens on a full frame camera.

To show the scale, the image below is a full resolution crop of the right center of the image showing the pickup trucks parked down by the generating structures. (click on photos for larger view)

Friday, October 9, 2009

Acoma and photography

I went to visit the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico again after many years.  It is one of the longest continuously occupied human communities in the United States.  The last time I visited was about 15 years ago and things have changed in the intervening years vis-a-vis photographers. Most importantly, to me, tripods are no longer allowed, period.  You can take a camera but you must have a tag attached to it and if you don't take one of the tours you have to pay a $10 "camera" fee.  If you do take one of the tours, which is the only way to get up on the mesa, the camera fee is included ($20).  Photography is not allowed inside the mission church or the graveyard outside the church. (click on photos to see a larger image)

The problem I have with tours when doing photography is that I can't take my time to setup photographs, wait for changes in light, think about composition, etc.  However, when a tour is the only way to go, I'll give it a try.  The controls I have are, when to go.  On this day, we went on the last tour of the day which started at 5 PM and ended around 6 PM, with sunset at around 6:40 PM so the light was farily good and there were only some puffy white clouds in the sky.

On the mesa, water is collected in catchment basins because there is no municipal water service.  This means there are pools of water in various places around the community which gives an additional interesting atmosphere to the place.  I  photographed some of the houses along one of the streets with one of the water pools in the forground.

In one area of the village, I was watching a bunch of ravens flying in the updrafts caused by the wind hitting the edge of the cliffs along the edge of the mesa.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Sometimes fall color isn't what you expect

Visiting various places in New Mexico, I was looking for fall color today. The skies were in large part overcast and Sierra Blanca (11,981 feet) had its head in the clouds most of the day.  Although most of the taller trees had lost their leaves in the wind over the past few days, some of the smaller and closer to the ground shrubs and plants were showing fall color.  These were most prevalent in areas that have had forest fires in recent years.  In the case of fire, low shrubs and scrubby trees are the first things to replace the pine and fir forests.  Many of these seem to be able to hold onto their leaves through the wind storms.  This photograph was taken south of Ruidoso, New Mexico along the road from Cloudcroft.

In Capitan, NM, I saw an old school bus rusting away in a field north of town.  The yellow of the bus reminded me of the opportunities to photograph the yellow aspen trees I had missed.  It also reminded me of the simplicity of the days when children rode busses like this one to school.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Photographing fall colors when the wind blows

The wind has been blowing for a couple days here in Cloudcroft, and a lot of the colored leaves have blown off the aspen trees, rocky mountain maples, and even a lot of the oaks.  They also had rain night before last which didn't help.  So, what to photograph to document fall here in the Sacramento mountains?  Well, a lot of the leaves are still here, they are just on the ground and can give an interesting backdrop for foreground objects, for example, the trunks of the trees.

I went for a hike on the Osha trail this afternoon.  This is just west of Cloudcroft on state route 82 across the road from the train trestle.  It is an easy 2.5 mile loop hike and takes the hiker through aspen groves, maple groves, pine and fir groves.  From it one can see down into the Tularosa basin to White Sands NM.  I photographed various trees, views of the leaf covered trail, and some landscapes.  My best result is the photograph below showing a Rocky Mountain Maple tree surrounded by its discarded leaves.

The Lodge at Cloudcroft, NM

I'm staying at "The Lodge at Cloudcroft" in New Mexico. I came here to photograph at White Sands National Monument and to see what kind of fall color I could find in these Sacramento mountains. I haven't found any outstanding fall color yet because we've had some overcast skies and high winds which have blown some of the leaves off the trees. I've seen some very colorful oaks and maples but only isolated individuals. There are some yellow aspen groves but the ones I've seen that still have leaves aren't very accessible.

I've been coming to the lodge here in Cloudcroft since I was about 10 years old and it really hasn't changed in all those years. Most of my visits in the past have just involved eating in the dining room, a beautiful experience, but this time I thought I'd stay a couple of nights. October is part of their "off season" so the rates are reasonable and the rooms (1899) are beautiful and have been updated with modern conveniences (modern bathrooms and excellent fast wifi).

Here is a photo of the front of the lodge, taken a few minutes ago:

The lodge was built as part of the Alamogordo and Sacramento Mountain Railway which was a logging railroad.

The interior is kept very authentic with a comfortable lobby, excellent restrurant, gift shop, swimming pool, and pine trees and aspen trees all around.  The town of Cloudcroft is small but has a small grocery, a couple of bars, and at least one gas station.

Things to see near here are the Sacramento Peak Observatory (a solar observatory), Apache Point Observeratory (3.5 meter, F/10),  White Sands National Monument down near Alamogordo, and very nice mountain country.

Here is a photograph of the lobby of the lodge:

White Sands contains dunes of gypsum that are white and is extensive enough to spend quite a bit of time exploring.  I find summer a bit hot at White Sands but I   would certainly recommend a fall-winter-spring visit.

I'll post a photograph I took last night at the monument to this blog post.