Monday, December 31, 2007

The Upside Down and Backward Thing

One of the first things people notice when I show them the ground glass of an image I am taking is the image is upside down. Then they realize it is backwards too. It is a little disconcerting at first. Your brain and your SLR see the world right side up and this new way of seeing takes a while. It was one of the things I was most concerned about when I got the 4x5 too. Luckily, it was something that I got used to fairly quickly.

It does slow one down a bit. It makes you think. It makes you contemplate the scene. I have heard it say that seeing an image upside down makes you look at a composition based more on shapes and lines than as normal objects. Under the dark cloth it is you and an upside down view and that promotes you to really work that image.

That work is something you just cannot really get at 9 frames per second on an SLR. This is a whole different way to photograph. It is also more like 9 frames a morning.

I find the location and then walk around it. Maybe take a few digital snaps to check potential compositions. Then it is set up the camera and start looking at the world upside down.

Everything counts in a frame of film. Even the empty space matters. Upside down helps with that. Space, shapes, lines are all helped by the different view. I can't fully say upside down makes me compose better but it does make me think better or at the least it makes me think longer.

Here is another image from when I was photographing trees along the river. This is my view of the trees. The dark day really made the image stand out on the ground glass. Normally it is too bright to see the image without a dark cloth, but today it was dark and dreary- the image stood out plainly. I thought it was the perfect day and a perfect way to show it.

Use a view camera and the world is upside down.

Saturday, December 29, 2007


Slow. Using a view camera takes a little getting used to. There is no stopping and taking an image out of your car window. There is not much hope for an "action shot". There is little to no chance of being able to change lenses or a composition during the magic light. There is not even hand holding at all (at least with my camera). You have to learn to work at the speed of a view camera-slow.

Slow means it takes time to do things. In a hurry means I might be able to be set up and take one image in two minutes. But it is often 5 or 10 minutes. Set up to image to pack things up is often 15 minutes-for just one image. It is also common to pack up, shoulder the backpack and stop again in 50 feet and do it all again. Sometimes it just takes a long time to get anywhere.

You just cannot be in a hurry with a view camera. Hurry too much and then -you get sloppy and a view camera punishes the sloppy. So you take the time. Look. Think. Look some more. Focus. Look. Then you can meter and take the image.

You are much more selective with a view camera. If the light is flat, or too bright, or just not right I'll often forego even taking the camera out. I wonder if the subject is worth a sheet a of film. I go slow, think about it, and look for something good. So when I take an image I hope it is a better one. That is the benefit of slow.

It also means I do not take as many images. Over a week in Colorado fall color I took about 100 sheets of film. In that same week I probably took 4000 digital snaps. Two very different cameras and two very different ways of working, thinking, seeing, and photographing.

Here is slow in action. I have seen these trees for several years. I have tried to take a couple of images at different times, but never really found the right conditions or the right way. As I wandered about the other evening I decided the heavy overcast and wind might finally be the time to get the image. The arrival of winter has taken the leaves leaving the branches bare along with the dreary conditions to finally get the image right. Six years of waiting-I guess you could call that slow too.

I set up the tripod downhill from the trees and went to work with them. Level the camera. Framing the trees. Thinking about the image. Trying a different lens. Having to refocus. Stepping back. Taking it all in. Metering. Getting the film. Taking the image. Packing up. I think it was a good 15 minutes. It was one image.

On this dark day, even the exposure was slow-something like 4 seconds. Slow is the norm.

Saturday, December 22, 2007


I was looking at the calendar this week and realized that today is both the winter solstice and a full moon. I started to think how I could make an image that would capture the idea of the shortest day (or longest night if you prefer) of the year.

I was out early this morning with the moon hanging in the clear western sky, it was still quite dark at 5:30am and I went to a spot where I knew I could get an image looking down river toward the setting moon. I got to the spot only to find that area closed by construction and by the time I found another spot with a similar view it was far to late to try a big camera image.

I thought about the possibility of a mid-day image looking up at the cloudless sky, but as the day went on clouds blew in, the temps dropped, and I still did not have it.

