6 Tips for Photographing National Parks

Wow, life with newborn twins and a three-year-old is constant!  :)  I've definitely had to prioritize my life a bit more than usual, which has unfortunately meant that my blog has seen better days.  However, I'm going to blow off the digital dust that it's been collecting to cover a topic that's very near and dear to me...photographing our National Parks.  You see, even though our lives are super busy at the moment, an important photography related event occurred last week:  I booked my flight to Zion for my annual fall trip!

To say I have an awesome wife would be an understatement.  In fact, when we first learned we were pregnant, she could tell I was doing some mental math to determine how close the due date was to that first-of-November sweet spot in Zion.  Her exact words were, "Don't worry, you can still go on your trip."  I've got a keeper for sure you guys!

And man, am I ever looking forward to this trip!  I believe my excitement to travel to Zion has only grown over the years.  People often ask me when I'm going to go somewhere else or if I ever get bored going back to the same place over and over again.  And while I do have plans to branch out to other locations, these trips will be IN ADDITION to my Zion trip each year...because I will never tire of that place.

My excitement at booking the flight took me back to my first trip there almost 2 years ago.  Whereas now I don't even need a map or GPS to make the 45 minute drive from the airport to my hotel in Springdale, back then I didn't have the first clue about anything.  For instance, I thought that the Narrows and Subway were part of the same river.  They aren't...and it's not even close.  However, I did learn quite a bit in that first trip, and I would like to share some of that with you today...in case you are planning any photography trips to new locations in the future.  Here are my 6 tips to get the most out of a photography trip to our National Parks.

1)  Research, research, research

This step will take the longest, but will be well worth the effort in the end.  Information these days is almost laughably easy to come by, and if you spend enough time researching a place, you can often feel like you've already been there.  I recommend gaining a broad perspective before narrowing down your focus.  What I mean by that is study maps of the park to get a feel for its overall layout.   National Geographic makes excellent foldout maps of all the National Parks as well as many wilderness areas.  These maps are waterproof, tear resistant, and contain all of the popular hiking trails a park has to offer.  You can find them on Amazon, at most outdoor retailers, or as always on eBay.  By having an overall idea of how a park fits together, you can start to plan out your trip because you'll know how far apart different locations are.

Now that you know where things are, it's time to find out what to shoot.  Again if you go to Amazon and type in "Photographing -insert-your-park-here-" more than likely you'll find a plethora of books offering photography advice.  Going back to Zion, because it's what I'm most familiar with, I picked up a book titled "Photographing the Southwest: Volume 1 Southern Utah."  (Incidentally there are Volumes 2 & 3 in this series covering Arizona and Colorado/New Mexico respectively.  From what I've read in Volume 1, these are excellent books.  I highly recommend them if you're planning a trip to the American Southwest.)  These books are going to offer you tips on how to photograph all the popular locations as well as some lesser known areas.  They'll give you advice on trails, which season is best, and even some gear recommendations regarding focal lengths.

Don't limit yourself to only photo books though.  I've bought several hiking guides for these areas, and have been able to get a surprising amount of photography tips from them.  One of the larger hiking guide books that I've found helpful are the Falcon Guide series of books (easily recognizable by their yellow and black color schemes).  These books are all by different authors but the ones I've read have all been worthwhile.  These books will get into more specific details regarding trail information, especially useful for accessing some of the more obscure trailheads.  They are a useful tool for planning your days as they often include average hiking time and difficulty.

As a final bit of written literature goes, always be on the lookout for brochures at local retailers or outdoor outfitters.  Odds are that you're not going to find much new in these, but every little bit of information helps.

Of course Google will get you TONS of info, and it's often only a matter of filtering through the search results and finding what's useful.  Not much to say here really, other than if you're going to Zion, you simply must check out Joe Braun's guides at citrusmilo.com.  I don't know Joe, but his website was an invaluable tool for planning my first trip.  I've never come across a more complete hiking guide to a National Park.  Also, if anyone going to Zion wants to join me on a backpacking trip one year to the South Guardian Angel or up the East Fork of the Virgin River let me know.  I discovered these more obscure locations on Joe's site and I'm dying to photograph them!  They're just a bit more off the beaten path and I would prefer company if possible.

Finally, YouTube is an invaluable resource.  The same advice here goes as did with the books.  I recommend not limiting yourself only to photography channels.  In fact, the only photographer that I follow on YouTube who travels to National Parks is Ben Horne.  Most other channels I follow are guys who hike and backpack;  a few examples are Sintax77, Jamal Green, and The Adventure Hiker.  For me, these channels are equal parts entertainment and information gathering.  I like to follow along on their adventures and kind of live vicariously through their videos.  However, I do gain a lot of valuable info from their hikes.  Of course, I also HIGHLY recommend my own channel (link)...;)

2) Make a shot list

Now I realize that some my find making a shot list too rigid or limiting, and to some extent I agree.  You definitely should NOT shoot only the shots you envision beforehand.  However, I find that when I visit a new place for the first time, I am often overwhelmed at what I see.  If I don't have a shot list on hand, I find myself forgetting things that I wanted to shoot.  Also, now that you've done your research and know how the park is laid out, a shot list will help you plan your days and string together shots that are in proximity.

Obviously you shouldn't only shoot what is on the list.  If you come across something you like, fire away!  By the same token, if you don't take every shot on your list that's fine too.  I still make shot lists for my trips to Zion but have yet to get every shot on them.  It gives me a reason to come back! :) I always, and I mean ALWAYS, have my cell phone with me while I'm out shooting, so all I do is open a note on my iPhone and write down everything I hope to get.  Simple and very effective.

3) Lenses...bring 'em if you got 'em

Bit of a gear tip here...bring lenses that will cover the broadest range of focal lengths possible.  Will this make your pack a bit heavy?  Yup.  However, I'm of the mindset that I would rather have too much and make sure I get a shot as opposed to too little and miss something.  For example, my first year to Zion I was shooting mainly digital.  I brought a 16-35mm, 50mm, and 100mm macro.  Normally we consider landscape photography to be the land of the super wides.  However, the longer lengths can prove valuable too.  One day on my 2013 trip I was exploring the Kolob Terrace section of the park when a snowstorm started coming in.  As the sun was setting, a final sliver of light poked through the clouds and illuminated the West Temple.  It was one of those shots that will never be recreated because the atmospheric conditions played such an important roll in creating the light.  As I was miles away, I grabbed that macro lens, and FROM MY CAR, took one of my favorite images from the trip...and it wouldn't have been possible if I had stuck with the usual landscape lenses.

Also, if you've never been to a place, you'll have no idea of the scale of some of these objects.  The first time I saw the Moulton Barn, I was blown away by just how far away it was from the base of the Tetons.  This is a location that works well with wide angle lenses, but I also found that you could achieve a somewhat unique perspective by hiking farther away and using a longer lens to compress the barn and the mountains.

As you become familiar with these locations, you can pare down your lens selection to make your pack more manageable.

4) Go for at least a week

...and longer if possible!  The more time at a location the better.  This is a good idea for several reasons.  First, Mother Nature is unpredictable.  If the weather is uncooperative, you'll have several days to make up for it.  Also, the longer you are there, the more you can immerse yourself in a location.  You will start to learn things like where the sun rises and sets.  Of course you can use apps, like The Photographer's Ephemeris, for this, but it becomes more real when you are there to experience it.

National Parks are BIG too!  Death Valley is larger than several states.  It's going to take some time to travel between areas.  Also, the last time I checked I believe there is only one sunrise and one sunset per day.  Unless this changes, you'll only have a set number of days to get certain locations in the magic hour.

Finally, unless you are lucky enough to do this as a full time job, these shooting trips are supposed to be 100% fun.  Personally, I find that it stresses me out if I constantly worried about getting a shot.  Spreading the trip out across as many days as possible allows me to take a more laid back approach, and I find that I'm a better photographer this way.

5) Shoot the icons

OK, some of you might disagree with this one, but I firmly believe that on your first trip to a location you should absolutely shoot the iconic locations.  Again, these photography trips are supposed to be fun, and part of the fun of photography is, you know, producing good images.  :)  The easiest way to do this is to visit the icons.  They are iconic for a reason...they're absolutely gorgeous!  And often easily accessible.  Now, there are some downsides to this approach.  You're not going to come away with anything that hasn't been done before.  Also, you're going to have to put up with people...not always the most pleasant thing for us landscape guys.  However, in my opinion it's worth it, because the odds are that you'll come away with a stunning image!  And who cares if it's been shot before?  This will be your image of it.

Now, to be honest, I have no interest in shooting the bridge shot at Zion.  (Google "Zion Watchman Tower" if you don't know what I'm talking about.)  Too many BH videos I guess.  However, I've stood at the base of the Towers of the Virgin, ten feet away from the Zion Museum, and photographed sunrise there.  With many other photographers I might add.  I believe this is equally iconic; it's also an image I really enjoy.  I've literally stood in the parking lot at Clingman's Dome in the Smoky Mountains and photographed the sunrise...standing right beside my car.  I've also hiked through the snow to get the Moulton Barn at sunrise, and I'll do it again on large format one day.  I've never really found Zabriskie Point that interesting, but you can believe when I go to Death Valley I'll photograph the dunes and Racetrack.  These are all stunning locations, and I've enjoyed experiencing them.  Even if they don't exactly challenge me as a photographer...

6) Most importantly...GO BACK!!!

Now that you've been, experienced a location, and photographed the icons, I cannot stress how important it is to return.  Return next year, next season, or next month...just return!  For my second trip to Zion, I started to envision shots that I had seen on my first trip there...not something I had seen in a book.  This made my second time there exponentially more satisfying, and it's also a reason why I'm even more excited about my third trip back.

Yes, it's exciting to visit new places, and I'm already looking forward to something new I've got planned for 2016.  But there is also a lot to be said for familiarity.  It's like visiting an old friend. There's is a feeling of comfort seeing the same locations, eating at the same places, and seeing the same faces year after year.  This year in particular for me will be like a reunion of sorts as I've made plans to see some friends that I haven't run across in several years.  All of that adds to the experience and mystique of a location.  Also, it allows you to create traditions.  Maybe I'm just sentimental, but my tradition of hiking to some remote part of Zion on my last day of the trip and just soaking it all in isn't something I would trade for anything.  I can guarantee you that this wouldn't be as special to me if I had only made the trip once.  So if you take nothing else from this blog post, please take away the advice to make a return trip.  You will absolutely not regret it!

With fall color already starting in some parts of the country, I hope you are all planning a photography trip.  If it's to a new location, hopefully these tips can be of some use.  And if you see me in Zion the first week in November, stop and say hi!

The Thin Line

"Is that what it really looked like or did you Photoshop that?"

It's a common question.  Although, I actually think it's less common now than it was a few years ago.  I think today most people just automatically assume that most every image is Photoshopped!  However, before I go any further, let's define Photoshop...

  1. Photoshop (n.)-Adobe's rental software.  Formulated because they made their flagship software too good.  Running out of ideas that would make new, standalone purchases worth it, they decided to slowly bleed photographers and designers dry.
  2. Photoshop (v.)-To manipulate an image away from it's original appearance.
  3. Photoshopped (adj.)-An image that has been manipulated.

