Sonoran Desert Playground

Single Exposure May 2018 – Digital

A few weeks ago I went on a 10-day road trip through the Desert Southwest and one of the areas I explored was the Sonoran Desert around Tucson, AZ.  This photography trip was different from my normal outings in that I took a DSLR along with my film cameras.  I wanted to try the Nikon D850 so I rented this camera along with a Nikon 80-400mm lens to play around with.  I’ll probably write more on this camera since it’s a “hot” camera right now and I’ll compare my experience with it compared to the D750 I recently tried.  I don’t really care too much about camera specs since I believe cameras are just tools.  These 4 images are all from the D850 and the files are larger than 99% of us will ever need.  It’s also common knowledge in the photography community that making a sharp, technically good image with today’s tools is quite easy.  But as some guy who made some nice pictures of Yosemite once said, “There’s nothing worse than a brilliant image of a fuzzy concept.”  I couldn’t agree more, Mr. Adams.

An obvious advantage to using a DSLR vs the film cameras I’ve been using for 30 months now is the instant review of images.  These blurred images are a good example of how seeing the image at the moment of capture can lead to a more intentional final image.  I shot variations of this scene above but probably fewer than you’d expect.  If shooting film has taught me anything, it’s that I’m much more selective of when I open the shutter.  I think I have fewer than 15 variations of this scene, not 200.

Single Exposure May 2018 – Digital

The 2nd image is another single exposure showing thorns of a cholla cactus and the smoothed out colors within this rugged desert plant.  Everything in the Sonoran Desert has thorns as a way to protect it from predators.  These sharp thorns are only visible from certain distances and perspectives though.  From a distance, the desert’s colors begin to blend together in ever-changing varieties.  You may be wondering why some of the image is blurred by motion while the thorns still appear fairly sharp.  How is this possible with just one exposure and moving the camera?  I’ll leave this question alone for now.

Single Exposure May 2018 – Digital

The 3rd image is a little more inline with a traditional motion blurred exposure.  Blue shadows, warm highlights and reddish-purple accents blend together in this single exposure.  I frequently mention how I’m not interested in showing what a scene looks like and this, along with the other 3 images here, should demonstrate this point sufficiently.  You can’t see this with your eyes to state this simply.  One of my inspirations for creating this image was the wind.  It’s rare to have a calm day in the desert and this day was not one of those rare, calm days.  Everything was swaying and in constant motion, moving gently back and forth in the wind.  I wanted to express some of this motion and how it gave the impression of swirling and blending colors.

Single Exposure
May 2018 – Digital

The final image is again a single exposure showing much more deliberate motion while still retaining a variety of color.  You’ll notice the same idea here as in the 2nd image with parts of each image being blurred yet parts nearly stationary.  Why aren’t those parts blurred too if this is a single exposure?  This was all in camera btw and a single image, single exposure.  I won’t answer this question but I will say that sometimes the wind dies down before gusting again.  I wanted to express this through a single image and the image itself is the only important thing, not how I did it.  One other note on this image/style is that the Nikon D850 didn’t make this image.  I could’ve made this same image on my Nikon FM (1978) film camera.  Maybe a the type of camera you have/want isn’t nearly as important as you think it is.  You can decide.

I’ll wrap this up with my favorite photography quote:  “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but seeing with new eyes.”

~Marcel Proust



I Do It Too

Blue Sands Panoramic May 2018 – Stitched Pano, Digital

Following up from yesterday’s post, I wanted to share a couple of images that may illustrate my point a little more.  This image above is a stitched panoramic showing some plants on the left, framed by the shadow of a dune behind them.  This affect provides depth to this 2D image and some immediate direction for the eyes.  The clouds in the upper right then help pull the eye deeper into the scene and since we know clouds are further than the ground from this perspective, further depth and visual flow is achieved.  The clouds on the right, the plants on the left, the relative size of the shadows; all help give this image depth and some sense of scale.

This composition is also one which shows a classical, predictable composition.  Of course there are clouds in the upper right if there’s a subject closer on the left.  This makes sense when considering visual balance in an image and the overall effect leads to an aesthetically pleasing scene.  And yes, I’d say this about this image even if it wasn’t mine.  It just works.  The issue is (to me at least) that this composition fits a well-known formula of left-right visual flow as the eye goes deeper into the scene.  It doesn’t take long while wandering the dunes to understand that this place is anything but predictable and is full of unique shapes, design and visual elements.  I feel compositions like the one above are too easy to find, compose and capture and do nothing to show the unique qualities of this landscape.  It shows what it looks like and the landscape is truly a unique one but that’s where the interest in this image ends.  It’s what White Sands National Monument looks like and for some, this works just fine.  For me, I have ZERO interest in showing what a place looks like.  If I wanted to achieve this, I’d be a tour guide and take you there.  Photography can communicate so much more than this.

Yucca & Gypsum May 2018 – Digital


This second image shows another Yucca among the gypsum dunes and features more shadow/light, left-right visual flow and variations of tones and textures.  Again, this image is pretty straight forward artistically and more or less shows what this place looked like.  Both of these images I feel still work as they both feature pleasing visual elements, but they both are examples of compositions which weren’t difficult to find or capture.  They both fit a formula of sorts that can be applied to many other landscapes and aren’t really reflective of the uniqueness of this place.  They also don’t communicate any of the sense of strangeness in this wild landscape further than what the place actually looks like, which is strange in itself.

