Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Gray Skies Over Big Bend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Window, Part 2

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

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

click for slightly larger pic

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

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

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

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

click for slightly larger pic

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Window, Part 1

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

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

click for slightly larger pic

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

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

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

click for slightly larger pic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 22, 2008

One from the Rest Stop

On our way out to Big Bend National Park recently, we stopped at the nice rest area along Highway 90 near Sabinal, Texas. We enjoyed a picnic dinner in the early evening just before sunset. Nearby, the gardens beside the restrooms were abloom with butterfly weed. The swallowtails were in abundance and I spent some time shooting them.

Black Swallowtail Butterfly on Butterfly Weed

Canon 40D, Canon 400mm f/5.6L
1/400 sec. hand-held at f/5.6 and ISO 400

Many thanks to our state for building and maintaining one of the cleanest and best rest stops I've ever seen!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Terlingua Ghost Town

I'm very slowly processing my photos from our recent trip to Big Bend National Park. My progress is hampered by the cleaning up needed after Hurricane Ike. I can't complain, at least we have power and Internet! As I write (5 days after the storm hit), about 60% of people in the Houston area still don't have power. A good chunk of them won't have power until possibly next week.

Church in the Terlingua Ghost Town

Canon 5D, 17-40mm f/4L, tripod
13 seconds at 27mm, f/8, ISO 200

This was taken about 30 minutes after sunset, September 5th. My wife and I love this little church. We've stopped by several times over the years since our first visit four years ago. The church appears active and is slowly being restored. We considered renewing our vows there (the 5th was our 10-year anniversary), but didn't want to make firm plans because she's 8 months pregnant and we weren't sure the trip out there would even happen.

The Ghost Town is a neat place to wonder around after dark. It's a great place for night photography.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Hurricane Aftermath

I've been busy lately dealing with this recent hurricane (Ike) and the after effects. The greater Houston area got hit pretty hard. The media likes to focus on Galveston, but the rest of us inlanders suffered quite a bit too. Galveston and the Bolivar Peninsula got smacked, and I'm very sorry. But the 4 to 5 million people living nearby are dealing with some bad stuff too.

We were extremely fortunate to get power so soon after the storm. Most of the Houston area is still in the dark. Some places will be without power for several weeks to possibly a month or more given the damage that was done to vital transmission lines.

Aside from many places being without power, the other big issue at hand is the lack of gasoline. The very few stations that are open right now are swamped with people. I've read reports that it takes only a couple of hours for these stations to run out of gas after they're replished by a tanker, and the tankers aren't coming real fast.

A few grocery stores are open and have dry goods only. All schools are closed. Most businesses are still closed too (including my employer). Houston could very well be in a state of anarchy and chaos, but most people are dealing with the lack of vital resources pretty calmly.


So what have we been up to? Well, it's been non-stop work pretty much since before the hurricane. We prepped our house and yards before the storm came.

We lost some sections of our fence, a load of branches from our trees, and have a new roof leak. We faired pretty well. There are those much less fortunate. Some of the major damage in the area reported is from large trees falling on houses. We also did see some outright wind damage on some roofs.

Sunday morning was the kick in the face. We got 12+ inches of rain in about 2 hours. Our street flooded (as did many other areas) and our neighbors who had parked out on the street got their vehicles flooded.

We've been working every day to clean up the yards and get our house straight again. Thank God for this recent cold front! The temps outside are quite nice, and for the first time since last winter, we have the AC off and the windows open :-)

We're thankful that we faired reasonably well. We're surpised that we didn't get more damage than we did in our area despite seeing winds so high. So, say a prayer for the folks down here in the Houston area.

p.s. I have a ton of photos from our trip to Big Bend last week. I'll be getting them online shortly, so stay tuned! :-)

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

In Remembrance

Today marks one year since the sudden passing of a young and dear friend, Mike.

I promised myself that I'd perform some "Mike-ism" today in honor and memory of him. Something along the lines of:

- watch a stupid movie and then spend the next 6 hours quoting it and laughing
- get involved in a lively discussion about politics or sports
- fart and pretend that it didn't smell
- drink single malt scotch straight
- create a massive spreadsheet to analyze and plan my next major purchase
- stop for a green light
- laugh and laugh some more at a stupid joke
- not get pissed off, no matter what angered me
- smile all day long

Mike was the kinda guy that you would like only after 30 seconds of knowing him. He always wore a smile. He always had good things to say about things and people, no matter what. Even the jackass that just cut him off in traffic.

His wife and three young children miss him terribly. We all do. Life is just a little less bright and fun without his presence.