Movie Review: “Mile, Mile And A Half”

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” –John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra

So what the heck is a movie review doing on my photography blog?  Re-read that Muir quote, and there’s your answer.  My first visit to Yosemite National Park in 2009, including a few days in the Sierra high country, was the singular experience that made me Get Serious (very, very serious) about photography.  I absolutely believe there is something special and life-changing about that place, so when I saw a little video trailer about a group hiking the John Muir Trail linked on Facebook almost two years ago, I had to check it out.  I’ve been borderline obsessed–and completely smitten–ever since, and have followed their project closely all the way to completion.  And now it’s time for you to see it–their official theatrical premiere is this weekend at the Dances With Films festival in Hollywood (and it should soon be available to purchase, so stay tuned for that–I’ll update as soon as that happens).

Mile, Mile And A Half

What began for The Muir Project as a kind of open-ended project quickly evolved upon their return from the trail into a full-blown (indie) feature documentary.  They carried a daunting amount of equipment into the backcountry–something that surely must have been a logistical and (pretty literally) backbreaking challenge.  But that effort paid off with a beautifully produced and directed film.  The cinematography and editing are pretty much perfect; they capture really well the beauty and grandeur of the high Sierra, something that I know from personal experience can be difficult to fully convey on film.  Not only do we see the vast granite landscapes of the Sierra crest and lush high-country meadows and lakes, we’re treated to something most people–even most JMT hikers–will never witness: heavy snow.  And water.  A LOT of both.  The summer of 2011 followed a year of record snowfall, so even in mid-July, the high country still sported massive snowfields, and the streams and rivers roared much higher than usual with the record snowmelt.  This presented a whole new set of physical and logistical challenges for the hikers, and the tension (and beauty) of that adds a whole other layer of WOW to the film.  The score, created by Los Angeles-based musicians Opus Orange, strikes just the right tone–never obtrusive, always perfectly fitting the mood of the film.  And if you’ve seen the trailers, then you’ve already heard the movie’s unofficial theme song, Opus Orange’s irresistibly upbeat single “Almost There.”  Two of the group’s members joined them for several days on the trail, so you get to meet them, too.  Even the title art is exceptional, and also something that happened as a result of The Muir Project’s journey; a chance meeting with hiker (and artist) Kolby Kirk on the trail led to his eventually doing the illustrated title and chapter art for the film, and what a great addition that is to the film.

On Top of Mt. Whitney With Opus Orange (Photo by The Muir Project)

The film looks great–but more important, it’s also got great heart.  Building a narrative structure from documentary footage of a month-long hike must have been a challenge, but it’s seamlessly organic here.  There’s even a plot twist fairly early in the film (which I won’t reveal here) that took me by surprise.  We meet all the characters–the hikers, the Muir Project themselves–and get to know them well enough to feel an emotional connection.  You genuinely like these people, and their friendship and ability to get along well with each other in the wilderness is a huge part of why this film is successful.  This even translates down through the two and a half minute trailers–everyone is instantly likeable, their infectious sense of fun is immediately evident, and I (and I’m sure many others, including my hiking-obsessed nephew Zack) found myself going back and re-watching the trailers over and over–especially on days when I was tied to my desk at work and could only daydream about the mountains.

Their adventures on the trail quickly spread beyond the members of the group–and this, I think, is the key to what makes this such a compelling film.  Early in their trip, they meet a married couple, teachers from Colorado, who are spending their summer on the JMT.  They decide to join up with the Muir Project members, and we follow their journey on the trail as well.  The chemistry, friendship and camaraderie they quickly establish not only adds an unexpected narrative element to the film, but it’s a perfect example of the kind of friendships that can happen on long (LONG) hikes like this.  This, too, is an integral part of the experience of a JMT hike.

Plein Air Painters in the High Country (Photo by The Muir Project)

They meet a brother and sister who aren’t just hiking the JMT, but are doing so with similar artistic goals–only they aren’t filmmakers, they’re en plein air painters.  If you think it’s nutty to carry a lot of camera gear into the wilderness, try carrying several stretched canvases and painting supplies in addition to your pack.  I found their story–and their motivation for doing what they do–completely fascinating.  And perhaps the story that I found most powerful–and moving–is that of a young Japanese woman they met on the trail.  She spoke little to no English, and was hiking solo.  It’s difficult to get your head around the courage that must have taken, and it’s just one more story among many in this film that shows the countless reasons any one hiker may have for setting foot on that almost 220-mile-long trail.  It’s a journey of the heart, soul and mind as much as it is a test of the body.

This film will make you long for the mountains, even if you’ve never stood on top of one.  It does precisely what the filmmakers set out to do: inspires.  They deserve great credit for not only carrying off such a daunting task in the high country, but also in turning the raw footage and images they brought home into a truly beautiful and wonderful film.

Monsoon Sunset, Whitney Crest and Mt. Williamson (and somewhere high up there, the members of The Muir Project)

About that quote at the top of this review: it rang especially true for me (as I’m sure it will for anyone else who loves wild places).  I finally got to see the full-length movie at a private showing here in LA back in October.  As one particularly stormy but stunning sunset flashed on the screen late in the hike, I realized I’d shared that sunset with them.  I did some quick math in my head, then checked my photo files when I got home.  Sure enough, I’d been in the Alabama Hills at the foot of Mt. Whitney that same evening, surrounded by one of the most beautiful, dramatic sunsets I’ve ever witnessed.  How lovely to look at that photo now, and know that The Muir Project members were there, too, somewhere high above me, experiencing that same magnificent sunset.  It always makes me smile now to think about that.  We really are all connected–and Mile, Mile And A Half does a wonderful job of reminding us of this.