With those definitions in mind (thanks a lot Adobe...), I'm about to say something that will probably shut the entire Internet down due to how controversial it is.  That's a risk I'm will to take though.  Braces yourselves, you've been warned.

"Every image ever taken has been Photoshopped."

Whoa!  Are your minds blown?!  I guess the fact that you're still reading this means that the Internet did not actually shut down.  Perhaps my blog is not as influential as I think it is...  Nah, I'm sure that's not the case, but let's get back to the original point.  Every single image that has ever been taken has been edited away from reality.

LONG before computers and PS existed, photographers were still Photoshopping images.  In fact, the first images were the most manipulated!  In the beginning, God created black and white photography.  If a monochrome image of a color subject isn't blatant editing, I don't know what is.  My hero and photography purest St. Ansel Adams was probably the biggest Photoshopper around!  After all, it was he who said something along the lines of, "Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships."  I feel like everything I've ever known is a lie now...  Blasphemous!

Color film isn't much better though.  If you think color film is true to a scene, take an identical composition and throw Velvia and Portra at it.  Which one is real?  Portra with its huge range, but washed out tones?  Or Velvia with its nuclear hot reds and blue tones in white water?  The answer is neither.

What about digital and those #SOOC images that we post?  Even if you shoot JPEG and don't edit them, all you are doing is let the camera edit for you.  Each camera manufacturer programs their cameras to edit the RAW data and spit out an image.  This is what you see on the back on your camera's viewscreen or the actual image file if you shoot JPEGs.  However, even if you don't touch any of your camera's settings (camera profile, saturation, contrast, etc.) it is still not EXACTLY like the scene appears; there is some internal manipulation and interpretation going on.  Don't believe me?  Aim a Canon and a Nikon at the same scene and there will definitely be differences.  So which one is "right"?  Again, the answer is neither.

Now, we can come CLOSE to what is real.  One thing I've started doing is taking an iPhone pic of my compositions immediately after my 4x5 image.  I'll stand in that location and edit my iPhone pic to look as close as possible to the scene in front of me.  When I scan my film (especially color negative film) I'll pull up that iPhone pic and try to get the film image as close as possible.

If you really want to go existential though, you can ask what is even real?  What does something "really" look like?  The human eye is the ultimate autoexposure camera, but it can be fooled.  Last year in the Narrows I had an eye-opening (nailed the pun) experience; I was taking a reflected light image that had about a 5 minute exposure.  The glow started out good, but had a noticeable dimming about halfway through my shot.  I noted the time, closed the shutter, and looked up.  Sure enough, clouds had rolled in and killed the light.  I spent the next few minutes looking upward.  Once the clouds cleared, I looked back down and noticed a HUGE increase in the red/orange saturation of the wall.  The light hadn't changed that much in the span of a few minutes so I knew that the reflected light wall was the same; it was my eye that had changed.  While looking up at the sky, my eye had acclimated to the very bright sky.  When I looked back down to the relative dark of the Narrows, everything was essentially underexposed; my eye's f-stop was closed down.  This underexposure caused an apparent increase in the saturation.  So you can see, even our eyes don't know what something is supposed to really look like!

So in this crazy world where nothing is real, what's a landscape photographer supposed to do?!  You'll get multiple opinions on this, but I fall into the camp that landscape photography should "try" to be as realistic as possible...all the while understanding that realistic can be a relative term.  My goal as a photographer is for a person to look at one of my images and feel that they can just step into the scene. 

Are there manipulations that take place?  Absolutely.  Some are out of necessity to bring the scene back to realism.  I'll spend sometimes hours removing the blue hue that Velvia so lovingly places in white water.  Some editing is to correct for user error...dragging a curves adjustment downward to make up for the occasional overexposure.  And some editing is flat out to make an image look better; there, I said it!  My image entitled "Where Angels Tread" had three thin, annoying twigs hanging down from the branch that framed Angel's Landing.  I saw them as I was composing, but didn't have a wide enough lens to get close enough to where those wouldn't be a factor.  I have zero remorse from cloning those guys out!

Now You see them...

...now you don't.  And I lose absolutely no sleep over this at night.

This brings up a tough question though; how much image manipulation is too much?  When does an image cross the thin line between an inspiring shot and a Photoshopped mess?  First of all, there are people that will tell you that it's all art and that it doesn't matter what it ends up looking like.  Ignore these people as they are wrong.  I don't know exactly why they are wrong, but they just are!  In all seriousness, I believe art in the truest sense must begin with a completely blank canvas.  Landscape photography doesn't start with a blank canvas.  Our canvas is already complete; it is just up to us to deliver it to the viewer in a pleasing presentation.  Landscape photography is equal parts art and documentation.  With that distinction being made, here are three things that I believe cross the thin line of image credibility.

First, if I can tell where and what you've done to an image, you've gone too far.  I don't want to spend my time looking at a landscape image and rattling off the Photoshop tricks that have been used on it.  The most egregious sins I see in this area today are in the shadows.  I mean, seriously!  What did shadow areas ever do to deserve such treatment?!  I don't need to see details in every single area of an image.  If a forest scene is being backlit, I shouldn't see every speck of bark on the tree surface facing me!  With that being said, I have no problem with people using Photomatix to create HDR images.  HDR is just a tool, much like Ektar is just a tool in my bag.  What I have a problem with is an image that's been HDR'd.  There's a difference there.

Second, if a photographer is intentionally misleading about their work then I pretty much lose all faith in their images moving forward.  For example, on a forum that I follow, someone presented an image of a typical wildflower mountain composition.  A super wide angle lens was placed almost on top of the flower to give it prominence in the composition.  The sun was just starting to rise, wispy clouds danced above the mountain peaks, and a crescent moon was still in the sky.  The scene was absolute perfection and the editing, full of the light blending that's so "in" right now, was meticulous and also perfect.  Not a single defect in the entire image.  It was presented as a single image (and believe me, the photographer went out of his way to point this out), taken on a Sony English-letter-Arabic-number-Roman-numeral with a 14mm lens.  The entire post received rave reviews.

And yet, there was that moon.  Not overly bright or imposing in the image, but it was definitely there...and MUCH larger than the speck it should have been at 14mm.  It was so blatantly composited that I typed up a post to call him out on it.  I literally sat on that post for 2 days before deleting it and deciding that I didn't want to be "that guy."  The fact remains though, he obviously lied about compositing the moon in there.  Here again, I have absolutely no problem with compositing.  It is just another tool to make up for limitations in our gear.  What I do have a problem with is deliberate misinformation.  If the moon was a fabrication, what else in the image isn't real?  The rest of the sky?  That flower?  The mountain itself?  Once you break the circle of trust, I've got to assume that all of your images cross the line of believability.

Finally, nature just has a "look" to it.  I can't describe it as anything more concrete, but when that look is wrong, you'll know it when you see it.  There is a relationship between, color, tonality, and texture that is just "right."  There is no other way to definitively describe it.  The most common examples in my work are color casts when I'm editing Ektar.  I'll sit on a image for days or weeks tweaking the curves to get rid of color casts.  Often I can't pick out exactly what's wrong with the image, I just know SOMETHING is off.  The line has been crossed!  Another example is with the current en vogue editing style.  Not quite HDR, but it involves multiple techniques to create what ultimately falls under the umbrella of light blending.  Again, you'll know it when you see it.  The images are often undeniably visually striking...absolutely gorgeous to look at! 

And yet, I find them missing something.  It's almost like looking at a video game environment.  It's beautiful, but completely sterile...unaffected by nature.  The degree of expertise to achieve this look is staggering, but somewhere along the line the spirit of the image was lost.  Nature is wild, unpredictable, and full of imperfections.  When this look is lost, I believe it triggers something in us.  Even if we have not visited a location, our experience tells us that there are certain ways things should look.  When this is edited out, the line of reality has been crossed, and the images are completely devoid of any emotion.

So you've spent the last 1853 words reading about something that "you'll know when you see."  That's time in your life that can never be had again; so...you're welcome!  No image is ever truly 100% realistic, no matter how hard myself or other photographers try to convince you otherwise.  Everything is edited to some degree.  However, I believe our visual and esthetic senses can tolerate manipulations up to a certain point.  Once you reach a certain level though, the line between reality and fiction has been crossed.  While this line is open for debate, I believe landscape photography in its truest form should contain a high degree of credibility.  Anything beyond is just digital fiction.

Also, my images are all CS4 Photoshopped.  No rental software for me!  Yet...

The Winds of Change

The other day, a Timehop from 5 years ago popped up on my Facebook page.  (How this happened I will never know.  I've never posted a Timehop, #tbt, etc., but it was there nonetheless.)  At this time (July 2010) I had just picked up my first camera and was beginning to learn how to use it.  It was a Canon 40D by the way.  It was an absolute noise machine beyond ISO 800, but it's still a camera I remember fondly.  As is usual for people just starting out, I asked a lot of questions to my more experienced photographer friends.  So, five years ago I posted this status/question:  "If photography were still film-only, would you still be doing it?  For me the answer is no.  Film is too unforgiving and the results aren't immediate.  In short, I think it would be too hard for me."

I literally laughed out loud when I read this in present day, especially the "unforgiving" part.  I took some shots recently in the Smokies on Kodak Ektar 100.  I carefully metered, calculated an exposure time, and then randomly gave it about 15 more seconds of exposure...just because of reasons.  I'm waiting for the film to return, but I know that the exposure will be perfect.  

As someone who now shoots exclusively film for landscapes (I still have a full digital kit for people photography) I think it's safe to say that my opinions have changed a bit over the years.  My photography has changed as well.  That particular Facebook post made me scroll back through my timeline circa 2010.  At that point, I was strictly a people photographer.  There are still some shots I consider to be good in there, but the consistency wasn't there.  I cringe to look at my overall photoshoots!  Now, regardless of the situation, I know that I'm going to come away with good, consistent results.  So I think I can safely say that my skill level has changed in the past 5 years.

My tastes in photography genre have changed as well.  Somewhere along the line I got hooked on landscapes.  (To back up for just a second, if you found my photography blog through my YouTube channel or any other type of recent search, it may be a bit shocking to know that I have a completely different body of work floating around out there.  Check out www.finchphoto.com/category/alanjenn for something TOTALLY different that what I post on this site!)  Honestly I have no idea what first attracted me to landscapes.  I wasn't a particularly outdoor oriented person.  Whatever it was, something clicked deep inside me, and I knew that I wanted to be a landscape photographer.

Of course there was the minor detail of me being a terrible landscape photographer in the beginning.  No planning, unrefined vision, and a complete reliance on software tricks to come up with a "good" image.  And believe me, I'm using "good" in the absolute loosest sense.  I knew another change was in order, but at the time I didn't know what that was.  I just knew that I needed to become a much better photographer.

