Laurel Falls and East Tennessee Snow!!!

Taking a week break from my Zion recap videos because we had a big event in East Tennessee last weekend...SNOW!!!  Nothing gets Tennesseans more excited than the possibility of snow.  We also tend to raid the stores for milk and bread at the first mention of the white stuff.  Is this just a regional thing or do people do this in other parts of the country?  I never really understood it as a milk sandwich is about the last thing I want during a snowstorm.  Or any other time for that matter.  Who is eating the milk and bread sandwiches?!

As the forecast called for only 1-2" we decided to forego stocking up on supplies and take our chances.  We like to live life on the edge like that.  My family had to be in Sevierville for the weekend to attend my nephew's birthday party (he turned one...the cake smashing was anticlimactic) so I of course packed the camera gear.

I awoke Saturday morning to see the ground beautifully covered in....rain.  Thanks a lot meteorologists!  However, I could see that the peaks of the mountains were starting to get white. I just needed some elevation.  I headed out early with no real goal in mind.  This is not ideal for large format photography.  I thought about shooting a scene I passed on my previous hike to LeConte.  However, as is usually the case anytime weather is around, the road leading to this trail (Newfound Gap Road) was closed.  I needed a new plan; in fact, forget a new plan, I just needed A plan.

At the beginning of last year, when I really decided to commit to large format, I made it a goal of mine to photograph all the major waterfalls in the Smoky Mountains.  On that list Laurel Falls was one I dreaded the most.  To say Laurel Falls is crowded is a gross understatement.  At 1.3 miles, paved, and gently ascending, this trail is certainly very popular.  Compositions are also extremely limited because the park placed a bridge at the base of the falls.  Seriously.  You can basically touch the waterfall from the bridge.

On this morning though, I thought the snow meant I could at least catch a break from the crowds.  Also, the snow meant I would have a somewhat unique image of a location that really doesn't lend itself well to unique photographs.  As I drove toward the parking lot for the trail, the snow line was pretty distinct.  Within about a quarter mile of driving the ground went from completely bare to covered in about 2 inches of snow.  It was definitely pretty, and with a goal now in mind, I was excited to take an image.

 Camera selfie (iPhone pic)

Camera selfie (iPhone pic)

I pulled in the parking lot and was disappointed to see that there were already two cars there.  I loaded up and hit the trail.  I quickly passed two hikers (sometimes I race-hike...no big deal) as I set a fairly quick pace in order to stay warm.  I was the first person to arrive at the falls that day.  I crossed the bridge and took off my pack, resting it on a bench just beyond the bridge.  There would be no wilderness experience today!  One thing I had not anticipated was the amount of snow that was falling from the sky.  It was REALLY coming down at this point!  As you can imagine, water and wooden film cameras do not play well together.  I did my best to keep everything covered, but it was impossible to keep it dry.  As I set up and composed, I became a bit concerned about how I would keep my film dry.

Another concern was these incessant snow flakes.  I wasn't worried about them showing up in the image; the long shutter speed would take care of that.  I was worried because it was really causing the shadows of my scene to be washed out.  I decided to cover my camera with the dark cloth and wait for a break in the snow.  As the inevitable crowds arrived, I offered to take people's pictures for them in front of the falls (Fun fact:  I am NOT at all familiar with Droid based phones.  Apologies to the couple that now has several videos of them in front of the falls instead of images!)  I also got the normal inquiries about my camera, including this exchange...

Hiker:  Wow, that's a big camera!  You must be serious.

Me:  Thanks!  It's a large format film camera.  It shoots sheets of film.

Hiker:  Nice.  Does the image pop up on the back of the screen when you take a picture.

 The camera uncovered during a brief break in the snow. (iPhone pic)

The camera uncovered during a brief break in the snow. (iPhone pic)

Hmm...  I don't think people remember what film is all about.  (Sidenote:  Has there ever been anything take over/change an industry as fast and completely as digital cameras have done with photography?  Smart cell phones maybe.)  The snow eventually subsided enough to where I felt it was safe to take a shot.  As I was still a bit unsure what the snow would do to the shadow areas of the scene, I bracketed multiple shots on Kodak Ektar ranging in exposure time from 1 second to 43 seconds.  If you've ever shot Ektar you can probably guess which shot turned out best.  I also took 2 exposures on Ilford Delta 100.  I really thought I would like this scene in black and white, but I didn't much care for the monochrome shots.  I think it's because snow is almost monochrome already so seeing it on black and white film doesn't add anything to the scene.  Weird.