So, want to go see it?  (And I HIGHLY recommend you do!)  Their two screenings this weekend at Dances With Films have already sold out (thank goodness I already bought my tickets!), but they have screenings scheduled (so far, with more to be added) in Emeryville, Sacramento, and Durango, Colorado.  You can find details and links to purchase tickets here.  If you’d like to get to know the filmmakers a little better, you can read my interview with them last fall on Dan Bailey’s excellent Adventure Photography blog HERE.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, the mountains are calling, and I must go. . . .

 

The evolving eye–or why archive diving is a good idea.

I probably hang on to more image files than I need to, and for longer than I need to (so thank goodness memory is cheap).  It isn’t that I’m incapable of killing my darlings, to paraphrase William Faulkner–it’s that I have, on several occasions, come across a forgotten gem that missed the first (or second or third) cut on processing.  I’m also fairly sure I’m in good company with this habit–which is why photographer friends often refer to the practice as “dumpster diving” (humorously, of course).

That I’m able to occasionally rescue an ancient image file is attributable to a few different things.  Boredom, for one.  If I haven’t had time to get out and shoot for a while, I often find myself scrounging through old image files for something to play with.  Some photographers see post-processing work as drudgery, but I love it.  LOVE it.  I can lose hours working on images, and happily so.  And if I can find an old image file to work into something worth sharing when I’m between shooting trips, all the better.  Scattered around this post, you’ll see four images I’ve recently reworked, and all are two to three years old.

Another reason I do this is that my post-processing skills are constantly improving;  sometimes an image just needs a little TLC to take it from an iffy RAW file to a WOW pic.  This photo of the oft-shot abandoned house in California’s eastern sierra is a great example of that.  I experienced some of the most astounding atmospheric conditions when I took that shot, but I was never able to process it to my satisfaction.  Great light can sometimes be very tricky to deal with in post, and my skills simply weren’t up to the task three years ago when I took this photo.

But mostly, I find myself re-examining old image files because my eye as a photographer, as an artist, has evolved a great deal over the years.  That, I think, is something every photographer should give more thought to than they do (and I include myself in that).

Are you the same person you were two years ago? Five? Ten years?  No–or, at least, I hope not.  We grow and refine the more we shoot, and hopefully that’s reflected in how and what we shoot.  That evolution extends to the way we examine the image files we come home with.  An image I’d passed over several times–for example, the high-key sunrise on the Sausolito waterfront–suddenly jumped out at me when I was going through the image folder from that trip.  I’d intentionally overexposed the shot, but was never really moved enough by the final product to do anything with the image in post.  Three years later, I took another look, and knew that with some minor adjustments to tone curves and white balance, that high-key image would be compelling–would be precisely the shot I’d seen in my mind’s eye that day, but my actual “eye” couldn’t yet see it.

Sometimes it’s simple post-processing that can bring out a forgotten gem, but sometimes I look at a RAW file and realize that a certain crop, or a conversion to black and white, achieves what I experienced in the field or better communicates the emotional impact of a scene as I experienced it.  Ansel Adams famously worked and re-worked and then re-worked some more his images in the darkroom–and we should be doing precisely the same thing in today’s digital darkroom.  This should go beyond just advanced processing techniques.  This should always, always take into consideration your eye, your vision.  Unless you’re a straight-up photojournalist where photo realism is key to what you’re doing, you should not overlook your role as artist in post-processing.  To be clear, I’m not talking about extreme photo manipulation, or adding or removing significant elements of a scene.  But I have no problem with using artistic license in post-processing to convey what you experienced, to convey mood, when taking that image.

Whatever stock you wish to put into the old saying that the unexamined life is not worth living, I would certainly apply that to photography.  Go back and reexamine older work.  Approach it again in the digital darkroom, and assess how your skills have improved, and how your photographer’s eye, your artist’s eye, has changed and matured over time.  Studying this is hugely helpful in getting a handle on what your (hopefully unique) “vision” is, as well as in getting an idea where you’re going with your work (and what, if anything, you need to work on in technique).  Athletes track their performance as a way to help them learn how to improve–and photographers should do the same.

Next up on the blog (early next week): a review of John Batdorff’s excellent new book, Plug In with Nik: A Photographer’s Guide to Creating Dynamic Images with Nik Software.

Introducing the NEW Lowepro Flipside Sport AW 20L

Photographers love their camera bags the way women love a great pair (or ten) of black heels–and I say this as a woman who loves her many pairs of black heels, so I know whereof I speak.  Just when we think we have the perfect assortment of bags to use for different outings and shoots, we’ll realize that it’s close–but not perfect.  We’re all looking for just the right bag for what we need, and without fail a new trip or assignment will leave us looking for something new and different that maybe, hopefully, will work a little better for what we need.

I found myself in this situation a couple of months ago.  I’d just finished reviewing Lowepro‘s excellent new RoverPro 45L bag (so, so great for getting your gear into the backcountry), when I started planning for a big trip next month–two weeks in New Zealand, shooting that gorgeous scenery and exploring the country.  I looked at the assortment of camera bags I’ve accumulated over the last few years (all Lowepro–I don’t say I love them for nothing, you know), and realized none of them was going to work well for this trip.  I’ve been using the Flipside Sport 15L since last year, and it’s become the bag I use most.  It’s designed well, organizes perfectly, and wears even better.  Love that bag.  But for this trip, I need to bring along a little more of my gear than I do on shorter trips, including a backup camera body and an extra lens or two above and beyond what I normally carry, and I need to be able to carry it comfortably through both airports and the wilderness.  The 15L is just a bit small for a trip of this nature.

So who better to ask for advice on bags than Lowepro?  I sent a quick email telling them about the upcoming trip, gave them a rough list of gear I’ll be bringing and asked for a recommendation on bags.  When they got back to me suggesting I try out a brand new bag that wasn’t yet on the market, I enthusiastically took them up on the offer.  And when I learned that the new bag is the new Big Brother in the Flipside Sport line, I was really excited.

