July 2015 Free Desktop Wallpaper – Dragonfly Canyon, Utah

The July 2015 Free Desktop Wallpaper is now available for download. While Dragonfly Canyon is almost always dry, a quick decision to visit after a rare thunderstorm provided me with a beautiful experience of sight and sound – definitely worth the wet clothes!

As always, come closer to nature in the southwest.

WP-July-15_700

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1920 x 1080

1680 x 1050

1280 x 800

Instructions:

First determine your screen size. Your Current Resolution Is:

Then click on the link for the correct size. When the image opens in a new browser window, right click on the image and select “Set as Wallpaper” (on a Mac, select “Use Image as Desktop Picture”).

Photo Journal: Canyon Lines, Utah

Canyon Lines, Utah – Olympus E-M1, 1/80 sec @f/8, 90mm, ISO 200, no filters

One of the things I see students struggling with most often is knowing where to start—the equivalent of the writer’s blank page. As any writer knows, that’s the most intimidating part of the writing process, where the fear is greatest.

Photography is very much the same especially when we’re in a new location for the first time. Or perhaps you’re revisiting a familiar location but don’t quite know where to start so that you don’t feel like you’re repeating yourself. I’ve been in both situations countless times, as a photographer and a workshop leader. What I can tell you is that there is always a solution, depending on how you look at the problem. “Looking” is the key, and it’s where and how you look that can help you get past the blank page, whether on paper or in your minds eye. But first you have to be in the right frame of mind.

Here’s a recent example. Hiking through a canyon just outside of Moab, Utah one evening, I was struggling with the blank page. I was enjoying the scenery, but nothing seemed to engage me visually. I kept exploring, looking at the beautiful textures and colors everywhere, just trying to get a sense of the place in general. It was a canyon I had never visited before, so while I was excited, I didn’t know where to begin. I thought about how I would handle this situation with a student.

  • The first thing I always suggest is to take a deep breath, and let go of any pressure to do anything. Forget the camera, and focus on being there.
  • The next thing I suggest is to start with light. Where is the light? What’s its quality, its direction? Its mood and feel?

There is always light if you look closely enough. You may not have the right combination of light and subject matter, but there is always light. It may be bright or dark, hard or very soft, but it’s available if you take the time to notice. Before you start photographing a great subject, whatever that is, you need good light. Great light is even better.

So I wandered further along and thought about the magnificent space I was in. The only place I noticed great light was in the sky. In the canyon, however, everything seemed rather flat from a light and shadow perspective. Then I came across this small puddle of water, and I knew I had my first sentence on the blank page. Here was color, contrast, and great light surrounded by the lines and textures of the canyon. But if I photograph just the reflection, then I really remove the context of what I’m trying to capture, namely how it feels to be inside this canyon looking up at the window above me to the sky.
What I wanted to capture was my experience wandering through this canyon. What’s it like to be in such an intimate space given the vastness of the surrounding landscape?

I pointed my camera down at the reflection and reacted to the lines and shapes I saw in the viewfinder. I found a perspective I liked, then mounted my camera on my tripod in roughly the same position. I find working handheld in very limited spaces helps to visualize potential compositions more easily, similar to using a cardboard viewfinder. How do I balance the blue of the sky with the red of the rocks, the organic s-curve that I now notice, which breaks the jagged nature of the rocks and adds a sense of smoothness and rhythm to the composition? S-curves are the first compositional tool I use.

I decide to split the image in half, reflection on one side and rock surface on the other. This creates lots of tonal and textural contrast and also creates three shapes in total, the rock, the sky, and the darker reflection of the rocks above my head. Groups of threes are second compositional tool.

I often talk about anchoring images in the corners, and here I use broad areas of the large shapes to create the four corners—the bottom left being the main entrance into the picture, with the smooth and less saturated area of the water on the bottom right. Both of these lead-up and into the center of the image, where the light and color is strongest. The two shadows in the upper left and right act as resting areas and counterpoints to the texture and color in the center. Diagonal anchors are the third compositional tool I use.