 Laurel Falls 4x5 Ilford Delta 100, f/32, 6s, N+1 development

Laurel Falls 4x5 Ilford Delta 100, f/32, 6s, N+1 development

 Laurel Falls 4x5 Kodak Ektar 100, f/32, 43s  (Note:  I would've liked to have given the whitewater on the lower right more room to "breathe" in the composition.  However, there is a walking bridge immediately to the right of the image.)

Laurel Falls 4x5 Kodak Ektar 100, f/32, 43s  (Note:  I would've liked to have given the whitewater on the lower right more room to "breathe" in the composition.  However, there is a walking bridge immediately to the right of the image.)

A few thoughts about Kodak Ektar.  (If you're not a film or large format photographer, you'll probably want to skip this paragraph.)  A year ago I hated, and I mean HATED this stuff.  So many people raved about it, particularly it's huge dynamic range, but I couldn't scan it if my life had depended on it.  I kept getting these weird color casts and horribly washed out images.  It made me rage-quit photography on multiple occasions.  I had to shoot it though because my other color film, Fuji Velvia 50, can only be shot in limited circumstances.  So I stuck with it, and now I've got to say I'm completely confident in it.  Here are a few things I've learned about it in the past year.  First, NEVER underexpose it.  Your scans will look terrible.  When in doubt, always err on the side of giving it more exposure time as you will almost certainly not be able to blow out any highlights with this film.  In my opinion, you have to meter as carefully for the shadows in Ektar as you do with the highlights in Velvia; do not let the shadows go beyond -2.  Second, expect to spend some time with levels and curves to correct color casts.  This is just part of shooting color negative film I believe.  Once I understood those two things, I have come to absolutely love this stuff.  It is every bit as sharp (if not sharper) and finely grained as Velvia 50.  It's dynamic range is as advertised too.  When exposed correctly, I have seen it hold detail across 10 stops; that's a really big deal.

So back to the falls.  It had been almost an hour from the time I set up until I took my last exposure.  That's a long time to stand still in cold weather, and my hands were really starting to feel it!  I only wore a thin pair of SmartWool touchscreen compatible gloves.  Since I use my iPhone so much when shooting large format, these gloves are a must.  For the most part when I'm hiking and my heart rate is up, this is not a problem.  However, when I'm standing still and I've had to dust snow off my gear, it's a different story.  I don't think my hands have ever hurt as bad as they did that morning!  I actually ran part of the way back (the snow had now melted on most of the paved trail) just to get my blood circulating again.  By the time I returned to my car, they didn't hurt quite as badly.

My gear was soaked so I knew I needed to get it dry pretty quickly.  I returned, unloaded everything, and dried everything off as best as I could.  I've done this several times and I've found that, as long as you don't let it sit packed up while it's wet, having water on a wooden camera is not the end of the world.  In this case, I would let my stuff air dry overnight.  I had also returned to a little girl who wanted to go hiking...badly!  Unfortunately all we had packed were clothes for a birthday party; nothing warm at all.  Despite our warnings about the cold, Addison had to go hiking in the Smoky Mountains and the snow!  Her desire to spend time outside definitely makes me a proud parent. :)

I bundled her up as much as I could (long sleeved t-shirt, thin pants, and a hooded vest...no gloves) and we headed back out.  I was hoping that driving in the snow would be enough for her, but it wasn't.  So we pulled off at one of the "Quiet Walkways" that are everywhere in the Smokies and did some "hiking."  We walked down by the river and threw some rocks in...her favorite pastime.  There were a few other people there and I could feel their judgmental stares.  "Does he not know how to dress a child?" their looks said.  She had a blast though!  As all good things must eventually end, she told me she was cold after about 30  minutes so we hopped back in the car.

 She had a blast! (iPhone pic)

She had a blast! (iPhone pic)

In what I'm sure is completely unrelated news, Addison has been sick all week and had to visit the doctor twice.  All you guys out there who thought about competing in "Father of the Year" might as well just give it up...I'm pretty sure I've got that one locked up!

What Am I Doing?

"So...where are you going with all of this?"