The Flipside Sport line that Lowepro debuted last year is a great bag, and I snapped up the 15L version as soon as it hit the market.  In addition to the usual great Lowepro design on the inside of the bag, what was going on with the outside of the pack–the build and the fit, specifically–made this an instant winner. This line of bags gets its name from the feature that gives it incredible functionality: you don’t have to take the pack off to access your gear.  Just slip the straps off your shoulders, pull the bag around in front of you, and unzip the flap to get to your gear.  The flat bottom of the bag rests against the front of your hips and keeps the bag stable and in place while you dig around for whatever gear you need.  When you’re done, zip up, slide the pack around to your back, pull the shoulder straps up and continue on your way.  This feature makes the bag very desirable if you’re hiking in places where setting the bag on the ground isn’t really a good option, whether you’re standing in deep snow or up to your knees in the Virgin River in Zion National Park.  It’s more than convenience–it’s added security for your gear.  There’s also a waterproof cover concealed in a bottom pocket that pulls up over the pack for protection should you find yourself caught in wet weather.

The new 20L version takes this design to an even higher level.  There is a wealth of room inside the bag–the pockets are deep and come with multiple padded dividers that you can reconfigure in almost countless ways to better accommodate your specific gear.  In addition to the compartments for cameras, lenses, etc., there’s a zippered accessory pocket on the inside flap that holds memory cards, headlamp, cleaning cloths, and so on.  As you can see by the pic on the right, I’m able to carry everything I need (whether it’s on a long day hike, or a multi-week trek in another country):

  • Canon 5D Mark II with 70-200mm lens attached
  • Crop-sensor backup camera body (plus extra battery, charger and cable release)
  • 17-40mm wide-angle lens
  • 50mm prime lens
  • 2x teleconverter
  • Lowepro filter pouch
  • Additional Singh-Ray filters (that I just can’t live without for landscape shooting)
  • Cable release (plus an extra)
  • Extra batteries + charger
  • Angled viewfinder with pouch
  • Memory cards
  • Filter holder and step-up rings
  • Tripod wrench/toolkit
  • Lint-free cloths
  • Headlamp
  • Hand warmers (great for keeping batteries warm, as well as fingers)

The extra room in the 20 liter version also provides a much-needed outside zippered pocket, which is just big enough to stow my iPad with keyboard case.  On either side of the pack is the tripod flap and cinch straps–something, incidentally, that holds a heavy duty tripod more securely than most other bags I’ve looked at–and a pocket for a hydration bladder, which is a godsend on longer hikes.  And if you have no need for the hydration bladder, that zippered pocket does double-duty as additional storage for other items.  The padded inner compartment can also be removed by lifting out, converting the bag to a great day pack if you want to use the bag for more than toting camera gear.  The only thing this bag doesn’t have–that my old Lowepro Slingshot does have–is a dedicated velcro’d pocket for memory cards.  This allows for fast and secure access, which can be helpful if your memory card maxes out in the middle of a sunset and you’re not left digging around for a fresh card.  This is a really minor issue in an otherwise fantastic camera pack, though.

This bigger version of the Flipside Sport has a wider, sturdier waist belt that sits very comfortably even on long hikes.  The belt has a small pocket on each side where you can stash keys, smartphone, snacks–anything small that you want easy access to, and there are extra straps and loops on the outside of the pack to add on more items if needed.  As with all of Lowepro’s newer backpacks, this one has the same suspension system that I love so much in the 15L version and in the RoverPro.  Adjusting the pack for comfort and weight load is simple and FAST, and immediately became one of my favorite features of the bag.

These are the key features of the bag that Lowepro touts:

• Comfy technology back panel (same as Flipside Sport 15L/10L, and means you get good ventilation, which is important on long hikes)

• Body side main compartment access panel

• Removable camera compartment

• Front storage pocket for tablet and other personal items

• Galaxy Blue; Lowepro Orange

All of these features on the Flipside Sport 20L translate to speed and comfort on the trail, with quick and secure access to your gear, which allows you to stay focused on your shooting.  I can’t think of a better selling point than that, and I’m confident this bag will work perfectly for my upcoming trek in New Zealand.

Lowepro’s new RoverPro – the perfect backcountry photo pack.

I’ve been a fan of Lowepro’s camera bags for a long time–you’ll notice that they’re on my “stuff I use” list to the right of this post, which is limited to the gear, photographic and otherwise, I simply can’t live without in the field.

When I first started out in landscape photography, I tried various bags by different manufacturers, but the only ones I’ve kept, loved and used heavily have been those made by Lowepro–in my experience, they’re better made and are better designed than anything else on the market.  I own two of their Slingshot bags in different sizes, as well as the Flipside Sport 15L, which debuted last year and is now my go-to bag for day hikes.

My dilemma

One particular kind of bag I’ve needed but could never find (to my satisfaction and needs), however, was a good backcountry bag.  There are a couple of other major manufacturers who make a photo backpack designed for use in the backcountry, but they were either too uncomfortable or designed in a way that I just didn’t feel was justified by the (considerable) price tag.  You can imagine my excitement, then, when Lowepro announced their new RoverPro line a few months ago–two packs (a 45 liter and 35 liter) designed for rugged use, with lots of room for both camera gear and supplies for spending a night or two in the wilderness.  They sent me one of the 45L models to try out, which I have done enthusiastically.  Quite simply–I love this pack.

What, exactly, do I require in a backcountry photo pack?

There are two primary gear needs with a pack like this.  First, it has to be comfortable.  I think most of us who backpack learn the hard way how important it is to wear a pack that fits well; anything else makes for pure misery on the trail.  My lesson came during a long weekend a few years ago with an ill-fitting pack deep in the 20 Lakes Basin in the Hoover Wilderness just outside the boundary of Yosemite National Park.  The weight distribution was terrible, the straps rubbed my shoulders so badly I developed blisters, and my back was killing me after just a mile on the trail.