Finally, thick clouds were moving fast as evening approached and I hoped I might get lucky enough to catch some color at sunset. I set up along the river in a cold biting wind and waited. The sky was dark. The cold wind was blowing. The clouds raced by. Then suddenly there was just a hint of color in a small spot in the west, a touch of red in an otherwise dark brooding sky. These were perfect conditions for an image.

I wanted a lot of sky to show the thick heavy overcast clouds. I framed the camera to put the small patch of red in the corner of the image and just a small strip of ground at the bottom. This image was all about the clouds, the wind, and the hint of a sunset. I wanted a long exposure so the clouds were a blur across the sky and stopped down the lens. I composed, focused, set the time and was ready. I had it. This was the way to make an image for what this day was.

The day and the conditions all came together at the right moment to end the day with an image.

Then the light faded and the shortest day came to an end. The longest night was starting. It was cold. It was windy. It was now winter.

Thursday, December 20, 2007


Looking all around is a pretty important concept for a photographer. Often the best image is not the first one, sometimes you have to look.

After photographing the tree big in the frame and the church a small distant element, I started walking around. I photographed the church from different angles and kept looking for that next image. Not just a picture, but an image.

I found it on the back side of the church. It was a view of the church in a frame filling pose with a now tiny live oak tree in the distance. It was a complete role reversal of my earlier image.

It took a little maneuvering to get everything lined up right. Then I let the view camera do it's thing. By raising the front standard straight up I am able to keep the building "square" and still get all of it in the image. There upside down on the ground glass the image pops. the church is now the large object that fills the frame top to bottom while over on the side there is a small tree in the distance.

I found the companion image for the first one. It was almost the same yet the opposite.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Old Rock Church

Some photographer friends first told me about the old rock church near Cranfills Gap. I visited it a few years ago and found it not only to be one neat destination but also a location I made one of my favorite photographs. I have returned occasionally and still find it a location worth repeat trips to.

The church is several miles outside of town and not in the city limits at all. It sits isolated and alone on a small hill. There are no other buildings around it and it’s only neighbor is it's graveyard. There are not even power lines running to it. It truly is alone. You can stand there, look at the church and just see it in a setting of the surrounding countryside much as it would have been a century ago.

That aloneness on the hill makes it unique, photogenic, and well worth a trip to visit.
My plan was to be there for first light hoping that dramatic sky and light would make it a wow image. On my very first visit I got that lucky. I have been back several times, but I have yet to beat that first visit for making a great image.

On a cold, potentially rainy December morning last week, I decided to make the drive to Cranfills Gap and visit the old church. After a two hour drive in the dark night it was a cold, heavily overcast and quite dreary morning that was breaking. I was hoping for clouds , but this was so gray and so blank I knew I would have to work to make the most of it. I looked for different ways to take the sky factor out of the image.

A composition that I thought might work was out by a big live oak tree that grows a few hundred yards from the church. By getting very low I could frame the church under the branches of the live oak so that the tree filled the image above the church and not the dreary gray of the sky.

After I made a few images, I just sat down in the field and made a few of the camera in the grass that really captured that moment of getting low to get the image.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Across the Salt Flats

The salt flats stretch for several miles in long narrow fingers in a north-south direction. They are a great place to stop on the roadside but they look pretty neat from the air too. If you ever fly into El Paso you will be on your descent into the airport and fly right over them. They also look pretty neat on a satellite map like Google Earth.

Standing on them in the middle of the night still might be the best way to experience them. The Guadalupes rise over a mile above you to the east with much of the western side of the range being a sheer 1'000 cliff.

It is quite a view day or night.

As the night was slowly fading into the twilight of morning there was just some color on the eastern horizon. I thought that perhaps I could capture that red glow, the light on the salt, and some stars in the sky. I compose a scene with a view across the salt toward the Guadalupes and the dawn.

This was a time when a good grad filter helped the scene. Even this early, the light from the east was much brighter than the salt or somewhat brighter than the sky. I used a couple of graduated neutral density filters over the brighter spots of the sky so that the image will turn more like I see it.

I get a few last images in and then the night is gone, slowly color appears across the sky, and later the sun rises over the mountains. It is another great morning and a neat location and I consider myself pretty lucky.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Stars at Night

West of Guadalupe Mountains National Park the elevation drops down about 2000' feet into a broad flat basin. At the heart of this basin stretch miles of salt flats of a dry ancient lake. Occasionally enough rain will fall to recreate an ephemeral lake but they are mainly dry. Despite the heavy summer rains, I found them very dry in late August. I decided that I would find a still morning and try to visit them before sunrise.