It's a question I'm getting a lot lately.  Where are you going with landscape photography? What do you hope to accomplish with all of it?  I wish I had a clear answer.  A master plan about how I was going to take the photography world by storm using an outdated camera and shooting nothing but nature.  In actuality, it's a bit more complicated.

The truth is, I have no idea where I'm going with landscape photography. While I probably shouldn't admit that in public, it is in fact the truth.  When I think ahead to where I want to be with landscape photography in a few years, my mind is literally a complete blank.  Normally when I set goals, in my mind there is a clear ending point.  A few years back, I set a goal to become an instrument rated pilot.  Even during my first few flight lessons, when I felt completely overwhelmed by the plane, I clearly envisioned myself as a pilot.  I knew through hard work and study that I would achieve my goal and a year and a half later I was flying approaches on overcast days as an instrument rated pilot.

That's the way setting goals for me has always worked, so it's a bit strange that I cannot mentally project where I eventually want to be as a landscape photographer.  I suspect it has something to do with my ideal job.  In a perfect world, I would be a professional landscape photographer.  I would spend most of my time in the field shooting.  Since this is the ideal world, even though I'm out in the field quite a bit, I still magically get to spend time with my wife and daughter.  When I return from shooting, I have loads of gorgeous images that sell for enough money to support my family.  I don't spend any time marketing my work; my days are filled only with exploring and shooting.

The one slight problem with my ideal job is that it doesn't exist...a minor detail really.  If you broke down the current job model for a professional landscape photographer into a pie chart, actual time spent shooting in the field would be a small portion of the pie.  Instead, most time is spent marketing yourself, leading workshops, selling prints here and there, and doing other various tasks to earn an income.  

Here's the deal...I have no interest in everything else that goes along with being a landscape photographer.  Let's start with workshops, a sometimes controversial topic.  I've actually been on one workshop, and it was absolutely the definition of a train wreck.  However, I like the photographer who led it, and I do feel I gained some things from the workshop, so it wasn't a total loss.  I'm not vehemently opposed to workshops and those who lead them, but I'll probably never go on one again.  It's just not my style of learning.  Speaking of styles, mine is not conducive to leading workshops either.  Can you imagine how upset people would be if they paid thousands of dollars to follow me to a location and then wait, sometimes for hours, until the light arrived?!  Hoping for one good shot per trip is not what most workshop participants expect...or deserve, honestly.  I can't even begin to think about all the pressure I would feel!

It's not that I don't like being around people either.  On the contrary, when I'm out shooting I do enjoy chatting with people who are curious about my camera.  It gives me something to do during my down time.  I also enjoy talking to other photographers, especially large format guys.  While I love these interactions, at some points during all trips I need some time alone to connect with the land...to soak in all of its sites, sounds, and even smells (Ed:  My goodness I'm starting to sound like a hippy...).  Having to entertain a group of people for several days is unappealing to me.  The thought of being that close to nature while not being able to peacefully take it all in would honestly be more upsetting than being stuck in the city.

I'm also not good at marketing myself.  Partly because I'm not comfortable with it, and partly because I don't really have a mind for it.  My background is not in business, so advertising is not my strong point.  Added to this is the fact that, let's face it, I've got a strange portfolio of images to market!  Who else shoots East Tennessee and Southern Utah?!  I'm constantly battling the thought that my images don't really have a home.

I find it fantastic (insert sarcastic voice) that my weakest area (marketing my work) is the most important in making landscape photography a viable profession.  Look at Peter Lik for example.  I have no doubt that if you took images from my Zion portfolio and put his name on them, they would sell.  And sell for quite a bit, if his marketing numbers are to be believed.  That's not being conceited either; you could take the work of MANY photographers and do the same thing with Lik's name.  Say what you will about the man (and I've got a future blog doing just that), but he is a marketing genius.

So I'm probably never going to be a full time landscape photographer...where AM I going with this then?!  For starters I do have smaller goals.  I would like to get my work "out there" more this year, and I've started taking steps to do that.  Last month I entered some work in a contest, winning first in landscape and second overall.  (Somewhat ironically I won an Epson large format printer...after having purchased a MASSIVE printer one month prior.)  I am also awaiting word from several local art exhibits where I'm quite optimistic that my work will be on display in the spring and summer.  And while teaching via workshops is probably not in my future, since I enjoy learning online via blogs and YouTube, I am trying to pass along experiences I have using those platforms to share trip reports and tutorials.