I had no such issues with the RoverPro–from the moment I put it on, and even well into a couple of long hikes, the pack was downright comfy.  The adjustable suspension system is simple to use, and gives an instantly customized fit–no lower back issues at all with this pack, even when fully loaded.  This may be my single favorite feature of the pack.  The trampoline-style mesh back panel provides good ventilation, so you won’t be sweating up a storm.  No rubbing–and no blisters!–from the shoulder straps.  The wide hip belt sits comfortably at the waist, and includes a small zippered pocked on each side that’s just big enough for a smartphone, energy bar or other small items.

Okay, the fit is great–but what about all that gear?

The second issue I’ve had in the past when looking for a backcountry photo backpack was the layout of the pack, and how it incorporated (or didn’t) my camera gear and access to that gear.  As far as the general layout of the 45L is concerned, it is intelligently designed with both camera gear and camping supplies in mind.  The 45L includes two–TWO!–removable padded inserts/bags for camera gear, a small and a large (the 35L includes just the larger bag).  This is especially ideal for me, as I have two camera systems–a full-frame DSLR, with the usual assortment of lenses (I take two with me on trips like this–a wide angle zoom and telephoto zoom), filters, and so on, which works perfectly with the larger bag insert, and a mirrorless micro 4/3 system (also with a couple of lenses, filters, etc.), for when I want a lighter assortment of camera gear in the backcountry, and it fits perfectly in the smaller insert.

In the past, I’ve had to improvise by finding a smallish camera bag that I could just shove into a traditional backpack; there’s no need to do this with the RoverPro.  This gives the pack enormous flexibility, depending on what you want with you on the trail.  In addition to the camera bag inserts, here’s what else fit into the main cavity of the pack: Thermarest sleeping pad, Jetboil with gas canister, rain shell and extra shirt, flashlight, and water filter (my hiking companion carried the tent and the  bear canister full of food, but a one-man tent and small bear canister can fit into this pack when using the smaller of the two camera inserts).  There’s a place on the left side of the pack to securely strap on a tripod (my heavy Induro fit this quite nicely, as you can see in the photo), and there’s a pocket on the right side for a hydration bladder, with an opening for the drinking tube.  If you’re not carrying a hydration bladder, this pocket can easily hold more supplies.

Getting into the pack is easy, too–the top pocket opens up via flap and drawstring to allow easy access that way, and the front panel unzips to give quick access to things buried a bit lower in the pack–in my case, the camera case.  There are straps on the bottom of the pack big enough for a sleeping pad, but I added a couple of strap extensions (a few bucks each at any REI or outdoors store), and strapped my sleeping bag to the bottom of the pack.  And there are additional straps and elastic cords to allow you to easily fasten on other items.

Photo Courtesy of Lowepro

The verdict: Lowepro comes through again with exactly the pack I need.

As I said above, I love this pack.  So far, I’ve been able to test it out on a couple of long hikes in Big Sur, and an overnight in the Los Padres National Forest.  In every case, the pack wore great, was a breeze to load and unload, and gave me enough room to carry everything I need in the backcountry.  The build is solid, and looks like it’ll stand up to the usual rugged wear and tear I give all my Lowepro bags in the field.  This pack is big enough for a solo overnight hike (with bear canister; I could easily use this for a slightly longer trip on a solo hike in bear-free areas), or 2-3 days on the trail in bear country if you’re sharing some of the load with a companion.

One of my favorite features of the 45L is the inclusion of TWO removable camera bag inserts (large and small, plus an extra zippered accessory pouch that’ll hold filters, memory cards or extra batteries), which gives this pack incredible flexibility.  The RoverPro can match quality feature-for-feature with the best backpacks out there–photo or otherwise–and surpasses anything I’ve previously considered in the sub-category of photo backpacks.  If you journey into the backcountry with your camera, you need this pack.

Specifications on the RoverPro 45L can be found here on Lowepro’s site, and a video showing the pack in action is here.

My 10 Best Shots from 2012

Well, it’s that time of year again–Jim Goldstein once again is putting together his collection of Top 10 lists for everyone’s best work this year.  It’s a Herculean task he undertakes, and I’m very grateful he does this each year.  In addition to contributing to Jim’s list, it’s an excellent opportunity for me to assess my own work (and my travels) and form up my photographic goals for the coming years.  Below are my 10 favorite from this year, with a short story-behind-the-shot for each one.

1.  Annular Eclipse Over Wukoki Pueblo

This image involved more planning and research than any shot I’ve ever taken.  I knew I wanted to capture the eclipse over something ancient, if possible, to amplify the primal feelings such an astronomical event stirs within us all.  I researched the path the eclipse would take over the western U.S., and quickly decided on the stunning Wukoki Pueblo in the Wupatki National Monument just north of Flagstaff, Arizona. Once I’d chosen my spot, I set about building my own solar filter (quite a simple task, surprisingly), researching the best angle from which to shoot the eclipse over the pueblo, and then the usual trip planning. It was a somewhat more crazed road trip than usual–I logged over 1,500 miles in a single weekend, slept very little, and also managed to squeeze in some other photo stops including a really lovely sunset at the eastern rim of the Grand Canyon.  Back at home, a little careful processing and two-image layering, and this was the result.

2.  Monsoon Sunset Over Sea Stack, El Matador State Beach (Malibu)

One of my photo resolutions this year was to spend more time shooting seascapes.  I live a mere 12 miles from the coast, but rarely choose it as a subject for shooting.  I changed that this year, and had several fruitful outings to the beach.  This one is my favorite from southern California; we don’t get a lot of sunset drama around here (darn that nice weather!), but monsoon season brings in some incredible clouds and storms.  The storm system that moved into southern California right at sunset would prove to be the last monsoon season of the year, and I love the way those crazy clouds framed the big sea stack so well.