One early clear morning (by early, I mean about 4:30 am) I decided to visit the flats and watch the stars. I found them very still and very quiet. The light of a waning moon made the white salt glimmer in the night. Countless stars shined in the heavens. It was a perfect morning. I walked far out onto the flats and then set up both my tripods.

Making an image under the night sky is possible and is quite fun but it is also slow. Each image takes 10-15 minutes. The is plenty of time to wait and watch the sky. I had each camera pointed in a different direction not knowing what I would get. I started making images and would then watch the stars, occasionally seeing a shooting star and wondering if the film would pick it up.

The salt flats were very surreal and I don't know if I could really capture that feeling in a single image. I worked with several different compositions and ideas. This one is one of my favorites. By facing south you see the arc of stars as the earth spins during the several minute exposure. The salt glows. The distant power lines cutting across them and the distant mountains.

Yes. This is a place to come back to.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

On the Rocks

The Guadalupe Mountains and rocks go hand in hand. They are such a good example of rocks that they have series of certain aged rocks named for them by geologists. That implies importance. But I don't need a geologist to tell me how important, unique, and awesome this place is. I just hope I can sometimes capture all of that in an image.

One morning I awoke to find the campground socked in with heavy overcast and little chance for a sunrise. It would be easy to think that the morning was a bust, but out here the mountains can trick you. I have seen days where it was 40 degrees and foggy on one side and 70 and sunny on the other just a short drive away. So, I drove down around El Capitan toward the boulder fields and saw that the clouds were indeed only on one side of the mountain.

I got to the classic boulder field as the stars were fading from the sky. I watched the clouds pile up and spill across the mountains. I thought was a morning that an interesting image could be made. I sat up my tripod and began to see how I could line up rocks, mountains, and clouds into a composition. I started taking images in the cold gray light and waited to see what would happen in the clouds. The was subtle. Because of all the clouds stacked up in the east we did not get strong directional light at all. The gray faded into morning with no orange light

Still, the clouds looked so neat that I still was taking one slow image after another. I wondered if the film was picking up any soft colors, I wondered if this was a scene that would come into it's own on the light table back home

I watched the morning happen around me. I stayed for a while. I took a few more images

Some people like their morning with coffee, I'll take my morning on the rocks.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Like a Rock

The Guadalupe Mountains are hidden treasure. Yes, they are visually scenic, but they also have a great variety of different types of scenery to photograph. All that variety make for many different locations to set up your tripod. The eastern flanks of the Guadalupes are grassy but the south side of the mountains drop off into a lower elevation where it is much more rocky.

Many photographers have made images in the boulder field right near Highway US 180. There used to be a wonderful balanced rock in there that was a highlight of anyone trip. However, sometime in the last couple of years the rock fell or maybe was tipped. Rocks change in geologic time measured in millions of years so one has to wonder what happened.

Since I have photographed near the boulders there several times, I have been on the lookout for other rock fields that fewer people knew of. After some exploration and hiking on a few different trips, I have found a couple such areas that I thought would be great locations to make an image.

I drove around the mountain one afternoon, parked the vehicle, and started walking to the rocks. I sat my camera bag down at the rocks and started looking around. I wanted to find the best way to frame up these big boulders. Did I want to step back and frame them all? Maybe get very close and have just one rock to make the image? How about finding some flowers to put into the mix?

In the end I went with both a pattern of a fractured stone and a more distant grouping. Two compositions in an evening is a good day with a view camera. You can take hundreds of digital snaps in one night but I usually only expose a couple of sheets unless the light is dramatic. At the rocks I went to work on cracked and fractured rock pieces. A neat feature of the view camera is the ability to get right on top of an object and to put a very close and very far object into focus. I was able to place the camera lens a mere 6” from a fractured rock pattern and also get the distant peaks both in focus. It sounds complex but just took a little bit of tilt on the camera lens.