It's encouraging to win competitions and to see my blog and YT following grow, but honestly it's not the best way to make a living and spread my work.  I'm not exactly targeting the correct market to sell, and print sales are currently modest at best.  Also, I'm still waiting for the millions of dollars to arrive from YouTube ads.  (Perhaps they lost my address...)  Selling more prints is definitely a goal of mine, and I will continue to work toward this. However, if it never takes off it won't change my attitude toward landscape photography one bit.  My main goal is, and always has been, to get out and experience (and hopefully capture on film) this beautiful world we live in.  Where am I going with all this?  Wherever my next hike takes me, that's where!

Why I Shoot Large Format

Hello!  Welcome to my corner of the Internet.  I thought I would begin my blog by recapping what led me to become a large format photographer...since it's not everyday you see someone lugging around an old-school wooden camera. 

 Behind the scenes at Archangel Falls.  (Photo credit:  Tommy Botello.)

Behind the scenes at Archangel Falls.  (Photo credit:  Tommy Botello.)

Large format is bulky.  I shoot a 4x5 camera, the smallest of the large format cameras, and with all my gear (film holders, tripod, lenses, etc.) my pack still tips the scale at just under 45 pounds.  Obviously, the weight goes up significantly as you move up in formats.  I once held an 8x10 camera that the owner described as "not that heavy."  Yeah, right...the camera alone seemed to weigh almost as much as my entire setup.  Note to self, do not trust Ben Horne when he says something is not heavy.

 How I train to go on long hikes with lots of gear.

How I train to go on long hikes with lots of gear.

Large format is slow and time consuming.  Although I have never timed it, I would estimate that it takes me about 15 minutes to arrive at a location, unpack, set up, compose, focus, and meter.  Truthfully, even 15 minutes would make me feel extremely rushed, and feeling rushed is something I absolutely detest when I'm shooting.  More time is always better, which means it is often impossible to spontaneously shoot a scene without being familiar with it.  An area, and more importantly the lighting in that area, must be scouted ahead of time, and this means more time in the field.

Large format is limiting.  My favorite film, Fuji Velvia 50, has about five stops of dynamic range...and even this might be a bit generous.  By comparison, the new Nikon D810 (a VERY impressive camera by the way) has about 12-13 stops at its lowest ISO.  Shooting a bright sunrise and trying to retain details in the foreground with Velvia 50?  Don't even think about trying it without the help of graduated neutral density filters, and in that case, I hope you have an even horizon.  Of course, other films have more range, but this comes at a sacrifice of the brilliant colors of Velvia.

I haven't even mentioned things like loading film, messing up (which I still do with alarming frequency),  and cost. (Velvia 50 is about $8 per shutter click; I don't even want to calculate what it is for you 8x10 guys!)  So, why go through the trouble you may ask.  My journey into large format began a little over 2 years ago.  I was reading a Popular Photography article on Rodney Lough Jr., and in the article was his image called "Vortex."  There was just something about it, even in magazine print, that set it apart.  I knew I could never recreate this with my digital camera.  I would later learn that what I was seeing was tonality; more on that in a bit.

I did a little investigation and found out that Rodney used something called a large format camera.  At the time, I knew there was a such thing as medium format and that it was obscenely expensive.  And now you're telling me there is something bigger?!  The camera backs must cost half a million!  Another Google search showed me what LF actually was, and this piqued my curiosity.  I was surprised that these cameras were even still in existence, and further surprised that they weren't all that expensive.  A little convincing of my wife Jennifer was in order as she was (rightly) convinced that we didn't need another camera.  However, with Christmas coming up, I convinced her it would make a great gift, and on Christmas morning I became the proud owner of a second-hand Shen Hao 4x5 camera.

For the first year I owned the camera, I was basically figuring out how to use it.  I find it somewhat ironic that the simplest of cameras (it's just a box that holds a lens and film with no buttons) are the hardest to figure out sometimes.  I shot a mix of digital and film as I simply did not trust myself yet with the large format camera.  This made for a ridiculous pack, and I often found myself neglecting the film camera for the convenience of digital.