3.  Blue Oak Under Stormy Skies, Sierra Foothills

Another area I spent considerably more time in this year than in past years were the Sierra foothills west of Yosemite National Park.  The rolling hills are dotted with beautiful California blue oaks, and turn an intense green during late winter and early spring.  We’d gone out hoping to find some wildflowers on this day (this year, like last, was pretty much a bust for wildflowers), and instead had great fun shooting a spring thunderstorm that lingered over the foothills all day.  Those oaks would prove to be one of my favorite photographic subjects this year, and you’ll see them appear a couple more times in this list.  What I love about this shot is the almost surreally minimalistic quality–a landscape distilled to its most basic: tree, horizon, sky.

4.  Passing Winter Storm, Merced River Canyon

I’ve tried to leave out icons for the most part, as I did last year–but I’ve made an exception for a couple of shots this time, including this view of Bridalveil Fall as it stands sentry at the western end of Yosemite Valley.  Generally speaking, I find the Merced River Canyon on the western border of Yosemite National Park to be one of the most beautiful areas in the park (and in all of California, for that matter).  It’s not horribly over-photographed (yet), and provides dramatic views of the park’s soaring granite canyon walls.  On this morning, a late-winter snowstorm was just beginning to clear.  Highway 120 had opened only minutes earlier to 4WD traffic, and was still a little sketchy as we climbed high above the river canyon.  The sketchiness was worth it, as we were treated to this stunning view of a very snowy, icy and extra-beautiful Merced River Canyon.

5.  Sunset and Silhouetted Oak, Catheys Valley

Revisiting the Sierra foothills again, this sunset from late January is one of the best I witnessed all year long.  A friend and I had been photographing Yosemite most of the weekend, and decided to head out of the valley early on this day–it was going to be a clear, colorless sunset in the park, but we noticed clouds building up nicely to the west, so we set out in search of a sunset in the foothills.  And it did not disappoint.  We found some beautiful oaks near Catheys Valley, their bare winter branches silhouetted against the sky, and shot the intense color well after the end of “official” sunset.  I chose this image for the incredible rainbow of color against one of the old oaks.

6.  Sunset Pano, Second Beach (Olympic National Park)

I traveled to Seattle in June to accept a HUGE honor–first place in the landscape category for the International Conservation Photography Awards–and naturally took advantage of the time to visit with a dear friend and fellow photographer while we checked out some of the beautiful sights in the Pacific Northwest.  We made the very muddy hike out to Second Beach on the Olympic Peninsula for sunset one evening, and I decided to use a panoramic shot to capture the grandness of this beach with its iconic sea stacks (accented with a lovely sun star).

7.  Setting Perigee Moon, Salton Sea

I traveled to the desert to capture this year’s “super moon,” and chose the dead trees that dot the southeastern shore of the Salton Sea as my setting for sunrise’s moonset.  These trees have always reminded me a little of the more iconic dead trees of Botany Bay in South Carolina, and the Salton Sea in general has always been a fascinating if somewhat surreal photographic subject.  I was fortunate to get just the slightest bit of cloud cover at sunrise–enough to keep the rising sun’s light in check but not so much that the big full moon was obscured.

8.  Half-Bare Aspens, Bishop Canyon (Eastern Sierra Nevada)

Bishop Canyon with its expansive groves of quaking aspen is my number one must-shoot location every year.  Fall color is my favorite thing to shoot, and I am especially fond of the beautiful white-barked aspens in any season.  Fall color was a bit “off” this year, with the timing in some areas a little earlier than usual–including Bishop Canyon.  For this particular image, that was a very good thing–I love the painterly quality of the smattering of leaves that remained on the trees in this grove, and it’s my favorite fall color image from this year.

9.  Blue Oak and Clearing Fog, Sierra Foothills

And one last shot with my favorite subject this year–oak trees.  This is some of the most challenging light I’ve ever shot.  Fog makes for some of the best shooting conditions, but there’s a fleeting few moments when the fog begins to clear and the rising sun breaks through, turning everything to lightbeams and mist.  I was very fortunate to have that fleeting light one morning last month, and shot it pouring through the branches of this old oak.

10. Winter Storm and Sunrise, Gates of the Valley (Yosemite National Park)

Last year, I left all icons out of my 10 best list–but I just can’t resist this one for 2012.  It’s one of my favorite views in the park, with the Merced River flanked on each side by El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall (and if you follow my posts on Flickr, you may have noticed I have a bit of a fixation with El Cap–I will shoot it from every angle and in every kind of light, because I am endlessly fascinated with that massive hunk of granite).  This was such a special day in Yosemite–the first big winter storm of the season moved through the day and night before, leaving a cloak of snow over at-peak fall color, making for unusual conditions and muted color on the vibrantly orange-gold oaks and cottonwoods.  Gates of the Valley (also called Valley View) is more often considered a sunset location, but with just the right kind of light, it’s also lovely at sunrise.  Such were the conditions that greeted us on this morning, with the clearing storm clouds turned a soft, soft pink over this iconic location.

Thank you for viewing my “best of” list, and I would like to wish everyone a warm and wonderful holiday season, and a prosperous and happy new year!

Interview With Members of The Muir Project About Their Upcoming Documentary–You WANT to Read This!

I’m delighted to have a guest post up today on Dan Bailey’s excellent Adventure Photography blog.  I recently interviewed the people behind the upcoming documentary about the John Muir Trail, “Mile, Mile and a Half…”  They’re a great bunch of folks, and their upcoming film looks to be an inspiring visual treat.  You can read the interview here, and also be sure to check out the links in the interview to the trailers for the film, as well as to their Kickstarter page where they’re VERY close to raising the last of the funds necessary to complete the documentary.  Enjoy the interview, and if you can, chip in to get this excellent project finished!

http://danbaileyphoto.com/blog/the-muir-project-interview-by-robin-black/

How Flickr made me a better photographer.