I've written previously about some of my reasons for changing to film.  One experience that I've yet to mention was that one of my good friends Ben Finch (of Finch Photo seen in the link above) picked up a Mamiya RZ67 a few years back in a storage unit sale.  He started to shoot it occasionally, and this was really my first exposure to the film world.  Of course, at the time I thought it was stupid to waste money on something so outdated, and as friends do, I let him relentlessly know about my opinion of shooting film at the time.  (This is something he rightfully throws back in my face from time to time!)

I started to see his results though.  And even though he wasn't shooting landscape, I was taken by the methodology.  Working the scene carefully, taking a single shot, and getting good results without software trickeration.  This was what I wanted and NEEDED to become a better landscape photographer.  Add to that my discovery of Rodney Lough Jr. and the rest is history.

Today I find myself a large format landscape photographer.  I sometimes hike miles and miles with upwards of 50 pounds on my back to take a single shot.  I may wait for hours for the light to cooperate, and if it doesn't, I do not take a shot.  I may not know the results for weeks as I wait for color film to be developed or develop the black and white on my own.  I take fewer shots, but with better results than at any point in the past.  The changes I've gone through have made me a better photographer without a doubt, and I'm enjoying photography more than I ever have in the past.

So last week, Fuji (in what has become an annual summer event) announced film cuts and price increases for remaining film stocks.  Now fortunately, none of the film I shoot was cut, but this definitely did not seem like a change for the better.  Velvia 50 in 4x5 already costs around $6 per sheet (not including developing) and that is set to see a 20% increase.  Most people think that it's only a matter of time before Fuji cuts Velvia 50 as well.  As recently as a year ago, this would have sent me into a panic.  However, it really doesn't bother me that much anymore.  (For what it's worth, I actually think Fuji will keep around Velvia 50 and 400H for MANY more years.)

Here's why.  First of all, I've got enough Velvia 50 in my freezer to last me several years, so that definitely eases the pain a bit.  More importantly though, I don't shoot large format just because of Velvia 50.  Sure it produces stunning colors in the right circumstances, but I shoot large format because of the process.  It slows me down and makes me think before I shoot.  I've taken 4 shots this year, none on Velvia, and I've been very pleased with my efforts thus far.

Secondly, I've found that I really, and I mean REALLY, enjoy shooting black and white.  Again it has to do with the entire process of shooting it.  I enjoy the hands on aspect that I get by developing it myself.  There is something very satisfying about producing a tangible negative after shooting.  A year ago, I had shot maybe 4 sheets of Ilford...total.  Now, I'm considering only shooting black and white in Zion this fall.   Talk about change!

Part of this change has been necessity.  Black and white film shows absolutely no signs of ever being discontinued.  I better learn to like it if I want to keep shooting!  But there is more to it.  In addition to the process, I believe there is a certain nostalgia and classic feel to a well done black and white image.  It's something I've learned to appreciate more and more as my style has continued to evolve over the years.  I can honestly say that I would be just as happy shooting monochrome for the rest of my life.

So fear not; change can be good!  It took me from a terrible photographer to one who at the very least now has passable results.  Embrace change, even the seemingly bad changes of film cancellations.  It can take you in exciting and unexpected directions.

How to Meter Using the Zone System

In some ways, large format is the easiest branch of photography to learn.  After all, the camera only has a shutter button and an adjustable aperture ring.  Simply compose, focus, and click...that's all there is to it!  I'm only saying that somewhat tongue in cheek.  You can of course start to get more complex with camera movements, but large format is really photography in it's most basic terms.  Select a film, aperture, and shutter speed and fire away.  How do you get the correct shutter speed though?  That's where metering technique comes in.

I learned to meter by reading Ansel Adams' book The Negative.  (In a way, I guess I can say Ansel Adams taught me photography.  There are worse people to learn from...)  If you are even remotely familiar with film, you've probably heard of Adams and The Zone System.  The Zone System was his creation as a way to produce consistent prints by controlling both the exposure and the development.

I can remember, long before I started shooting film, coming across some film photographs online where the photographer would be talking about zones and using Roman Numerals.  At that time, this might as well have been a foreign language to me.  I had only heard of the Zone System in passing, and I was sure that it was overly complex.  I could not have been more wrong.

Black and White Film

Using the Zone System is almost laughably easy once you get the basics down.  In its purest form, the Zone System deals only with black and white photography.  It can be adapted for use in color film, but let's take a look at monochrome images to begin with.  If you were to create a gradient in Photoshop that smoothly transitioned from pitch black to pure white, and then divided that gradient evenly into 11 segments, you would have the foundation of the Zone System.

The Zone System in all of its glory.

Using Roman Numerals (because they're just cooler) Zone 0 represents pitch black, Zone X is pure white, and Zone V is middle gray.  There is a difference of one stop of light between each zone.  Zone VII is two stops brighter than Zone V; Zone IV is one stop darker than Zone V.  You do remember your Roman Numerals from elementary school and previous Super Bowls, right?

To take full advantage of the Zone System, you MUST use a light meter with a spot meter function.  In my case I use a Sekonic L-558 in aperture priority; I set the aperture I'm using and the meter gives me a shutter speed.  (I've seen videos on YouTube of people using an incident meter and the Zone System.  Don't even bother with it; it's overly complex and convoluted.  It's like they are purposefully trying to make their life more difficult...)  It is VERY important to realize that the spot meter is calibrated to give you a reading for middle gray, Zone V.  No matter what you aim at, the meter will spit out a shutter speed that will make the subject middle gray (grey for those outside the U.S.)  Here's an example.  If you took a meter reading off of a white sheet of paper and then exposed for that reading, the paper will appear gray.  Similarly, if you took a meter reading off of a black sheet of paper and then exposed for that reading, the paper will again appear gray.

Armed with the knowledge of how light meters work and the fact that there is one stop of light between each Zone, we can start using the Zone System now.  However, before we get started, lets take a look some common objects in each zone.  This will give you a reference point when you start metering.

  • Zone 0-Completely black
  • Zone I-Nearly black.  There is some slight tonality, but no texture.
  • Zone II-Some slight texture in the black areas of the image.
  • Zone III-Darkest part of the image that shows adequate texture.  This is a very important zone.
  • Zone IV-Dark foliage, dark stone, dark shadows in daylight sun.
  • Zone V-Middle gray.  Dark skin. Gray stone.
  • Zone VI-Average Caucasian skin.  Shadows on snow on a sunlit day.
  • Zone VII-Light skin.  Snow being side lit.
  • Zone VIII-The lightest zone that retains adequate texture.  Another very important zone.
  • Zone IX-White, but with no texture.
  • Zone X-Pure white.  When printed will only show the paper base.

(It's been a while since I was in college and wrote a paper, so I haven't the first clue how to properly cite something on a blog.  All of that information was taken directly from Ansel Adams' book The Negative.)

Spruce Flats Falls in some especially good light.

So now that we've got the foundation and the knowledge of what different zones look like, let's put it into practice.  Recently I photographed Spruce Flats Falls in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  It's a waterfall that I've photographed before, but I had a bit of tripod shake resulting a a blurry image when printed large.  Since I already knew exactly what my composition would be, I had a lot of spare time to film a video tutorial.  In addition, I feel that this particular scene is really an easy example to demonstrate the Zone System.

Whenever I approach a scene like this one, I'm always on the lookout for the brightest and darkest parts of the scene.  In this case, the brightest area was the white water at the top of Spruce Flats Falls.  In addition to being intrinsically bright (it is WHITE water after all), this particular part of the falls was receiving the most light.

Once I've identified the brightest highlight that I think is important in the image, I start metering.  With practice, I've become pretty adept at identifying the brightest part of a scene.  However, if I'm in doubt (if there are multiple areas of bright white water for example), I'll use my meter to spot check these areas to confirm the brightest section.  Once the brightest area (where detail in the image is required) has been identified, I use my spot meter to take a reading off of this area.  I then store this reading in my meter's memory.

This reading, however, will NOT be my exposure time.  Remember, our meters are calibrated to give use a middle gray, or Zone V, value.  In this case, I don't want the white water in my scene to appear gray.  Instead, I want to PLACE this value in Zone VIII.  I selected Zone VIII because it is the brightest value that will still retain adequate amounts of detail.  (Due to relative dark light in this particular scene, my extended shutter speed removed virtually all detail in the water.  However, I still make it a practice to use Zone VIII for white water.)  So, how do I place a value in Zone VIII?  Recall that there is a one stop difference between each zone.  That means that there are three stops between what I metered (Zone V) and where I want to place the value in Zone VIII.  Therefore, if I overexpose the reading in my meter by three stops, that value will now be in Zone VIII.

I accomplish that by using the Reciprocity Timer App on my iPhone.  This app is as indispensable to me as my tripod.  I could not shoot without it.  (For a review of this app and others that I use in large format, check out my YouTube video review here.)  In the app, I first enter my film stock...in this case Ilford Delta 100.  Then, I enter the reading from my Sekonic light meter...in this case 0.5s.  In order to place this value in the correct zone, I need to overexpose it by 3 stops.  Therefore, I move down to the compensation slider and add in three stops of compensation.  The app automatically calculates the reciprocity failure resulting in a shutter speed of 8 seconds.  This means if I expose my film for 8 seconds, that white water that I initially metered will now be in Zone VIII...exactly where we want it.

Metering off the top of the waterfall gave me 0.5s.  If I exposed for this time, my water would be a Zone V Middle gray shade.  Not ideal.

Therefore, I input this number into the Reciprocity Timer App and add 3 stops of exposure compensation.  This now places my white water in Zone VIII.  With reciprocity failure factored in, my new exposure time is 8 seconds.  This means my white water will actually be white now.

Now, I realize that my light meter has this function.  In the Sekonic L-558, you can program your ISO2 button to show you exposure compensation.  However, I much prefer to do this in the Reciprocity Timer app for several reasons.  First, the app lets you input various exposure factors (exposure compensation, filter factors, bellows extension, etc) separately.  This means that I'm not having to do any mental math adding those together and inputing them into my light meter.  The app keeps things much clearer.  Second, the app automatically calculates the reciprocity failure once I've input everything.  Again, one less thing for me to calculate.

Use the AVE./^EV button to see where the other values in your scene "fall."

So now that I've used Reciprocity Timer to place my highlights in Zone VIII, I'm almost ready to expose my film.  However, I first need to check my shadows.  This is where the place/fall principle of the Zone System comes in.  I have PLACED my highlights in Zone VIII, now I need to see where my shadows FALL.  This is just a way to say that I'm going to check and see how much darker the other areas of my composition are...essentially checking the dynamic range of my scene.  I do this by using the AVE./^EV button on my meter.  Once this button is pressed, a capital "A" will appear on the screen of your meter.  Now, when you aim your meter at the scene and press the measure button, it will tell you how many stops of difference are between the initial, stored reading and what you are currently viewing.

In this particular scene, there is a dark recessed area just to the left of the waterfall.  As this is a pretty prominent component in my scene, I want to make sure this is around Zone III.  (Remember, this is the darkest zone that still retains adequate details.)  When I checked this area on my meter, I got a reading of -4.9...essentially 5 stops darker than the 0.5s reading I had stored in memory.  Because I had PLACED the first reading in Zone VIII, this difference of 5 stops (or 5 zones) means that the dark area FALLS into Zone III.