However, about 9 months ago I decided to get serious about large format.  I purchased Ansel Adams' books The Camera and The Negative and taught myself how to shoot and develop black and white film.  I also started taking short day trips in the Smokies with only the film gear; after all, you can only shoot what you have with you.  I haven't used a digital camera to take a landscape image in over a year now, and I can honestly say I'll never go back.  So, here is why I shoot large format.

Image Quality and Tonality

Image clarity immediately jumps out at you when you're shooting large format.  The detail that a 4x5 inch sheet of film can capture is truly astounding.  The above image, Heaven's View, was taken from the top of Angel's Landing.  It was taken with my wide angle lens.  The Temple of Sinawava in the distance (inside the box) is 1.1 miles away (thanks Google Earth).  There are 3 cars and 2 shuttle buses parked there...and a bus on the way.  Also, there are 13 people standing in the Scout's Lookout area.  At 100% magnification, it looks like one of those people is bent over tying their shoes; I was unable to make out the brand...:)  And this is all from "just" a flatbed scanner.  Truly remarkable detail and image quality.

Clarity and detail are nice, but alone they will not make an image.  After all, Ansel Adams himself said, "There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept."  Bring in large format tonality.  Tonality is difficult to explain, but you'll know it when you see it.  There's just something about the colors and the way light areas transition to dark that gives a large format image a certain look.  It again relates to the real estate that the image is recorded on.  With such a large sheet of film, colors and tones more naturally transition.  I wish I could explain it better, but it is a difficult concept to describe.  And while it looks good on the Internet and even better in Photoshop, it is truly magical when seen it in a large print.  And viewing it on a light table through a loupe?  An absolute religious experience!  You are transported into the scene in an almost 3-dimensional way; it feels as if you are really there.  No digital camera or any amount of processing can recreate this.

Black and White

In addition to going strictly large format this year, I also decided to develop my own black and white film.  It's really not that hard or expensive, and there is something special about seeing an image on the film and knowing that you were responsible for creating it every step of the way.  It's the complete opposite of a digital camera where the image is a more theoretical sequence of 1's and 0's (to be fair, it's often a very beautiful sequence of 1's and 0's, but still...)  When I'm finished developing, I can literally hold an image in my hand that I made.  There's something very powerful about that.  Also, I mentioned that Velvia is a very "narrow" film.  This is absolutely not true with black and white film.  Notice in the above image you can see details both in the darkest shadows and the brightest clouds.  Its dynamic range rivals that of today's top end cameras...so it's got that going for it.

There is also extreme freedom when shooting black and white film.  For one, it opens up opportunities to shoot in the afternoons, something often not possible or desirable with color film or digital.  The harsh shadows we try so hard to avoid with color provide much needed contrast and interest in monochrome images.  Second, there is much more latitude to express creativity in black and white.  Whether using filters pre image or dodging and burning following development, there is much more leeway for "editing" while still creating a pleasing image.  This is directly related to the fact that black and white is not recreating something that is actually there.  It's a monochrome image of a color subject so our brains already accept that some form of image manipulation has taken place.  Therefore, when viewing black and white we can accept further departures from reality than we do when viewing a color image.

The Process

Of the reasons that I have mentioned, "the process" is by far what I love most about large format.  By "process", I am referring to everything that goes into making a successful large format image from start to finish.  I began this post with all the difficulties that large format presents.  And while it can be frustrating at times, it makes a good image that much sweeter in the end.  No pain, no gain.  With every single image I take, there is the struggle just to get the gear there.  Once I've arrived at the scene, there are the problem solving aspects of 'seeing' the final image, composing that vision both upside down and backward, choosing the correct film for the job, and then calculating exposure.  Once I've taken the shot, there is always the anxiety of wondering if I messed up somewhere along the way.  To me, these difficulties make a successful image exponentially more gratifying than any other format.  Instead of bemoaning the fact that I sometimes have to spend hours at a location to wait for the right moment, I use that time to really soak in everything I can about a place...the sights, sounds, even smells.  This allows for a MUCH more immersive wilderness experience.  And while science has proven that time actually moves slower when you are waiting for film to return from the lab, opening your developed film is like getting a gift at Christmas.  The time spent waiting allows memories of the images to fade a bit, so when you open them it's like you're seeing something for the first time.  At this point, shooting anything else would just feel hollow to me.  I am a large format landscape photographer, and I always will be.