As the world of social media and photo-sharing continues to rapidly expand, I post this in tribute to one of the “original” photo-sharing sites, and one on which I remain quite active: Flickr.  Its demise is foretold every few months; first, it was when Yahoo bought it out.  Then, others were just sure that sites like 500px.com or Google Plus would destroy it.  And although there have been changes, and the community interaction aspect has fallen off somewhat, Flickr defies those eulogies and continues to thrive.

Fine, it’s a photo-sharing site–how could it possibly made you a better photographer, you ask?  As with most endeavors in this world, Flickr is what you make of it.  And I found Flickr at exactly the right time in my development as a photographer.

The Technical.

I’d dabbled in photography off and on over the years, and bought my first digital SLR–my old Canon Rebel XTi–in 2006.  I had a great time with it, sort of haphazardly wandering around various landscapes, but wasn’t really seeing much growth in my technique.  Then one very important thing happened:  I visited Yosemite National Park for the first time in 2009.  I’m hardly the first to whom this happened, but the place changed me.  Moved me.  Blew my mind a little (okay, a lot).  And I went crazy taking pictures, eager to capture something with my camera that conveyed how that incredible place made me feel, something that showed my connection to it.

I came home with hundreds of thoroughly mediocre pictures.  As thrilled as I was with the beauty of Yosemite, I was completely disappointed in my attempts to do it justice photographically.  The mediocre pictures were partly the result of bad shooting conditions–midsummer is not Yosemite’s most dramatic time of year; it’s crowded, it’s hot, and blesses its visitors with day after day of cloudless blue skies.  Great for a visit, not so great for photography.  In addition, there were multiple wildfires burning throughout the park, so the air was tinged a dull brown in almost everything I shot.  Even aside from all that, my pictures were just….eh.  There was no drama.  There was nothing that conveyed the emotional connection I felt.

So I set about trying to figure out how to fix that–how to improve my technique, my skills.  I prowled the internet for photos of Yosemite that I did like, and quickly ended up on Flickr, where I saw scores of breathtaking images–pink-tinged sunsets, silky waterfalls, detail shots of granite and maples and water patterns in the Merced River.  These were the kinds of photos I had hoped to bring home–so why wasn’t I able to?  I began studying what became my photographic Rosetta Stone: EXIF data.  If you’ve never bothered looking at the “actions” menu on photos posted to Flickr, give that a look.  Unless the photographer disables that particular bit of info, you can read the exposure data on an image via that menu.  You can see which camera was used, and which lens (or at least which focal length), what time of day an image was taken, as well as what f stop, shutter speed and ISO were used for the exposure.  I wasn’t looking to replicate a picture, but I did want to know how the photographer made an image that I found particularly striking.  And the EXIF info was extremely helpful in beginning to understand the “how” behind a great image: I began to see why an image had such gorgeous light (time of day), or killer depth of field (f stop), or why the water in that stream was so beautifully silky (shutter speed).  I began to “get” landscape photography in ways that had previously eluded me.  I’ve always been an auto-didact, and this technical info was exactly what I needed to study if I wanted to improve my photography.

And so I did, and so my images began to improve.  I became a little obsessed, and studied EXIF data and composition on as many great photos as I could find.  I also noted other things from descriptions in photos, when a photographer happened to go into more detail on how an image was achieved.  I invested in a better tripod (and started using it religiously), a cable release, and a set of graduated neutral density filters.  I shot in RAW only, and on “M” (manual) setting only.  It made a huge difference, and my images began to show it.  Flickr had become my own personal how-to course in landscape photography.

The Community.

But that wasn’t the only thing I found Flickr useful for.  There’s a wonderful, generous community of gifted photographers there, and you can jump right in and become part of that, too.  I began commenting on the images I liked, and occasionally asked a few questions on technique–and in almost every instance, the photographer was kind enough to answer my questions.  I quickly began making friends this way–many of whom I still know only virtually, but many more I’ve gone on to make real-life connections with, striking up real friendships and even going out shooting with Flickr contacts on occasion.  Those friendships have grown beyond Flickr–I’m now Facebook friends with many of these same people (and Twitter and Google Plus contacts, too).  I have had the great pleasure of getting to know them beyond photography, and it’s been more rewarding than I ever would have imagined.

These friends of mine, too, have helped make me a better photographer, whether through careful critique, helpful advice, friendly competition, or just encouragement for what I was doing.  This is something I never would have had without Flickr, so I am deeply grateful for that reason, too.

As I said above, you’ll get out of it what you put into it, so if you just post photos and never bother interacting or looking at others’ photos, you probably won’t think Flickr is the greatest thing since sliced bread.  But there are great things there to be used and discovered, and I encourage you to take time to really explore the site.

Since those very early days on Flickr, I’ve branched out in what I share through social media, and now have my own photography website, but I still use Flickr almost every day.  It’s a kind of kitchen-sink place for me, where I can share images that may not be portfolio quality, but I’ll post them because there’s a good story behind the picture, or something I want to share about a particular place I’ve been, or whatever–and by doing so, it keeps me constantly thinking about what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, and what connection I’m hoping to make with others through my photography (and you’ll see a link on the right side of this page that’ll take you directly to my Flickr photostream, in case you’re curious).

I no longer scrutinize EXIF info (well, okay, sometimes I still do) and my technical skills have come a long, long, long way since then, but I still find it one of the most interesting and vibrant photography communities on the internet.

My 10 Best Images From 2011 (No Icons Edition!)

With the start of a new year, it’s time to go back and consider my work from the year before, prompted in great part by Jim Goldstein’s annual invitation for photographers to share their ten best images of the year.  This is a daunting task that Jim takes on every year, and I very much appreciate all the work he puts into cataloging everyone’s lists.  It also serves to help me consider where I am creatively, how I grew the most this year, and what areas I’d like to concentrate on creatively in the coming year.