For this scene, that's all I need to do.  I exposed a sheet of Ilford Delta 100 for the 8 seconds that my Reciprocity Timer App gave me and came out with a gorgeous negative with details across the entire range of the scene.  In all honesty, I was a bit fortunate that this particular scene fell into that Zone III-Zone VIII sweet spot.  Now, there were certainly a few darker areas in the scene.  As shown in the diagrammed image below, a few of the darkest shadows beneath the rocks fell into Zone I.  However, these areas are such a minor part of the composition that I am fine with them being essentially black with no details.  

After placing the tones of the white water into Zone VIII, I spot checked the rest of the scene to see what zones these areas fell into.

So what do we do when we come across a scene whose tones aren't quite as perfectly spaced as this one?  When I first started this post, I said that Ansel Adams created the Zone System as a way to control both exposure AND development.  When the shadows and highlights are not perfectly spaced apart, this is where your developing technique comes in.

When you develop film, the highlights are much more responsive to the developer than the shadow areas.  Therefore, as you develop a sheet of film longer, the highlights will continue to get brighter while the shadows will not be affected as much.  This principle is how we compensate for scenes where the range between the critical shadows and highlights doesn't fall in III-VIII sweet spot.  It's also the basis for the photography saying, "Expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights."

Again in the Spruce Flats Falls example there were 5 stops (zones) of difference between the shadows and highlights.  However, let's hypothetically say that there were only 4 stops of difference.  Since my shadows are virtually impossible to alter when I develop the film, I need to make sure I get them in the correct zone when I expose.  Therefore, I will place them in the critical Zone III to insure there are plenty of details.  Because of the 4 stop difference though, this placement means that my highlights are now in Zone VII instead of Zone VIII where I want them.  This essentially means that, under normal development, the white water in the falls will be one stop underexposed.

This is where I use developing time to make my highlights brighter while keeping my shadows intact.  Because the shadows are not as responsive to additional developing time, simply developing the film longer than normal (at a specific time that I've previously measured and calculated) will make the highlights brighter...essentially extending the dynamic range of my scene.  Now, as you can guess from Adam's work, this developing time is exact and will result in a very specific tonality increase; a specific developing time will result in an exact one zone increase.  This additional developing time is referred to as N+1 developing (normal plus one), but unfortunately it's not a number I can give you.  It is very dependent upon the film type, developer type, and your developing technique.  Calculating these numbers (N+1, N+2, etc) are beyond the scope of this blog, but you can read tutorials on how to do it yourself.  Alternatively, there are several film shops that will provide this service for you.  They will have directions on how to accomplish this.

An image showing how the tonality of a scene can be expanded using very specific additional developing time.

I have found that the things I normally shoot usually require N+1 developing.  I really love compositions with tons of range between the shadows and highlights.  Even though I've never had to use it, you can go the other way with N-1 developing.  If you come across a scene with a huge range between the shadows and highlights, you'll again expose for the shadows.  In this case you'll actually develop for less time than normal to obtain detail in the highlights.  You can see that in order to fully take appreciate the tremendous power of the Zone System, you really need to be developing your own black and white film.

As a final note on black and white film, there is a HUGE difference between N+1 (+2, -1, etc) developing and pushing/pulling film.  In both cases you are developing for longer/shorter than normal time, but the application and results are much different.  When you push film, you are essentially underexposing an image and trying to get a normal result by over developing the film.  However, because your shadows do not respond as well to overdeveloping (they are controlled by the exposure), that initial underexposure means that you've essentially sacrificed your shadows.  When you use N+1 (or +2, -1, etc) you are very intentional about retaining detail in the shadows using the correct exposure.  The altered developing time is used only to place the highlights in the correct zone.

Two compositions in one day!  Basically sprayin' and prayin'

Color Negative Film

So, can these principles be applied to color film?  Kind of...and it really depends on the type of film you are using.  Color film really doesn't have the developing flexibility of black and white film, but I've found that the exposure principles can be applied very successfully.  It just depends on the type of film you are using.

Easy breezy...  If my darkest shadow metered at half a second, I place that in the app.  Dial in -2 exposure compensation resulting in a 1/8s exposure time.

Let's start with color negative film.  In my case I shoot Kodak Ektar 100.  You cannot, under any circumstances, overexpose this film; it's impossible!  On my trip to Zion last year, I had a sheet of Ektar pop out of my film holder exposing it to direct sunlight.  I'm pretty sure if I had it developed it would've still been exposed correctly.  In all seriousness, no matter how bright my highlights are, I am never worried about them blowing out with color negative film.

The shadows are a different story though.  Underexposed color negative film is an absolute nightmare.  Virtually IMPOSSIBLE to scan, it turns into complete mud.  Therefore, if I'm planning to shoot Ektar, the only thing I'm concerned about is the darkest shadow in my scene.  That's it.  The highlights are of no concern.  Again using my spot meter function, I'll check around my composition to find the absolute darkest area.  Once I've found that, I'll store that number in my meter's memory.  Again using the Reciprocity Timer App, the key figure to remember is -2 (Since color film isn't really the Zone System, I won't use Roman Numerals anymore...just your normal +/- exposure compensation).  Color negative film will hold details in the shadows as long as they don't go darker than -2.  So I'll input the shutter speed from my meter to the app, dial up -2 on the compensation slider, and shoot whatever the app tells me too.  It's that simple.

The image below is of Zion's Subway.  It's a scene with a huge amount of dynamic range that is perfectly suited for Kodak Ektar.  The cave to the right of the emerald pool is REALLY dark (despite any HDR images you may have seen to the contrary...trust me, in real life it's dark.)  Because this was the darkest spot in my composition, I used it to meter.  I placed that value at -2 and exposed, not caring at all how bright the back wall or the white water was.  As you can see, they were perfectly exposed.

Transparency/Slide Film

The magic numbers for Velvia 50.

Whereas color neg film has a tremendous amount of latitude, slide film (Ex: Fuji Velvia 50) is extremely narrow.  I've seen Ektar hold detail over 10 stops!  Velvia 50 on the other hand has 5 stops max.  And I'm not talking about the 5 stops that I had discussed earlier with black and white film.  If you exceed the critical zone with black and white film, the tones will gently fall off toward either black or white.  If you exceed the range of Velvia 50, you'll be staring at distracting black holes or glaring areas of pure white.  However, despite its limitations, I (and many others) love it because when the scene is right there is nothing in photography like a correctly exposed sheet of Velvia.  A truly magical experience when viewed on the light table!

The important value to remember with Velvia 50 is +2.  Your highlights will retain details all the way up to +2.  Anything brighter will start to appear blown out...very distracting.  OCCASIONALLY, I'll let a highlight go up to +2.5 if and only if it's a small part of my composition that won't be too distracting.  I'll then just do the opposite of Ektar.  For Velvia 50, I meter off the brightest area in the scene.  Then, I'll place the value from my meter into the app, dial up +2 and fire away.  I'm a bit more meticulous about spot checking my shadows though to make sure they don't go below the -2.5 to -3 range.  If there is no way the scene will fit into that 5-stop total range, I'll simply shoot Ektar.

In the scene below, I metered off the white water and made sure that value didn't go brighter than +2.  There was a nice, soft reflected light glow illuminating the scene so the overall contrast wasn't too much.  A scene tailor made to Velvia's abilities and it rendered it beautifully.

This is why I always have Velvia around.

Closing Thoughts

I know this has been a long post, but I wanted to make sure I covered every single detail.  The way I meter is, at least to me, very simple.  It's a bit tough to explain I think, but once you get the hang of it, it really works well.  I'm honestly pretty laid back when it comes to metering.  I'll usually look at a scene, take a single reading, spot check a few areas, and then expose.  If I'm shooting Ektar I'll often go beyond what the app tells me to expose by some arbitrary amount of time; a few second, half a minute...just depends on how I'm feeling that day.  :)  Film, even Velvia 50 to some extent, is very forgiving as long as you know where your leeway is (shadows or highlights).

I will say this though, my technique does require a bit of pre-visualizing what the final image will look like.  This can only come from experience and knowing how my different film stocks respond to different situations.  I hope this helps though, and if you shoot film I would encourage you to check out the Reciprocity Timer App.  I am in no way affiliated with the app or the developer; it has just made my shooting exponentially easier and faster.  If you have any questions about anything feel free to ask in the comments below, and I'll do my best to help out!





So you may have noticed (or most likely not) that my corner of the Internet has been a bit quiet lately.  As in almost total radio silence.  There's a bit of a reason for that, and I'll attempt to explain it in this blog.  However, first a bit of house-keeping.  In case you don't follow me on social media, my wife and I are expecting a boy in August! 

Also, we are expecting his brother to be born at nearly the exact same time.  That's right...twins!  Nathan and Ethan will hopefully arrive safe and sound sometime around mid-August.  We don't know yet if they will be identical or not; we have to wait until they're born to find that out (which I thought was weird in this day and age).

Although she wanted "stisters" Addison will be getting baby brothers this summer.

We also just returned from Disney World, the busiest...I mean happiest...place on Earth.  We went during spring break and it appears several other people had the same idea.  It really was a fun trip though, getting to see Addison react to all of her favorites from the movies.  I blocked off a day for photography, attempting to do my best Clyde Butcher impersonation.  Instead, I discovered that Orlando is really not like the Everglades.  At all.  I also found out that Florida likes toll roads.  Like, a lot.  While driving to a natural preserve, I ran across 4 in a span of 20 miles, eventually running out of change and having to beg for mercy from the toll attendants.  (Side note:  Why in 2015 are you NOT accepting a card?!  Who has cash on hand anymore?!?)  I didn't get a shot; Clyde's spot as Florida's preeminent large format photographer will remain intact for a while longer...

In addition to trips and twins, spring is prime climbing season in East Tennessee.  Next to photography, trad climbing on southern sandstone is my absolute favorite thing to do.  I love every bit of it:  being outside, placing gear, getting scared above the gear, the mental conversations that take place...all of it!  Unfortunately, I let myself get horribly out of climbing shape so I've had to regain that before feeling safe above gear.  I've been hitting my basement climbing room pretty hard in an attempt to regain what being lazy cost me.

Plugging gear on the warmup route at the local crag.

My home gym, for when I get super out of shape.  Took my buddy and I about 30 hours to build.  Named it Brock Rocks; even had a sign made...

You thought I was joking about the sign, didn't you?

So I've been bit busy, and that's at least partly responsible for why I haven't put out any content in the last three weeks.  However, there is something a bit more.  Tomorrow I'm delivering a 24x30 framed print of "Heaven's View" to be put on 6 month display at Knoxville's McGhee Tyson Airport.  It's definitely an honor, only 5 photographs were selected for the mixed media exhibit out of more than 500 entries, and it's a goal I specifically set for myself earlier this year.  It's also a big deal to me because I was responsible for every part of the image: capture, developing, and printing (Inkjet, not darkroom.  I'm still not a real photographer yet :).  At no point was any of the image out of my control.  Theoretically I should be over the moon about photography right now.

But I'm not.  I'm going to let you in to the circle of trust here, so no judgments...