I made a couple images and kept waiting for the right light to make the perfect image. I waited, I watched, but the right light never really happened. It was a nice view an all but the light did not make the image what I hoped it could. So I enjoyed the view and planned to make it back here again sometime. After all, these are rocks and they aint going anywhere anytime fast.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

West of the Pecos

West of the Pecos River is my favorite part of Texas. The land changes. After miles of plains, hills, mesas, basins, and prairies the land starts to climb. Mountain peaks start to appear out of the distant haze. There are something like 29 different mountain ranges in west Texas. These are main desert mountains but a few peaks reach into a high mountain environment. The tallest of these peaks are in the Guadalupe Mountains.

The peaks of the Guadalupes push into the sky and some approach 9,000 ft. They contain Ponderosa pines, aspens, and hidden in sheltered canyons-maple trees.

I made a get away to the Guadalupes in late August. I know people are thinking that camping in Texas, and in the desert at that, is insane. However, because of the higher elevation of the range it was actually quite tolerable as the days were warm with nights that dipped into the 50’s.

The late summer even brings a fifth season here and I was there at it’s peak. All the tropical hurricane activity pushes rain into the southwest and it is actually the wettest season in the desert. As such it is sometimes referred to as the “monsoon season”. It is basically a second spring and 2007 was a very wet year. The Guadalupes normally receive about 2” of rain in July and 3” in August but in 2007 they received 15” of rain between Independence Day and Labor Day. As such, the flowers, grasses, and trees were in great shape.

On the eastern edge of the range are some nice high grasslands at about a 5700’ elevation. They are a welcome sight as the elevation rises after crossing the Pecos in the Permian Basin.

On fine morning I waited in the grasslands for the sunrise and watch the stars over the distant peak. Slowly the night gave way to morning and the grass began to take on a yellow glow. Light began to fill the sky. The clouds picked up a pinkish hue. I had two tripods set up that morning. I had both the view camera and my little digital SLR set up to wait for the light. I started in the dark, trying to capture star trails across the blackness of the peaks. I photographed the distant orange glow of the earliest light. I turned my camera on the pink clouds above the mountains. I got the first light striking the mountains as the sun appear in the sky.

And then the sun rose and another day broke across the land west of the Pecos.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Tis the Season

Tis the season for tidings of great joy and photographing colorful Christmas displays.

The holidays are a great time to get out in the night and photograph the lights and sights that help make this time of year magical.

I was up and out early one weekend morning and went to downtown Cowtown to photograph the Christmas tree that is set up on Main Street.

Setting up a tripod smack dab in the middle of Main Street with a 4x5 is not something you can do on too many days or nights. But since they close a couple of blocks for the tree, I could set up right on the bricks. Since it was early, I had the whole area to myself too. I stayed for an hour just walking around the tree and photographing the scenic holiday wonderland that was there in the midst of downtown.

Happy Holidays.

Friday, December 7, 2007


W.W.A.D. What Would Ansel Do?

It is a beautiful September morning in Colorado. The sky is blue. The clouds go from orange to pink to white. The aspen are yellow, green, or even reddish. Colors are everywhere. Bright, bold, vivid colors. It is autumn after all and colors abound. Everything about the setting screams color. I naturally reach for a box of Velvia with color like this.

But what would Ansel do if he were here? Well, Ansel being Ansel, he would probably still take a black and white negative and come away with a print that was so sharp, deep, and glowing, that it would make you want to give up trying to ever make an image here yourself.

I like black and white images, but I am really a color photographer. I sometimes dabble in monochrome but my work and images are mainly color. Still I often take some black and white film with me on a trip-just in case. However, Colorado in autumn is not one of those trips that jump to mind for it, so I did not bring any.

So as I pondered what Ansel would do with a scene like this I flipped a switch on the digital camera to B+W and took a couple of quick images and surprise! They looked pretty good. So while, I did not have black and white film to use in the 4x5, I had "black and white" pixels I could use in a little digital camera. So I made a few images with the thought of working these into monochrome.

When I got back home to my computer I tried working with a few images and did a little Photoshopping out the color. I liked what I saw. I found that monochrome can make a great "fall image". Actually, the wonders of modern computer programming allow you to do a lot of neat things with images that would take ages in the darkroom to learn. I am able to take an image to monochrome and tweak it with a lot of darkroom like techniques and get a very respectable black and white, or sepia, or other type of traditional look.