For my list this year, I’ve deliberately excluded photographic icons–locations such as Yosemite Falls or Delicate Arch–all of which I was privileged enough not just to photograph, but to capture in extraordinary light in 2011.  You can find those images easily enough in my galleries here, or on my Flickr photostream.  While I’m greatly pleased with those images (as well as with the opportunity to have visited them in person), they aren’t exactly innovative or original (obviously).  For this list, I wanted to focus on the images that bring together the best elements of light and composition, without the easy eye-grabbers of icons that have been photographed thousands of times.

First up: a vertical panorama of Cascade Creek where it tumbles vertically down the walls of the Merced River Canyon in Yosemite.  This is one of my favorite spots in the park to photograph, but it’s a challenge to photograph.  Because of its location, access and compositional possibilities are rather limited.  The cascades go on for hundreds of feet, and it’s difficult to capture that kind of drama in a single image–it simply won’t fit.  This spring, I decided to try a vertical panorama combining three horizontal shots stitched together, and was pleased with the results.

On that same trip in mid-May, I spent some time photographing the delicate dogwood blossoms that grace the valley in early spring.  A favorite subject among photographers, I’d seen (and photographed) the typical blossoms-over-rushing-water scene before, but wanted to try for something slightly different this time.  I arrived at the west end of the valley early enough in the morning to catch the dogwoods near the Pohono bridge in deep shade.  This threw a slight purple-blue cast to the Merced raging by underneath the branches, so I zoomed on a single dogwood branch and decided on a shutter speed that would capture a single long swoosh of water rushing by.  This is the result:

I was fortunate to spend a great deal of time photographing the eastern Sierra Nevada this year, which is probably my favorite place on earth to spend time.  We received a near-record amount of snow this past winter, a hint of which you see in this shot of Convict Lake.  One of the easiest to reach alpine lakes in the Sierra, it has year-round access, so it’s possible to capture scenes like this without arduous hiking or skiing to get there.  I was the only person there on this morning–incredibly–and it was perfectly still and very cold.  Catching the setting moon in pre-dawn light was an unexpected bonus.

The moon played a part in a few of my other favorite shots from this year–sometimes planned on, sometimes taking me by surprise.  This image was one of those unexpected gems, taken at the end of a warm spring day in the Sierra foothills in California’s central valley.

I was finally able to visit a location that has been on my list for some time this year–the Patriarch Grove of the Ancient Bristlecone Pines high up in the White Mountains.  These ageless wonders, the oldest living non-colonal organisms on earth, grow only in a few locations at very high altitude.  My first attempt to photograph them in July was scuttled when I was hit with a nasty bout of altitude sickness, but I was back again a month later, and had the great privilege of standing among these gnarled trees at sunset.

This next shot is one of my favorites from 2011, and also perhaps the luckiest shot I’ve ever taken.  I was on a trip to Las Vegas this summer, and found myself watching a dramatic thunderstorm over the mountains just south of the city.  I noticed lightning dancing across the ridge tops, and on a whim I set up my tripod and long lens in an attempt to capture some of the action.  It wasn’t until I returned home a few days later and uploaded my photos that I saw this heart-shaped lightning bolt.  I’m pretty sure I’ll never get another lightning bolt as whimsical as this, and it always makes me smile when I see it.

On several of my trips to the eastern Sierra, I was fortunate to see some of the most beautiful and dramatic light and clouds.  This image shows what can happen when monsoonal moisture is swept up from the Gulf of California, resulting in violent but beautiful storms over the high sierra.  This particular storm was powerful enough to close the Whitney Trail for 24 hours, as well as several of the roads leading down to the small town of Lone Pine at the base of Mt. Whitney.  I took this shot in the Alabama Hills just above Lone Pine as the storm began to dissipate at sunset, making for incredible clouds and color.

On another trip later this fall, I was able to capture an image I knew was possible, but didn’t know if I’d ever be in place when all the conditions came together for some “range of light” magic.  One of my favorite vistas on the east side is that of the Evolution Range as it rises up behind Bishop Canyon.  The slopes of the canyon are covered in aspen groves, which turn vivid yellow and orange in the fall.  I’d wondered just how dramatic that vista might become if I could catch a colorful sunset over those glowing aspen groves–and I was lucky enough to capture exactly that a few months ago.  A thunderstorm was just beginning to break apart over the peaks shortly before sunset, so I set up to capture that vista.  I was awestruck as I watched the clouds overhead turn vivid pink above those aspen groves, and thought “nobody is ever going to believe this is real.”  Well, it was real all right, and I’m so glad I was there to witness it.

Fall color is perhaps my favorite subject to photograph, and I was happy to return to the eastern Sierra this fall to see the aspen groves put on their show again this year.  This shot from Bishop Canyon is my favorite of all my fall color images this year, thanks to the zig-zagging cascades of Bishop Creek and that brilliant red aspen among the other yellow ones.

Finally, in looking over my shots from this year, I noticed a definite minimalist bent in many of my landscapes.  One of the best places to capture such a scene is at the odiferous but strangely beautiful Salton Sea just south of Palm Springs.  On hot, cloudless days, a haze settles over the lake by sunset, which turns the surrounding mountains into an abstract of layers and color, with the sky turning various pastel shades.  There were two paragliders flying along the shore the night I took this shot, so I opted to include them in the composition.  They look like a pair of fermata hanging in the sky, marking the slight pause before sunset fades to night.

 

 

Holiday cards and 2012 calendars are now available!

2012 Beautiful California Wall Calendar

I’d like to introduce my inaugural wall calendar, Beautiful California 2012.  I’ve had so many requests lately asking if I would be producing one this year, I figured I’d better find a way to make one available.  I’m offering these through RedBubble.com, who produces a truly quality product.  The calendar features images from across the Golden State with a slight prejudice to images from the Sierra Nevada, which most of you know is my favorite place on earth.

The calendar measures 11.7 inches by 16.5 inches, has sturdy spiral binding (with hanger) at the top, and is printed on 200gsm satin art paper with a tougher (heavier weight) cover.