I'm bummed about photography.  Really bummed out about it right now if I'm being honest.  This is not your typical creative block that almost every artist goes through at some point.  I've had those before; they come and go I think, but right now I've actually got tons of ideas to shoot.  Instead, I'm really frustrated about where I am as a photographer.  As in literally, WHERE I am.  Absolutely everything that I'm inspired to shoot is about 2000 miles west of where I sit typing this blog.

Now I know most people will say I've just got to look harder for things to shoot here.  My response would be why should I try to artificially generate interest in something that doesn't inspire me?  Not to get too artsy here, but that lack of motivation/inspiration will most DEFINITELY show through in my work.

Take the Smokies for example.  It's the closest National Park to me.  Many photographers produce stunning work from this place, work that I truly admire.  But it does not make me want to go shoot it the way that an image from Zion or Yosemite does.  I'm certainly not trying to insult those who find the Smoky Mountains beautiful; they just don't speak to me in that way no matter how hard I try to like them.

It's not even like they are that close either.  From my house it takes just under two hours to get there.  That's actually quite a long drive if your heart really isn't into it.  Furthermore, it's not like I can look out the window, see good light, and be there in a split second to set up a composition (the way Ansel could with Yosemite and the Sierras).  Instead, I have to make trips there and work with whatever light I'm dealt in the best way that I can.  Tonight was a perfect example.  As I was driving home, the sky was spectacular.  A storm had just cleared and there was drama to spare in the sky.  And I wasn't even remotely close to a compelling composition.

My trip to Zion last year taught me something.  Now, this is going to sound arrogant, but stick with me for a bit.  My fall trip taught me that I'm a really good photographer.  (The Peter Lik book I bought on humility is really paying off I believe...)  Not necessarily that the images I produced are good.  That of course is up to the individual viewer to decide.  What I mean by "good photographer" is that I'm at a point where, if I'm familiar with an area and the light, I can produce compelling images that match my vision.  Months before that trip there were several images that I composed mentally, and without exception I was able to create them in camera.  I feel that this was a major turning point for me as an artist.

So I've taken all that momentum I had from my big mental breakthrough...and done absolutely nothing since.  And it's frustrating me to no end!  I love following fellow landscape photographers on social media, but whenever I'm unable to produce any work, I kind of pull back away from all of that stuff.  Don't know what that says about me, but it's the truth.  (Remember, circle of trust here so no judging!)  It's not that I'm envious of their work; I'm envious of the fact that they are out there producing work.  I think that's an important distinction to make.  I have a real sense that I'm missing out.

So my question is, for those who aren't full time landscape photographers, how do you combat this?  In the grand scheme of things, this of course does not matter.  Whether or not I get to produce images in the American Southwest might be the most first world problem ever.  However, as trivial as it may sound, this is an important part of my life.  I've planned my next few trips, and I do get excited thinking about them...but they're awfully far away.  I'm currently in serious negotiations with my wife for a SECOND week away per year to shoot, but those talks may have to be tabled for a bit.  Something about twins coming soon...  :)  So what say you Internet; how do I get past this?  Leave a comment below and let me know!

The Worst Image Ever Taken

Bad images.  We've all taken them.  Perhaps we were just starting out and learning about camera settings; after all, nobody was an expert in the beginning.  Or maybe a scene just didn't turn out the way we had pictured it mentally.  Perhaps the scene's dynamic range exceeded the camera's capabilities.  Whatever the reason, we've all captured some real duds in our photography careers.

Making bad images is all part of it, and a bad image is not necessarily a bad thing.  If you go back and study the image, try to learn from it, then it can be a positive experience.  Mistakes are great learning tools.  It becomes a problem when we take bad images and don't learn from them.  And the real tragedy occurs whenever we make a bad image...and think it's good.  This is my story about a bad, no TERRIBLE, image that I thought was good.

Let's rewind a little over 3 years.  At this point in time I don't even know what the term large format means.  I am, however, an experienced photographer having shot and assisted on several weddings.  My wife and I also shot families from time to time.  So I knew my way around a camera, albeit the digital variety.  However, even at this stage what I'm really drawn to is landscapes.  I have no idea how to shoot them, but the thought of being out in nature is alluring.  This is the area of photography I would like to explore more.

It's 2011, and I'm about to turn 30 on Christmas Eve.  And I don't like this...not one bit.  Therefore, at my request our families decided to take a trip to Hawaii instead of doing the usual Christmas and birthday thing.  As it is really the first time I have been to a location that I consider worthy of shooting landscapes, I was very excited to get out and try to capture something "epic!"

We stayed on the island of Maui, and very early on Christmas Eve morning, as a birthday present to myself, I decided to drive around the eastern side of the island to see if I could find something good to shoot.  That's when tragedy struck and I took the worst image ever in the history of the world.  Not exaggerating.  I'm about to show it to you.

First though, a few words of warning.  What I'm about to show you, you cannot unsee.  I cannot be held responsible for any night terrors you may experience.  Second, I'm pretty sure the saturation slider on this went beyond 100.  Apologies in advance if your eyes bleed.  Finally, as a disclaimer, this is NOT who I am as a photographer anymore...please no judgements!  :)

Here goes...

Why Alan?!  Just why???

And just for even more grins, here is the RAW file it came from.  It's practically monochrome...

At one point, this image may have had potential.  Sadly we'll never know...

My gosh, it's been years now and I'm still embarrassed to show it.  This is unquestionably the worst image ever taken.  However, it's only a real problem if we don't learn from it.  So let's look at everything that went wrong so that this mistake will NEVER be made again!

First, I felt like I had to bring back and "epic" image from Hawaii...regardless of whether or not the scene actually looked good.  For starters, this scene is not terrible.  I parked on the side of a pretty much deserted road and hiked about a half mile to the coast.  I was greeted with a somewhat subdued sunrise, but the overlook was quite nice.  A very expansive view, and large areas on breaking water.  Armed with a ND filter, I knew I could get a long exposure to really enhance that water.

However, when I returned to my computer and loaded it into Lightroom, I was greeted with something decidedly NOT epic.  Hmm, this simply would not do as I absolutely needed a trophy shot to return home with.  And this is where I murdered this poor, innocent image.

While the LR XMP files have (thankfully) been lost over time and computer transfers, I'm pretty sure the saturation was cranked to 100.  I'm sure there were Clarity and Vibrance shenanigans as well.  This is really where it goes south, and I promise I'm not making a single bit of this up.  As I was STILL not satisfied with my less-than-epic, I ordered Nik Software (back when it was still expensive) to see if I could throw some filters at it!!!  I don't remember what concoction of filters and sliders I threw at it, but I do know at some point, the sky literally started to fall apart.  Unable to hold the weight of so many filters and saturation boosts, it became a blotchy mess.  No worries though, because I ADDED A GAUSSIAN BLUR MASK TO TAKE THOSE AWAY!!!  Again, you just can't make something this bad up.

After several tries and combinations of garbage (err...Nik filters) I finally had it, my EPIC shot!  Super proud of how good a landscape photographer I was, I immediately posted it to social media.  As expected it received rave reviews and tons of "likes."  I did it; I was finally a good landscape photographer!

Thinking my image would dominate all on a National scale, I entered it into Popular Photography's annual Reader's Contest.  Sadly (and shockingly?!) my masterpiece did not win.  Peter Lik did (more about that at this link).  However, even though it did not win, a few months later Pop Photo used it online to promote next year's contest.  It was uncredited, but I didn't care.  My image was on perhaps the largest photography website in the world!  I was amazed at how great a landscape photographer I had become in such a short amount of time.  Of course I posted the PopPhoto link to the expected congratulations.  It's literally the most famous I've ever been.

Look how awesome I am!!!

An image this famous MUST be printed and displayed large, so that's exactly what I did.  I sent the file off to (what I now recognize as a lower end) lab to have it printed.  I chose all of their best finishing options and anxiously awaited its arrival in the mail.  Thankfully, this is where I came out of my delusional bubble...the print was terrible.

It was a grainy, dark mess.  The manipulations had obviously taken their toll on the file.  Also, at the time I knew nothing about printing so my uncalibrated monitor gave me a dark print.  Slightly dejected, I chalked this one up to just not knowing about printing yet.  Surely the actual image was still good.  Maybe I just needed to study printing more.  Yeah, that's got to be it.

Only I couldn't shake this nagging feeling.  What if my masterpiece was actually just not good?  Hmm.  Surely that couldn't be the case.  I mean, people "liked" it on Facebook; a magazine used it for a major online promotion!  Despite all of that, the more I looked at the image, the more it literally made me want to vomit.  It didn't represent what the scene looked like AT ALL.  While the actual scene has long since faded from my memory, I am confident that what came out of my computer did not represent reality.

This is not at all who I wanted to be as a landscape photographer.  It was at this point in my photography "career" that I made some choices, which in a roundabout way led me to large format.  First of all, no more trying to randomly come up on a scene by chance.  I would have to scout everything out first.  This would definitely reduce the number of images that I took, but it was worth it to me.  This also led me to the conclusion that the only way I was going to be able to seriously do this was to take dedicated, repeated photography trips so single locations.  That way I would be able to become familiar with areas and more importantly the light in those areas.  After searching some online forums, I found an image of Ben Horne's from the Virgin River Narrows and the rest is history.

Speaking of forums, it was time to join one that I felt offered some honest critiques by photographers whose work I aspired to.  I found Fred Miranda, and while I'm not as active as I would like to be, I feel that there are several people on there that I can learn from.  Also, I've tried my best to swallow my pride and genuinely learn from the critiques given there.

Thirdly, I wanted to be the type of photographer who captured a scene as honestly as possible.  Now this is open to HUGE debate, and I'll discuss it more in-depth in a future blog, but I wanted the majority of my work to be behind the camera and not in front of a computer.  To that end, I've taken a few steps.  First, I use my cell phone as a serious photographic tool.  After I've taken an image on film, I'll take the same image on my cell phone.  I've got a pretty powerful editing program on there that I'll use to edit the image on site to be able to represent the scene as closely as possible.  (I'll make careful notes of screen brightness during this process as well.)  This allows me to pull up the image on my phone while I'm scanning the film to get it as close as I possible can.  This is absolutely crucial for color negative film as there is no way to look at the film and know what the scene looked like.  However, it is also important for Velvia as this film tends to make water go REALLY blue and this must be corrected after scanning.

iPhone Pic.  I took this immediately after I exposed a sheet and edited it to look as close to the scene as I possibly could.

And the resulting scan on Kodak Ektar 100.  The most obvious difference is the use of the polarizer to cut throughout the reflections and a slight exposure difference.  Other than that, the colors are pretty close to what my phone says the scene actually looked like.  This is my goal as a photographer. 

Also, I learned how to print.  Even on a calibrated monitor, sending an image off to print was more trial and error than I wanted it to be.  Therefore, I read A LOT on the subject and ordered several (ok, about 75) paper samples.  I narrowed it down to my 3 favorites (matte, a sort of glossy but not annoyingly so, and a special one for monochrome images) and learned every nuance of those papers.  I now can say I can print with complete confidence and am fortunate enough to be able to do so in house up to 44" wide.