As I worked with this image, I was quite pleased with the qualities I was able to find in the monochrome world. The quality of the sky, the definition in the peaks, the glow of the aspens. It was all there. It was autumn in black and white.

Maybe that is exactly what Ansel would have done.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Finding a place to stop

The roadways through Colorado have some great scenery. I often stop or want to stop every 500 yards to take another picture. However, just finding a place to pull over can be a trick. Narrow roads, steep mountain passes, abrupt cliffs, and no shoulder roadways are quite common in the San Juans. Sometimes you can get an image out the window at a tiny pullout, but just as often there is no opportunity to stop at all. Then there are the times you are lucky enough to find a place to stop where you actually feel safe enough to set up a tripod.

Those are the locations that I like. If you can find a trailhead and hike in is fun, but when the big view is all around you, you can get those stunning images right next to your vehicle. I like to think of myself of someone who is looking to get away from the crowd and road, but when you are driving and the scene presents itself, you can take some wonderful images awefully close to your car.

Take this image here. The location is on the road to Red Mountian pass. For many miles of this drive there are steep drops and no places to stop. There are also a few great scenic overlooks that every car seems to stop at (yes, I stop at them too). But this was a great place with a good shoulder to stop on that everyone else just kept right on going past. That gave me plenty of time and space to be under a darkcloth to focus without worry of a suprise encounter with the next car stopping. And as you can see, I am right on the side of the road. Sometimes it is that easy. The view is great and all I needed was a good place to stop.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Big Mountains

The San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado are big mountains. They stretch for miles. They have many peaks over 13,000 feet and some that reach higher becoming a "14'er". They are also rather remote and sparsely populated.

Driving through the San Juans takes time, there is no Interstate here and even the highways are more often driven at 40 mph than 70. You travel among giants- around big peaks, over mountain passes, and along young rivers. The way is often long and winding, but it is always scenic and you always see more mountains.

One part of the range really stands out for me and that is the north face of the Sneffels Range. The wide flat valley of the Uncompaghre River runs north-south and at the north end of the valley stands the mighty peaks of the Sneffels Range. They form a chain that is visible for miles and they rise some 7,000 feet above Ridgway. There are several famous places to stop, such as the Dallas Divide, but I went to find a different view. I explored several forest service roads that take you to outstanding views. I explored many of those views and photographed in many locations.

This spot was something I found on an afternoon drive. From a small hill you could see across a large expanse of aspens to the line of peaks. It is not a location I had seen images from before so I filed it away as one to visit one evening. On a night with some hazy clouds, I ventured back, set up the tripod, and waited.

I framed up a view of the valley with many of the big peaks including the awe inspiring Mount Sneffels. If there ever was a mountain that fit the the picture perfect image of what a mountain should be-Mt Sneffels is it. It rises above it's neighbors and is over 14,000' tall. I recall reading that Georgia O'Keefe painted the same mountain in New Mexico many, many times. I think this is a mountain you could spend a lifetime photographing and never grow tired of.

The light in the sky faded and the color in the clouds got a slight tint of red. I worked through sheets slowly. I worked slow and I photographed long slow exposures. I was hoping the clouds were moving enough to give them a blurry reddish quality to contrast with the silent stillness of the peaks. I was not disappointed. The sky was perfect and the big mountains rose to meet it. What a great place, these big mountains.

In the Meadow

In the high country around Ouray I found this small stream cascading down through a meadow. There was nice color in the aspens around the meadow. There was a nice peak in the distance. There were just a few clouds around. There was nice angle on the afternoon light to slightly sidelight leaves. It was certainly worth an image.

Finding the right things help an image. Or maybe a better way to say it is finding the right things in combination help make the image come together.

Normally the mid afternoon is a horrible time of day for color photography. However, since that mid-afternoon sun was side lighting the leaves, it gave them some definition. Add in the clouds and the mid-afternoon light was not so bad. So even though the light was nothing spectacular, it was light that had potential for an image. I just need the right location.