Overall, what I’m really trying to do is make the composition as strong as possible. By surrounding the texture of the rock on the left with reflections, it helps to add depth to the image and keep the viewers attention on the balance between red and blue, highlight and shadow. Simplicity is something I try to achieve in every picture I make. In fact, I would say it’s the first thing I start with and try to maintain throughout the process.

I tried four or five variations of this picture, but it’s the simplest one that I prefer. Ultimately I want the viewer to see more than just what I’ve photographed. I want to convey what I saw in the canyon as a whole. That is more of an experience than a single picture. It’s my interpretation of a hike in a canyon that I found surreal and beautiful.

2015-06-29 12.15.01

13″ x 19″ printed on Epson 3880 with Canson Infinity Platine Fiber Rag – a beautiful fine art paper with a luster finish, slight surface texture and great color and contrast that really helps emphasize what I want the image to convey. 

Feedback or questions, please let me know below. Thanks for reading!

June 2015 Free Desktop Wallpaper

The June 2015 Free Desktop Wallpaper is now available for download.

As always, come closer to nature in the southwest.

WP-June-15_700

1920 x 1200

1920 x 1080

1680 x 1050

1280 x 800

Instructions:

First determine your screen size. Your Current Resolution Is:

Then click on the link for the correct size. When the image opens in a new browser window, right click on the image and select “Set as Wallpaper” (on a Mac, select “Use Image as Desktop Picture”).

Working on Personal Vision

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Olympus E-M1,  f/8@ 1/320 sec, ISO 200, 40mm, no filters

Patterns, textures, and colors are everywhere in the southwest, often in the smallest of details. While I love the grand landscape, there’s a personal satisfaction I get from noticing the essence of a location. How can a story be told with a color, or a shape, or ultimately what Jay Maisel calls “gesture?”

One way is to contrast the details with the grand, experiencing “awe” at nature’s beauty and simplicity. That challenges the viewer of your images to observe the world in a new way, and may elicit the same emotions in them that you experienced when you pressed the shutter. For me that’s the ultimate goal of nature photography, to inspire discovery and introspection.

That may seem like something too conceptual, too abstract and far reaching. But it starts the moment you walk into the field with your camera. There’s an extra sense of awareness, of the surroundings, the environment. Then you look and try to see. When you make an image that expresses what you appreciate and resonate with in nature, it brings you one step closer to that elusive concept of “personal vision.”

“The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” – Henry David Thoreau

It’s the hard road in photography for sure, but certainly the most meaningful and worthwhile one you can travel.

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Olympus E-M1,  f/11@ 1/2 sec, ISO 200, 24mm, no filters

Choosing Portfolio Images

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALa Sal Mountains, Utah

Deciding which of your images is a “portfolio” image is one that involves experience, honesty, and confidence. By portfolio I mean an image that you would not hesitate to share as representative of your work, one that you would be proud to put your signature on. While each of us may arrive at that decision differently, there are patterns and general concepts worth considering that can be helpful. It’s especially important for those who return from a workshop or extended photo trip with hundreds if not thousands of images.

Discussing the process of selecting “keepers” from the rest wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the importance of studying other photographers and their work. And that extends naturally to all art in general. I’m always surprised to learn how little photographers know of those who came before us, and while it’s not necessary to become a historian, it is vitally important when it comes to judging ones own work.

Brooks Jensen says, “Photographers who lack visual literacy—a knowlwdge of the photographers and photographs of the past—do not have the benefits of historical photographs challenging them. Visual literacy means knowing what those who came before you thought, knowing what those who came before you did, knowing what those who came before you accomplished and where they failed. More importantly, visual literacy provides us with more that just a record of what was done. It also provides us with an excellence legacy that shows us what succeeded—and what still succeeds, years or decades later.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHunter Canyon, Utah

How do you go about gaining visual literacy? Start by looking at photography books by photographers you respect. I’ve mentioned my favorites here many times, and the key thing is to find those who have attained respect by the general public and their peers. Study the greats, learn to appreciate what they were attempting to do with their art, and not so much whether you like it. From there you can branch out to other similar art forms and artists, especially painters. All of these instill a deeper sense of how we see, appreciate, and respond to visual art.