Finally, I NEVER want to be so overtly heavy handed while editing...EVER!  Now this is still a learning process.  When I went to Zion in 2013, I shot digital mostly and looking back there are several of those images that are on the unrealistic side.  I've used my 2014 trip as a guideline and have reopened those images in order to hopefully obtain something more realistic.  But I've added a constant reminder to myself.  Remember that horrible print I ordered?  It's on the wall about 2 feet to my right as I type this.  I decided to go ahead and hang it next to my computer as a constant reminder of what NOT to do.  In this way, my terrible image ends up not being so bad as I'm doing my best to learn from and not repeat my mistakes.

Do not repeat the mistakes of my past!

Zion National Park Day 8

My final day and final shot of the trip was an afternoon image in Zion Canyon, so naturally my alarm went off around 4:45.  Tommy was heading home a day early and had to be at the airport before sunrise to catch his flight.  We loaded up his stuff and checked him out of the hotel.  If you want a fun brain exercise, try splitting a hotel room cost between three people with two of them staying an extra day...and do all of the at 5 in the morning!  We eventually decided to work it out later, and I drove Tommy to St. George for his return flight.

I returned to Zion and was able to see the sun come up on a new day.  Marc and I leisurely loaded our gear into the car and made our way to the park.  However, before I set up my shot of Angel's Landing, I had an even more important task at hand:  buy souvenirs!  I had to make sure and return with something for Addison!  I spent some time in the giftshop and eventually came away with a shirt (same one I bought her in 2013, just two sizes bigger now...she's growing up on me!), a stuffed animal, and a book about the geological history of Zion.  The last book may have been for me...:)

After purchasing the requisite gifts, Marc and I made our way into the canyon for my final image.  This was an image I had envisioned many months before my trip.  When I first visited Zion, I was completely blown away by the shear scale of the canyon walls.  This place is MASSIVE!  However, that is often difficult to portray in an image, and this is something I wanted to accomplish with this image.  Angels' Landing is one of the more recognizable features in Zion Canyon, and I wanted to try to frame this beneath the branch of a cottonwood tree.  There is something about having an object above a feature that makes it seem even more massive; I don't know why that is.  The image I was going for was inspired Ansel Adams' Half Dome, Autumn (seen here).

I had scouted this image on my very first day in the park, but the tree I had originally found was best suited for a vertical composition.  I had shot a lot of vertical images on this trip so I decided to look around a bit more.  After about half an hour, Marc found an even better tree and we set up there.  All I needed for this image was direct sun on Angel's Landing and clear skies.  I planned to use a red filter to darken the skies and really make Angel's Landing stand out even more.

As we were setting up, I noticed that as the sun was rising, the peaks on the east side of the canyon were casting shadows that would soon be in our image.  I was concerned that this would ruin the shot, so I quickly fired off two shots.  However, after thinking about it for a bit, I realized that the shadows would actually serve to frame Angel's Landing even better.  I waited a bit longer until the shadows were in the lower portion of my composition then fired off several more shots as the shadow extended further into my composition.

"Where Angels Tread" 4x5 Ilford Delta 100, 90mm, f/45, 1/8s, red filter

What a lucky shot!  The shadow from those cliffs adds so much more to this image than when I first shot it.  The sky was that brilliant shade of cobalt blue that happens on a clear day so it went really dark under the influence of the #25 filter.  Of course I say "lucky" somewhat tongue in cheek. This is an image that I had thought about for months.  So in that regard, it wasn't just something I stumbled upon; it was a scene that I actively sought to create.  However, the changing position of the sun was not something I could have anticipated.  This really was a case of right place at the right time.

Once that shadow extended all the way into the grassy field in our foreground, we packed up.  As we were were packing up, a group of turkeys (which I just discovered is called a rafter) walked within about 10 feet of us.  The wildlife here really has no fear!  I had long ago decided that this would be the last image of my trip.  However, Marc still had a half day left to shoot.  He is a fan of panoramas, so I showed him my iPhone pano of my previous day's hike to the Northgate Peaks.  We decided this would be a good place to take in sunset and try to get him one final image.

Once again, I made the trip up the Kolob Terrace, and once again the Northgate viewpoint was completely deserted save for Marc and myself.  Since I had already done my "closing hike" I decided to explore a little bit.  You can scramble to the summit of both East and West Northgate Peaks; since the east peak had the better view of Zion Canyon, I chose to make the ascent up this one.  It's a steep ascent, but there is never really a danger of falling.  At worst, if you fell you would skid quite a way over rough sandstone.  Certainly not appealing, but not ever a danger to your life either.  After about 15 minutes from the base, I made it to the summit and was greeted with a stunning 360 degree view of my surroundings.  This is an area that would be tough to photograph with a 4x5; a 6x17 on the other hand would do quite nicely.

iPhone pano from atop East Northgate Peak.  Zion Canyon is in the distance and somewhere between me and the canyon is Subway.  The prominent peak on the right is the North Guardian Angel and the South Guardian Angel is just beyond that.

iPhone pano from atop East Northgate Peak.  The rounded summit in the left mid ground is West Northgate Peak.  The isolated white peak in the distance just right of center is Pine Valley Peak.

I sat atop the peak and again just listened to the wind filter through the slot canyons.  Literally above it all, I thought about all the people who were down exploring the various canyons in front of me.  Once again, I had an overwhelming sense of feeling really small.  I get quite existential whenever I'm in Zion.

I eventually returned to the lava rock viewpoint, and Marc and I waited for some clouds to hopefully roll in.  Instead what we got were contrails...lots and lots of contrails that would not go away!  While Marc waited and hoped for some color, I finished off a roll of 35mm Portra 160.  When the trip started, I had planned to document everything on 35mm film and an old Canon Rebel.  Instead, it rarely made it out of my pack, and I discovered that Portra 160 is WAY to slow to shoot handheld in the Narrows, even with a 50mm f/1.8 lens!  Still, I wanted to finish the roll so I could get it developed when I got home.

The moon over East Northgate Peak.  35mm Kodak Portra 160.

Pine Valley Peak.  35mm Kodak Portra 160.

East Northgate Peak.  35mm Kodak Portra 160.

iPhone pano of Marc waiting patiently for light that would never come...

We waited and waited but eventually it became clear that we wouldn't get any color that evening.  Marc eventually packed up and we headed back.  On our way back, through the trees we witnessed one of the most nuclear skies I have ever seen.  I tried to capture it on iPhone, but I couldn't get the colors exactly right.  I've posted it below, but the actual sunset had deeper reds.  It was certainly a sight!

iPhone image of a spectacular sunset!

We returned to the hotel and packed up everything for our respective return trips.  The next morning I again awoke well before sunrise.  I said "See ya next year" to Marc and then made the drive to St. George.  As the plane took off, I had hoped for an aerial view of Zion at sunrise, but an incoming storm placed a layer of clouds between me and the park.  Oh well, perhaps its best that my last view of Zion from this trip was the previous night's sunset up on the Kolob Terrace.  The trip home was uneventful, and a blast of frigid air upon leaving the plane in Chattanooga reminded me that I was back to reality.  As I dejectedly trudged toward baggage claim, I heard a familiar "Daddy!"  My wife had brought Addison to the airport to welcome me back.  It was a complete surprise and the perfect way to close out a perfect trip!

Zion National Park Day 7: The Virgin River Narrows

At this point in the trip, I was starting to feel an extreme sense of accomplishment.  The weather had cooperated beautifully each day of the trip...giving me clouds when I needed them and clear skies when I needed reflected light.  If I had control of the weather, I couldn't have dialed up anything better.  I felt really confident about most all of my compositions, and even though there is a lot that can go wrong with film, I felt sure that there were at least some good shots in there.  The one incident regarding the missed focus was a troubling anomaly, but since then, every shot had been tack sharp upon checking.  As far as I could tell, my gear had only messed up on that one shot.  If the trip had ended today, I can honestly say I would feel satisfied with it.

Of course, we still had two full days left so I needed something to shoot or explore.  One of Tommy's goals for this trip was to photograph Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend.  These are beautiful locations, but I had reservations about joining him.  With regard to Antelope, I was worried about having enough time to find a composition and set up my shot.  Horseshoe was completely out of the picture as I didn't have a wide enough lens.  So Tommy and Marc headed to Arizona, and I stayed in Zion.  I still had a few loose ends to tie up.

I decided I would try for two shots today:  the one I had tried for two previous days in the Narrows and the very first shot I scouted on the trip of Angel's Landing through the cottonwood trees.  Since both were afternoon shots, I leisurely loaded up the car and headed into the canyon. Despite a relatively late (at least as far as photography is concerned) start, I was still one of the first cars to arrive at the River Walk Trail.  I sat in the car for a LONG time!  It was just cold enough outside to be a bit of a nuisance, and the thought of putting on my river gear for the fourth time this trip was kind of a buzzkill.

I recorded some video and then eventually decided to get out and get my day started.  As usual, the morning was quite windy.  I loaded up my water bottles and quickly hit the trail, anxious to get my heart rate up and get warm.  As I approached the water, a small voice in my head started asking, "Do you REALLY want to do this?"  Four days in seven is a lot of time to spend in cold water.  However, I did want this shot so I pressed onward.  The familiar chill of the Virgin River greeted my feet, and another adventure in the Narrows began.

Before our trip to Subway, my knee had really started to hurt, and I was nervous that the grueling Subway hike would be really hard on it.  Much to my surprise, I didn't notice it once the entire day.  However, on this day, as soon as I hit the water, it started giving me trouble again.  With regard to elevation, the Narrows is a much easier hike than Subway.  The water, though, is a constant source of resistance, and I believe this is what was causing my knee pain.  As I was set to arrive at my spot well before the light, I took my time until my knee loosened up.  Overall, it wasn't too bad.

What was annoying though were the continuous supply of small pebbles that kept finding their way into my shoes.  I would kind of kick them up toward my toes every now and then.  Eventually that stopped helping though, and I would have to periodically sit down, remove my pack, and empty out my shoes.  I cannot tell you how annoying this became...like having to stop on the Interstate just as you get into a good rhythm driving!

I eventually arrived at my location about two hours before the best light.  I took my time setting up everything, very much enjoying the fact that I was not the least bit rushed.  I focused, locked everything down, and then grabbed a seat on the rocks just beside my tripod.  Every ten minutes or so I would recheck focus and it continued to remain tack sharp.  I was very confident that I would get the shot today.

One funny thing I observed while waiting was the look on people's faces as they passed me by.  A large format camera draws attention, and each person who passed always looked back to see where it was aimed.  A look of bewilderment ensued as the scene was quite ordinary with no reflected light.  Inevitably, several of them still stopped, set up their tripods beside mine, and took a few shots...disappointment showing on their faces when the image popped up on the back of their screen.

I continued to wait for the glow, but I could feel a nervousness growing.  This was it...my last chance to get this shot.  When the glow arrived I took two shots of different exposure times.  About ten minutes in, direct light hits the right wall and shooting has to stop for a bit.  This is only momentary though.  When the direct light disappeared, I took two more shots...again of varying exposures.  I wanted to cover all of my bases.  Once direct light hit the right wall and reached down onto the canyon floor, my window of opportunity was over.  Hours of waiting culminated in about a 20 minute shooting window.