The stream was the inspiration. The leading ribbon of water spilling down through the meadow was a good setting. The other elements like the mountain and trees in the distance made it right.
I tried some different things too, using both a wide and moderate angle lens on the image. I was not sure which would be best since the both looked good on the ground glass. So I took both and could decide on the light table at home (BTW-I picked the moderate angle).

Then after a couple of images, it was time to pack up and go look for the next location.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Bold Talk

If you ever saw the John Wayne classic "True Grit" then you may remember this meadow. This is the place where the big finale was filmed.
The bad guys (one was Robert Duvall) and John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn race across the field blasting away at each other on horseback. The Duke has a lever action in one hand, his revolver in the other, and the reins in his teeth.
And the comment line that starts the scene is when they holler at Rooster "That's bold talk for a one eyed fat man". It is still a great place to find(it's near the summit of Owl Creek Pass) and even on a clear afternoon is worth stopping to take an image.
BTW-if you are ever in the area, stop in the town of Ridgway and try the True Grit Cafe, it serves up some great food and is full of John Wayne history.

In the Cimmerons

The quest for fall color often means driving. One clear day I drove over Owl Creek Pass to photograph the Cimmeron Range. There was a spot I knew of where a small stand of aspen would turn reddish orange instead of the more common yellow. I was hoping to backlight these trees and have the Cimmeron ridges behind them. In 2004 I was there with dark stormy sky hanging over the range and came away with a great image. This was very different light and color, but I still had hopes for backlit red aspens. I found the aspen but they were not red this year, they were regular ol' yellow. I still took and image, but the conditions just were not there.

I explored more of the area and off of a small side road I found a stream that made a great leading line to rugged Cimmeron ridges in the distance. This sure is a scenic place. The sky was clear but the somewhat backlit trees still made it a great location. I set about making an image.

With the "severe clear" you cannot put in much sky so I used the stream to fill the image and just put in a little of the sky over the peaks. I touch of the polarizer to help with the light and the sky and the image is there. A little exploration and a great location get a great image even on a bluebird day.


Timing is everything when it comes to fall color. Well, that and luck. I had planned a trip to southwest Colorado for fall colors for months. I chose the last week in September since I had great timing and great fall colors going that week in the past. This year the colors were late turning. Now being in the San Juan mountains anytime is spectacular and even with a slow start to the colors it is still a great place to be. The color may have been late but it was still pretty nice where you found it. Some places were mostly green but others were flaming yellows and oranges. You just had to look.

There are so many roads and so many viewpoints it is really hard to go wrong. This is one such image. It is a view literally right on the side of a dirt forest service road. And what a view it is. I would have liked to have found this valley with the aspens at their peak color, however there was more green than yellow. But there was one lone aspen on the side of the hill in great yellow color and that stood out. There was a great image here afterall.

I set up the camera and went with the longest lens I have for it-a 210mm. On a DSLR that might have a nice reach, but on a 4x5 that is slightly longer than a "normal" lens (it's about a 65 in classic 35mm terms). So I was still able to have a great deal of the valley, peaks, and clouds in the image. While I waited for the right light some cattle made their way into the scene. This kept getting better. Finally it all came together and I found a great image of the soft light of morning on an alpine scene. I stayed and waited for the morning sun and took several sheets of film as the light changed and the sun light hit the trees.

So much for being too early for fall color. The timing was everything here and if I was here a week later I would not have had the one lone yellow tree and maybe not the clouds or the cattle. Come to think about it-I timed it perfect.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

The start of a new journey

They say life is a journey. Life is also full of different journeys. Mine is photography. As I travel I photograph. Sometimes I think I travel just to photograph. I am rarely without a camera (or three).

This blog will follow my travels and my camera. Why the camera? One day I was photographing and stepped back from the tripod and snapped a quick picture of the scene with the tripod and camera in it. I liked the image. I started taking images of my camera in different locations on a regular basis. Soon after that those became the images I would occasionally email to my photographer friends. That evolved to emails with images and stories of where I was at. Now that has evolved to this blog.

Think of this as a photographers travelogue. I hope to share words and images of where I am and where I have been.
This image was taken in far west Texas at Guadalupe Mountains National Park. This isolated park is a hidden gem of the park system and a favorite destination. The camera is a 4x5 view camera, and my favorite.
Welcome and enjoy.