At the most fundamental level, judging ones own work often comes down to a gut feeling that tells us we feel good about the image. We often hear people say things like, “I can’t tell you exactly what I’m looking for, but I know it when I see it.” Unfortunately, relying on a “gut” feeling or some intangible way of recognizing a good image doesn’t help when we’re developing this skill. While I’ve often used this same type of approach, there are some distinct qualities and identifible elements that I usually see in images I select as portfolio quality.

1. Optimal capture – This is a broad category, but in general covers all of the technical and aesthetic issues involved with actually making a photograph. Sharpness, depth of field, optimal exposure, and overall quality of the raw file. While most of these are technical in nature, there are aesthetic considerations as well. “Optimal exposure,” for example, does not always mean capturing every single tonality, but rather capturing the most essential tonal values that bring life to a composition.

2. Strong composition – The way an image is put together, meaning how the various elements interact and relate to each other, is what ultimately defines strong composition. An alternate, and arguably more important way of thinking about composition is to examine the way a viewer is led through the image. Is the main subject clear and uncluttered? Are there obvious or not so obvious distractions? Does everything in the frame work harmoniously with the subject or overall design of the image? If so to all the above, then things are looking good so far…

3. Quality of light – I often think of light as the “glue” that holds an image together — it adds depth, dimension, mood, and drama, all critical components to a successful landscape image. When we think of beauty, richness, warmth, evocativeness, and qualities of the sublime, light is always at the center of the these emotions. In fact I would argue it’s the single most important factor. When you look at the masters of painting and photography, quality of light is a common thread to success. Composition and visual design is something that can be learned and practiced, and I teach it in every workshop. Learning awareness of light and its infinite variations is much more difficult, and requires time, dedication, and lots of practice.

When all of these are considered carefully and critically, and manage to meet or exceed my personal standards, then I start to feel really confident about adding that 4th star in Lightroom that to me signifies “portfolio image.” The final test for me is to make a print, and if that again meets similar standards, then I’m confident about my decision at that point in time.

An interesting yet unsurprising pattern is that I have demoted and continue to demote images as time goes by from portfolio to non-portfolio. While this happens less frequently now than it did years ago, it shows how my standards and my photography have evolved over time—in a positive way for sure. Yes it’s difficult to demote an image, and that can lead to self-doubt and insecurity about ones work. But in the long run I have found it really does refine your ability to look more critically at your work and with less attachment to any single image. And it’s the attachment to expectations and results that gets us into trouble.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANorth of Moab, Utah

Our culture is so biased towards quick results, with technology becoming ever more prevalent in our lives. And for many things it works great and really does let you focus on the important things. Or so it would seem. The most important work a photographer does is and always will be the act of seeing. Awareness of light and shadow, color and gesture, and the interplay and connection between what you see and feel. This is not a result, but a fluid and ever changing process that slowly shapes your vision and perception of the world. The “capture” is the technical execution of a mechanical process, but the real work is done days, weeks, months, and years before the shutter button is pressed.

When you appreciate and approach photography from this perspective, knowing that before you do anything with the camera, you have to see first, then the image itself becomes less important. The potential in seeing, in developing a personal vision, becomes the driving creative force, and rewards you in ways you would never have imagined. Of course you will make images, and that has to happen in order to have portfolio images. But discovering the raw materials for interpretation is really where the excitement comes from for me, and I think should for you as well.

It happens to all of us, myself included—we love the magical sound of the shutter. It does feel good, knowing you just captured a slice of time, with the potential to be a your best image yet. But I quickly realized that the failures far outnumbered the successes, and if I was going to stay motivated and inspired to return over and over again to the same landscapes, I had to adopt a different mindset, one that valued the experience over the captures.

While this may all sound like a lot to consider, it takes courage to put your work out there as the very best you’ve done up-to that moment. Yet therein lies the essence what it means to be committed to the process versus the results. It’s the best you’ve done, without excuses or compromises. It also means you are open to the future, to improvement, to growth. In the book Mastery by Robert Greene, he says, “If your work comes from a place deep within, its authenticity will be communicated.”

And this is what we all should want from the work we hold up as our very best.