Anxiously, I ducked under the dark cloth again to check focus.  I literally held my breath in anticipation.  A general inspection looked sharp.  So far so good.  A quick look under the loupe confirmed focus.  Success!!!  Thrilled, I let out a literal sigh of relief.  This sudden exhale fogged my ground glass...causing the entire image to be blurry.

Stunned silence.

It cleared up and I breathed on it again.  Again it fogged and the image went blurry.

Silence again...at least for a few moments until I literally started laughing out loud!  I'm sure everyone who passed thought I was crazy.  The "focus problem" was nothing more than me fogging my own ground glass!  I quickly calculated that I should have about 6-7 perfectly sharp sheets of Ektar from this one scene.  If nothing else, at least I would have options!

Never a dull moment when shooting large format!  I packed up my gear, continuing to chuckle at what I had done.  My hike out of the Narrows that day was one of complete satisfaction.  The year prior, I had hiked out of the Narrows very frustrated.  High waters had turned back my last attempt to photograph there, and I only totaled one day shooting in the Virgin River.  This year I got six good shots in the Narrows in four days.  As my goal was only a single portfolio worthy shot, this year's trip was an embarrassment of riches.

"Vanishing Darkness"  Kodak Ektar 100, 90mm, 3:32, polarizer

And I still had half a day left!  Unfortunately, I was a bit too late to get my shot of Angel's Landing.  I would save that for my final day in Zion.  I grabbed a quick bite at the hotel room, and pondered what to do.  I didn't really want to shoot anything, and I was too tired to do any serious hiking.  I decided to go ahead and do my closing hike.

Not really an official name, but I like to end my trips to Zion with a hike to a secluded location in the park and spend some time completely alone.  I don't really have a purpose for this alone time, I just like to be completely still and take it all in...to have a moment I guess you could say.  For this year's trip, I chose to hike to the Northgate Peaks.  Up on the Kolob Terrace, this hike is about as completely flat as you can get.  After a few miles, it ends at a viewpoint of the Northgate Peaks, and the Guardian Angels in the distance.  It is quite a bit off the beaten path, and while the view at the end is certainly a good one, it's not something most people go out of their way to see.  This is exactly what I wanted.

I arrived at a completely empty trailhead about an hour and a half before sunset.  I took a backpack filled with some water, snacks, another layer of clothes, no camera, and no headlamp.  A full moon and clear skies would be all I needed to hike back in the dark.  I set out on the sandy trail and covered ground quickly on the easy terrain.  I was completely alone in this part of the park, surrounded by overwhelming silence.

The North Guardian Angel, centered between the two Northgate Peaks.  

I arrived at the viewpoint, a massive pile of volcanic rock, and took it all in.  In the distance I could see the North Guardian Angel, and beyond that was the massive chasm of Zion Canyon.  It's hard to shut photography completely down, so my mind was trying to work out compositions, but this is a location ill suited to 4x5.  Instead, I took an iPhone pano of a gorgeously subdued sunset.  I spent time alone with my thoughts, listening to the wind filter through the canyons.  My thoughts went nowhere in particular; I just tried my hardest to be completely in the moment...extending each second as long as possible.

By now, the sun had completely set, but the night was nowhere near dark.  Clear skies and a nearly full moon gave the evening a peaceful blue light.  This light illuminated my path as I returned to the car.  Once again I felt a sense of complete satisfaction.  Although I only took one image this day, it remains just as memorable to me as Subway or my previous days in the Narrows.  Man...I love Zion.

Thoughts on Peter Lik...That's Not How You Pronounce it Though

In one of my previous blog posts, I mentioned that I'm generally a pretty positive person.  While we can't control what happens to us, we can control how we handle things.  In that regard, I try my best to be positive and see the good side of things most times.  This blog post will not be one of those times...

Moonrise Over the Towers.  Single shot.  Peter Lik Filter applied in camera...

Peter Lik.  Just saying the name will usually draw an emotional response.  To his fans, Mr. Lik's work represents the apex of landscape photography.  To them, his vibrant images are the work of a true master.  Mention the name in any type of forum that takes landscape photography seriously and you will get a much different response.  To these people, his work is an abomination of fake color and overzealous marketing.

I tried my best to stay away from either extreme.  Sure, his work wasn't my style.  As I have grown as a landscape photographer, my tastes have migrated to a more realistic representation of nature.  Some of Peter's earlier work qualifies as realistic, but not much that he has produced recently.  His marketing skill, however, is second to none.  Since I am deficient in this area regarding my own work, I always admire people who are superior in this field.  As I am typically a laid back person, I also admired his enthusiasm when speaking about photography.  Besides, hating on Peter Lik would make me seem jealous, and I am most certainly not jealous of Mr. Lik.

That all changed last week when the New York Times released an article on Peter's work detailing his recipe for success (link here).  A photographer I follow on Twitter linked the article, and I opened it expecting to hear about his recent $6.5 million print sell.  What I got was an alpha douche waxing poetic about himself (and his sexual conquests).

Then he did the unthinkable...he insulted Ansel Adams.

NOBODY INSULTS ANSEL IN MY PRESENCE AND GETS AWAY WITH IT!!!  Therefore, it is now Peter Lik rant time; this has been a long time coming.


Ignore the horrid image...this is my one uncredited claim to "fame." :)

Let's start with an anecdote from one of your peers, Mr. Lik.  I was speaking with a fairly large "name" in the landscape photography world once, and we got on the topic of famous prints.  This photographer of course had many, and me...not so much.  I did have one story with an image of mine getting a VERY, VERY small amount of exposure.  (And believe me, I cannot emphasize how small my "famous" image was.  A few years back I entered an image into Popular Photography's Reader's Contest.  Of course mine didn't win; ironically Peter Lik won that year.  However, the next year Pop Photo used my image, uncredited, to promote that year's contest.  When you clicked on my image, it went to a page containing Lik's winning image...)  After telling this story, this photographer said, "First of all, you're pronouncing it wrong.  It's Peter Dick." 

There was absolutely no trace of professional envy in his voice or demeanor.  He was giving his honest opinion; as it turns out, it was a highly accurate opinion.

Second, let's talk about his work.  At one point it was what I consider to be good landscape photography.  Beautiful scenery with maybe a bit of extra saturation.  Not really a problem for me; after all I do shoot Velvia.  That photographer, though, is long since gone.  The first time one of his images offended me (and yes, I actually mean offended me...as in I was angry at what my eyeballs had just experienced) was when I saw "Bella Luna."  (Did the Google work for you here.)  Look closely; when is the last time you saw the moon IN FRONT OF THE CLOUDS?!?!  If I ever see that, something in my life has gone horribly wrong.  And why is the sun setting on the same side as the dark side of the moon???  And to add further insult, there was a time where this was presented as a single exposure (although that information has since been removed from his website).  I once tweeted that this image made "Lone Wolf" t-shirts on Amazon look good.  I stand by that statement.

Does anyone actually think his stuff looks good anymore?  It's just an oversaturated mess that has been through Photomatix.  Take a look at his "Aviator" series (here).  That's not even well done HDR.  It's like he realized at some point that his marketing schemes were so superior that he completely stopped trying to even be a decent photographer.  Honestly, I think he's probably getting amusement from it all...seeing how terrible he can make images while still selling a mountain-ton of them.

The landing page for Peter Lik's website.  Think he's trying to tell us something?!

Speaking of marketing schemes, I felt sick to my stomach reading in the article about those people who thought they were making an investment...only to find resell values of his work were absolutely horrendous.  Look, I get that in the digital age it is necessary to add a sense of urgency to make photography sell.  (There was a time long ago, when printing processes were much different, that early editions of an image were desired because it was physically a better print.  With the advent of superior inkjet and lightjet printing, this is no longer the case.  The 500th print will be identical to the first.)  I have no issue charging more for later prints as a method to sell.  What I do have issue with is how much he marks them up with regard to the resell market for his images.  If the numbers in the article are correct, he sells late edition prints for about 10 times their "worth."

Then he goes and brags about it, saying he sold the most expensive piece of "art" ever.  First, the now 2nd and 3rd most expensive photographs sold at auctions, allowing their extreme value to be determined organically.  Peter picked a random, astronomical number and then contacted his "collectors," eventually finding some gullible putz to pay that amount.  A fool and his money are soon parted I guess.  However, in spite of the buyer's poor financial sense, the fact remains that the 6.5 million dollar total is artificial.  Secondly, it's clear that this was ONLY a PR move for Mr. Lik.  After all, it was his team that made the announcement, and it's kind of hard to ignore when it's the landing page for his website.  It's ALL about the money with Peter Lik.

Which brings me to the final point of this rant:  Ansel Adams.  The blatant disrespect Lik has for Ansel Adams is appalling.  To say that he was only at the right place and the right time?  BS  First, you think it's coincidence that he just happened to be in certain spots when the lighting was perfect time after time after time?  This makes my blood boil.  Lik's complete ignorance of what goes into scouting light when shooting large format is laughable.  Adams was a master of his craft; he didn't just use garbage HDR and saturation sliders to make up for subpar talent.  And the one time when he was literally right place at the right time (Moonrise Over Hernandez)?  The technical knowledge he used to calculate that exposure is mind blowing.  The light changed so fast that he didn't even have time to take his customary second sheet; forget about bracketing multiple exposures

More importantly though is how Ansel used his work.  I truly believe that conservation and protecting the land was more important to Ansel than even photography.  To that end he used his images to educate the masses.  From reading the article, I get the feeling that Peter Lik has a deep desire to be important.  However, he will NEVER matter because he only cares about himself and making money.  Ansel is an important historical figure because he was so much more than just a photographer who sells prints; Peter Lik is only a person trying to make money.  When he is gone, his art will not matter or be of any worth.  We will not remember or celebrate his birthday decades after he has passed.  He will merely fade away as so many pretentious douche nozzles have done before him.

Also, contrary to his own belief, he is not God.

And finally, I work with the public on a daily basis and occasionally come across men who brag about their sexual exploits (as Lik did in the article).  Without fail, they are always compensating for something.  Always.


Oh my gosh, that felt good!  I was literally shaking I was so mad writing the last few paragraphs.  This blog, of course, will never be read by Peter or make a difference in anything at all, but man did it feel good to rant about that!  I'll have to do this more often...


Zion National Park Day 6: Subway

I don't remember what time my alarm went off the morning of our Subway hike, but I'm pretty sure it started with a "4."  In order to limit human impact on this fragile area of land, Zion National Park has adopted a lottery system that cuts off at a maximum of 80 people per day.  From looking online, I knew that today was maxed out.  I realized that not all 80 people would be photographers; some would be doing the top-down technical route, some would be casual bottom-up hikers, and some would be photographers but would be getting a later start than we were.  Nevertheless, I wanted to arrive well before sunrise to insure that we would get the shots we were after in relative peace.