I’m very pleased with the clean layout of the calendar, as well as RedBubble’s high quality and reasonable pricing.  These will look great on your wall all year long, and make great gifts, too!  (Hey, if I don’t promote my work, who will?)

The hyperlinks above will take you directly to the information page for the calendar, where you can see a preview of all twelve images featured in the calendar.  I’ll even sweeten the deal for you by passing along a coupon code!  Use BIGCAL15 at checkout, and you’ll receive a 15 percent discount on your entire purchase.

Wintry Yosemite Greeting Cards

The other thing I get requests for regularly is greeting cards, and specifically my Yosemite winter images as holiday cards.  I now have four different images available individually or in packs of 10 at CafePress.com, and you can find them here.  Whether you want the same image on all your cards or want to create your own personal assortment, you can find what you need at my new CafePress shop.  In the future I also plan to offer a selection of all-occasion note cards, so I’ll update with information on those as soon as they’re available.

The Wintry Yosemite cards are 5 inches by 7 inches, printed on heavy card stock and include matching envelopes.  I’ve opted to leave them blank on the inside, leaving you plenty of room to jot down your own brilliant greetings and sentiments–and leaving them blank also makes them great all-occasion cards, so if you have any left over after the holidays, you’ll be able to use them for any old thing–thank you notes, quick correspondence, whatever your heart desires.

Review: John Batdorff’s Black and White: From Snapshots to Great Shots

One of my long-term goals for this blog is to do more reviews of photography books (and e-books).  Being something of an autodidact, Black and White: From Snapshots to Great Shotsmuch of my photography education has come from the pages of some very good books, so I understand what a powerful tool they can be for a beginning (or intermediate) photographer.  With my primary criteria of high expectations, I’m pleased to kick off a series of reviews by starting with John Batdorff’s excellent new book on black and white photography, Black and White: From Snapshots to Great Shots.

While the basic rules and concepts of digital photography apply (obviously) to black and white work as well as color, if you’re looking to produce quality work in monochrome there are some very specific things you need to know and keep in mind if you want to get great results.  Batdorff’s book–his third under the Peachpit Press imprint–is a great tool for getting you there.

While the focus of the book is black and white photography, Batdorff begins with a primer on basic photography (including the always-helpful inventory of what he shoots with, from lens choices to filters) and then leads you through the concepts specific to shooting in black and white.   In fact, his instruction on general digital photography is so thorough the book could easily work as an all-purpose photography guide.

Beautifully illustrated with Batdorff’s own photos as illustrative guides, he shows as much as he tells you how to tailor your shooting for black and white.  All of the photos are accompanied by EXIF data (or, the exposure specifics including ISO, f stop and aperture).  As he leads you through discussions on contrast, tonality, exposure and lighting, that info is enormously helpful in translating concept to reality.  Looking back at my own photography education, perhaps the greatest learning tool for me has been studying the EXIF info on images I liked, so I’m especially pleased to see that information included with all of the illustrative photos in this book.

Batdorff recognizes the enormous flexibility that digital photography has brought to the craft, and he rightly covers black and white photography from pre-visualization, to how you approach your images in the field, to how to handle images in post-processing.  The advantage of such broad instruction is that it gives the photographer options for how to handle his work for monochrome whether he’s going out with the specific goal of producing black and white work, or wants to convert existing images from color to black and white.  He even briefly covers printing images in the final chapter–so this is about as thorough a book as you’re likely to find on the topic.  Printing your own photos is a whole other world to learn (and I note this as I sit here eyeing my own newly-arrived Epson printer, still in its box), but it’s helpful having this cursory info, and a nice inclusion to round out the book.

He also covers multiple photography genres–while my work focuses almost exclusively on landscapes, I found his sections on portraits and photojournalism to be quite informative.  He even includes a basic lighting guide in the portraits section!

But I found the best part of the book–and the most exhaustive–to be his focus on how to approach black and white images in post.  My own biases may be showing here, but I’m greatly pleased with his strong recommendation of Adobe Lightroom and the Silver Efex Pro plugin as the best tools to use in post-processing.  He praises Lightroom 3 as being so thorough an editing tool that he only uses Adobe’s Photoshop about 5 percent of the time for processing; I find that ratio to match my own just about exactly.  The latest version of Lightroom is such a powerful–and powerfully good–processing program that you can get away with using that almost all the time unless you need to do some of the more complicated tasks better suited to Photoshop.  Coupled with its workflow functions and the outstanding Silver Efex Pro plugin, you’ll have all the tools you’ll ever need to produce stunning black and white images.  And Batdorff’s book leads you through black and white processing in those two programs in great detail.  If you’ve been depending solely on Lightroom presets to convert images to black and white, or just played around with the vibrance and saturation sliders to whittle a shot down to a basic monochrome, Batdorff will open up an entire world of processing possibilities for you–and give you control over finely tuned contrast and tone that you probably weren’t aware were at your disposal until now.

Batdorff’s writing style is as approachable as it is instructive, which makes this kind of book even more valuable.  He includes anecdotes of his own experiences in black and white photography (that accompany the gorgeous photos I’ve already mentioned), and each chapter concludes with four assignments–suggestions to practice all aspects of black and white photography, from the importance of telling a story with your images, to how to use filters in the field, to how to handle all those steps in post-processing that may be new to you.

Whether you’re just setting out to take photos with black and white expressly in mind, or are eyeing existing image files as potential good candidates for conversion to black and white, Black and White: From Snapshots to Great Shots will guide you through the steps necessary to produce great black and white images.  If you’re looking for a black and white photography class between the covers of a book, this is one you’ll want to check out.

*****

I’ll be reviewing a few more books over the coming months, and next up will be Guy Tal’s new e-book, Creative Digital Printing, a timely review as I’m just beginning to learn the ins and outs of digital printing myself.