Having packed up all of our gear the night before, we grabbed some breakfast and headed out.  As we say in the south, "as the crow flies" the trailhead is not all that far from Zion Canyon.  However, we are not crows, and it was a 45 minute car ride from our hotel.  We pulled into the parking lot only to find that we would not be the first car to arrive that morning.  There could only be one other person crazy enough to arrive before we did that day...

If you are reading this blog or if you have seen my videos, then odds are you know Ben Horne.  And if you aren't familiar with Ben, you can change that right now by checking out his work here (benhorne.com) and his fantastic YouTube channel here (YouTube).  I consider Ben to be a friend, yet I have no problem also saying he is my favorite photographer.  Of course his images are amazing, but there's more to it.  There is integrity in his work, if that makes any sense.  When I see one of his images, I know that it's what the location looked like...even if it takes days for the light to cooperate.  In this day of over-the-top processed images, it's nice to see an artist do things the right way.  Also, I have learned a lot from Ben over the years, both indirectly through his videos and directly through email conversations.  He is extremely knowledgeable and would make an excellent workshop instructor...

Although we were second to arrive, we quickly set out and were first on the trail well before sunrise.  The first half mile of Subway is a relatively flat stretch of trail.  Although it's flat, it is still easy to get lost as you pass over several washes that mimic the trail.  If you have never hiked Subway before, I definitely do not recommend hiking in the dark on your first try.  I have been once before and was aware of the washes, yet I still managed to get off trail twice.  

After this flat part, you come to the descent, around 500 vertical feet and virtually straight down.  If you took a wrong step here, it would not end well.  It is on this part of the trail that Ben caught up to us.  We talked for a bit, and then he took off.  I'm a fast hiker, but am still amazed at the ground he covered and the weight he was carrying.  Of course, it also helps that he could see.  It is on this hike that I discovered that my headlamp was grossly underpowered.  I have since remedied that, but it had a major impact on our hike that morning.

Eventually we reached the bottom of the trail, with the sound of the Left Fork of North Creek greeting us.  Here the trail is a combination of clear paths, some not-so-clear paths, and rock-hopping across the water multiple times.  The headlamp really became an issue at this point of the hike.  Whenever the trail would dead-end at the water and we had to cross, there was not enough light to see where the trail picked back up on the other side.  Also, while crossing the Left Fork, the water was pitch black beneath us.  It is unsettling to be walking across rushing water and not be able to see it.

At one point, we really got off the beaten path.  It's virtually impossible to get lost (after all, you're hiking in a river at the base of a canyon), but there are definitely paths of lesser resistance.  We backtracked and bushwhacked a trail for about 15 minutes, always staying close to the water, and eventually found our way back to the trail.  I cannot wait to use the new headlamp this year!

Finally, we were able to make out the first bits of light.  I absolutely love experiencing a new day this way, being there for the transition from night to day.  Finally able to see, our pace picked up quite a bit.  As I tend to completely neglect rest and water, Marc was in charge of making me stop and take breaks from time to time.  This was important as last year I became dangerously dehydrated on this trail.  We took several breaks along the way, and this allowed a group of two photographers (let's refer to them hypothetically as the Workshop Guys) to pass us.  

At first I didn't think much of it.  However, as we started hiking I saw the Workshop Guys breaking out trash bags, and my heart sank.  I knew exactly what they were doing; they were gathering leaves to throw in the emerald pools in Subway.  The leaves would swirl in the water, an effect that would be noticeable in longer exposures.  I didn't want anything taking away from that gorgeous color.  However, they now were up to THREE trash bags full; a deep uneasiness set in.

Camera selfie.  The image on my camera screen is not actually the ground glass; it's a reflection of what's behind us.  Photo credit:  Tommy Botello

We again picked up the pace in order to put as much space between us and them as possible.  At this point in the hike, the canyon walls were noticeably closing in on us.  Eventually, we reached the first set of slick rock cascades.  These cascades (I don't know if they have a name or not...I always refer to them as NOT Archangel Falls) mark the point where most of your hiking is done in North Creek itself.  Marc and Tommy decided to stop here and take their first image of the day.  It's certainly a beautiful scene, but I wanted to make sure I arrived early to Archangel Falls.

I headed on and eventually made it to Archangel Falls just as Ben was exposing his last sheets of film.  As he broke down his camera (it's obscenely heavy by the way), I started working on my composition.  I had intended on taking a horizontal shot, but there was a slight problem.  No matter how hard I tried, I could not compose horizontally without including the sky in the upper left of the image.  This of course would be a distracting, blown-out area on the film...definitely not desirable.  As I talked to Ben about it, he said he was able to get around this by using rear camera movements to enlarge the foreground.  As I was using my wide angle lens, major movements like that are not possible for me; my filter system causes vignetting on my 90mm lens whenever I use movements.  I know I need to upgrade, but to replace everything I have to the next larger filter size will cost me $1500. That's a tough pill to swallow!

Eventually I abandoned the landscape orientation and settled for a vertical image.  I made sure not to cut off that large tree in the background or any of the white water in the foreground.  I took two sheets each of both Fuji Velvia 50 and Kodak Ektar 100.  Even though it was a very high contrast scene, the Velvia shot captured plenty of detail.  I don't mind at all the dark areas beneath the slabs of sandstone; those areas were dark in real life!

"Acte d'Ouverture"  Shot on 4x5 Fuji Velvia 50, 90mm, f/45, 2:32, polarizer

I named this image Acte d'Ouverture...French for "Opening Act."  Archangel Falls is the first of three main photographic opportunities in Subway, followed by the crack and Subway itself.

By this time, several other photographers started to filter in, including a guy shooting a RED Dragon!  As it's rare to see these cameras doing still work (or any work for that matter...that's some serious high end gear), I asked the photographer about it.  It turns out, he was on assignment for RED.  They are really wanting to enter the fine art photography market and he was charged with gathering images from National Parks.  This man is living my dream!!!  Also arriving was Justin, the photographer I met in the Narrows a few days prior.  If you're scoring at home, that's an 8x10, a RED Dragon, two 4x5's, and various DSLRs all at the base of Archangel Falls.  That combination of cameras will NEVER be seen again!

I loaded up my gear and headed further upstream for the last half mile to Subway.  While the Narrows wins as my favorite hike for its sustained beauty, there is nothing on Earth that compares to this last half mile of the Subway hike.  At this point, the stream has thinned out to shallow sheets of water gently cascading over the brilliant red sandstone.  The hike is almost exclusively in the water now, and the trail passes several waterfalls along the way.  I had this part of the trail to myself and I savored every single step.

Another treat is passing "The Crack," a 3-4 inch gash in the sandstone that water rushes through. Whatever you do, DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE HOW SLIPPERY THE ROCK IS BEYOND THE CRACK!!!  I had forgotten this and was not being careful with my steps.  I suddenly found myself sliding down the sandstone, completely unable to stop or control where I was going; it might as well have been a sheet of ice.  Eventually I stopped, thankful to not have fallen!

Much more carefully this time, I made my way toward Subway.  As I approached its tubelike structure, it's tough to describe how I was feeling.  It's almost like I was entering sacred ground.  The air was completely still and I could feel the hair on the back of my neck start to stand.  It may sound ridiculous, but that's how much I revere this place.

I was the first to arrive on the upper "platform" of Subway, and I easily set up my composition.  There is a large pool of water just to the right and beneath the shooting area.  I used the border of this pool as a leading line into my image.  Everything else basically composed itself; this is a scene that is really well suited to the 4x5 ratio of the film that I shoot.

Other photographers began to arrive and set up around me, but I knew that I had the prime location.  As the light was not yet good, I had no intention of moving.  To be honest, I was a bit uncomfortable camping out like this, but I discussed it with a few others there and the general consensus seemed to be, "Don't sweat it; you were here first."

If you arrive early, there will be a distinct glow on the left and right sides of the far wall.  As the reflected light starts to intensify, you'll notice that the glows will start to meet in the middle.  It's go-time at that point.  I exposed 4 sheets of Kodak Ektar 100, with my longest exposure, five minutes and thirty seconds, being the best of the bunch.  Thankfully, Workshop Guys held off on throwing their leaves in the pools until we had all taken shots.

"All Good Things..."  Shot on 4x5 Kodak Ektar 100, 90mm, f/45, 5:30, polarizer

For my final shot of the day, I had envisioned shooting the "back" of Subway on black and white film.  I thought the curved walls and reflections on the water would create nice textures that would be well-suited to a monochrome image.  Once again I used a leading line in the lower right, and once again the rest of the image easily fell into place.  I focused and was just about to expose a sheet, when a group of top-down hikers started to rappel (abseil for any of my European readers) toward the back of my image.  At this point, it was starting to get late in the afternoon, and I was definitely aware of the time, wanting to avoid making the final climb out in the dark.

I stood by my camera in disbelief as it took a group of 4 people THIRTY SIX MINUTES (I timed it) to rap down a 25 foot wall.  Now, I understand that I'm a rock climber and can rappel with my eyes closed (That's actually not an exaggeration.  My climbing mentor thought that setting up an anchor and rapping off of it was so important that he made me learn to do it with my eyes closed.), but this was ridiculous.  After all, you are supposed to have canyoneering experience before attempting the top-down route, and it was clear that some in their group had never rappelled before.  One girl in particular would lower 2-3 inches and then lock off and reset her feet before repeating the process.

I stared passive-agressive death rays at them as, one-by-one they made their way down.  Of course, I had to wait another ten minutes once they passed by so that the water would settle back down.  Ugh!  Definitely not my most Zen-like moment.  I took a few deep breaths and calmed down, upset at myself for not being cooler about the whole situation.  Eventually I got my shot and packed up my gear.

"Journey's End"  Shot on 4x5 Ilford Delta 100, 90mm, f/45, 7s

I named these images "All Good Things..." and "Journey's End" respectively.  In a literal sense, for bottom-up hikers, Subway is the turnaround point...the end of your hike.  In a more figurative sense, at the time I made these images, I had intended for this to be my last trip to Subway.  There was sort of a melancholy closure to this hike, and I wanted that to be reflected in the images I took.  Of course, now I do think I will make the hike again this year.

I slowly made my way down and out the tubelike exit of Subway.  Sad to leave, I tried to be completely aware of every step that I took, desperately trying to engrain every part of it in my memory.  I eventually caught back up with Marc and Tommy, and we made our way down stream to the exit point.  The emotional "high" of seeing such a magnificent scene lasts for quite some time, but then reality kicks in.

After a grueling hike, your reward is ascending the roughly 500-foot canyon wall.  We arrived at the base of the climb and took a long rest before beginning.  Much to my surprise, it actually was not too bad and we were at the top in seemingly no time.  The remaining flat trail is a good time to reflect, as the setting sun filters through the trees.  Subway makes you work for it, but it is the epitome of Zion landscapes.  I realize that I am very fortunate to have my trip to Zion go so well in 2014.  Almost every single day, the conditions were absolutely perfect, and I was rewarded with images that I am truly proud of.  In this regard, Subway was no exception.  The conditions were ideal, and the film turned out exactly as I hoped it would.  The entire day is an experience that I will remember for a lifetime.