These 2 images are ones that I do like, but do nothing for my artistic interests in photography.  I’m sharing them because I’m working to create images which show these same pleasing qualities of a landscape while also communicating a sense of wonder, curiosity and discovery.  In my opinion, this is accomplished through compositions which are reflective of the unpredictability of Nature and not through a formula which can be applied to any landscape in the world.  It’s challenging though and I’m in no way saying that I’ve figured this out.  If anything, I’m just getting started.

Side Note: In my last post I mentioned the image had something interesting going on.  Did you see that it was a double exposure?  In this post, the 2nd image has a major flaw which will prevent this image from ever being printed.  Click on it and view it full size.  Do you see the major flaw?

Thanks for reading,


Predictable Compositions in Landscape Photography: Part 1

Learning from Nature

May 2018 – Digital

A topic which has been on my mind recently is the predictability of compositions in landscape photography.  I’m still working out some thoughts and I want to write a more in-depth blog about this topic, but I thought I should introduce this idea first.  I will say there are certainly exceptions to this idea but 99% of all other landscape images demonstrate this idea clearly.  I have plenty of images myself which I look at now and see this same predictability in the compositions.  I’m trying to change this.

Anyone who has spent any time outside knows that Nature is unpredictable and random.  Much of photography is about simplifying a 3-D scene to a 2-D image through various methods of compositions.  So if Nature is indeed random, why are landscape photos so often made to fit a formula, or a preconceived idea of a composition?  You hear it all the time, how photographers find a composition and wait for __ hours for the light.  These are also the same photographers who talk about getting “skunked” or come home disappointed after the light didn’t cooperate.   Maybe it’s my sole opinion but I find the photographers who talk about this have strikingly similar images and they often times are BORING.

I’m not sorry if anyone takes offense to this statement.  From my perspective and experience, I’ve never returned home from being outside in Nature and felt disappointed. Ever.  I’ve also never felt I got “skunked” while out creating images.  Ever.  I view each day outside as an opportunity to discover a new composition, a new way of seeing and a new opportunity to interpret Nature.  I’m continuing to learn new compositions from Nature and incorporating these compositions into my work.  The image above has something interesting going on in it for those who will pause long enough to look closely.  Do you see it too?

More to come..


The Other 6 Images

Zion National Park

April 2018 – Portra 160

Earlier this year I visited Zion National Park (again) during some “nice” weather and excellent conditions for images.  I wanted to share a bit behind this image which I initially captured on Portra 160 35mm film.  This single leaf with attached pine needles was floating in this puddle, spinning and drifting around.  The rain was just coming to an end and everything around was saturated in color.  This leaf captured my attention immediately and I stopped to observe this simple scene.

My first step was to get out my phone and take some photos to try to capture a precise moment where the needles were aligned with the shadow line in some way.  My phone shoots 15 frames/second so getting a frame which was visually appealing was pretty easy.  I then put my phone away without checking the exposure data or histogram.  Sure, it’d be easier to plug the exposure data into a calculator to determine the correct exposure with 160 film, f/5.6 etc.  Or I could just visualize the final image and place the shadows at -4, knowing the highlights would still remain easily visible with darker mid tones.

Once the scene was metered, the next step was determining a composition.  I wanted to capture the needles at some angle not parallel to the shadow line to create more of a visual flow in this simple image.  Once the composition was visualized, I had to focus the lens on that spot which isn’t so easy on flat water.  I had to wait for raindrops to cause ripples to manually focus my lens.  This takes care of metering, focus, composition, so all that’s left is a moment.

For this, I waited for the leaf to drift in the area I’d focused on and shot a series of frames, manually advancing the film after each shot.  Basically this is 1 frame/2 seconds and a far cry from today’s modern cameras.  The image below shows all 7 frames I shot with the final image being the one that is at the top of this post.  It contains all the elements I was envisioning and I’m quite happy with the image.  I hope you enjoy this simplified interpretation of Zion too.

Thanks for reading,



One Tree, Four Images

I just returned from a 10-day road trip through the Desert Southwest and have a few images to share from that trip, but that’s for another time.  For this post, I want to share 4 images I made from the same location, within minutes of each other.  I was camped at a remote spot and was watching the sun fall to the horizon when I noticed some branches of a ponderosa pine catching some evening light.  I approached the pine without my camera and spent a brief moment observing the orange evening light reflecting off the pine needles.  Yeah, time to grab the camera.

That little moment when my mind shifts from observing to creating is something of a mystery to me.  I’m not looking for a particular thing so this moment isn’t triggered by any sort of recognition of a subject.  I think it’s more of a feeling for me, something like intuition.  When that moment comes and my intuition tells me to get the camera, I do.  When that moment never comes, the camera stays out of my hand.  I’m learning to trust my intuition more and more which leads to many times of not taking a photo.  Sometimes it leads to 4:)

I wanted to share these 4 images together because they show a few different ways to approach a single subject.  I took 9 photos total and the other 5 are basically a small variation of these here.  The image at the top of this post is a longer exposure with some intentional camera movement.  There are hints of sun on the needles, cool shade under the thick branches and a slightly warmer color on the forest floor.  Let’s get in a little closer.

The 2nd image simplifies the scene a little further but excludes the warm light on the forest floor.  Portra 160 (film) has great exposure latitude so this scene was easily within its capabilities.  One note, the lab which processes my film also gives me a scan but unfortunately, they’re jpg’s and don’t always show the highlights and shadows accurately.  Whatever.  Let’s get a little closer.

This 3rd image gets into the tree and uses the forms of the branches to give some structure.  Cool shadows are minor and in the background and there are layers of yellowish light on the pine needles.  One little interesting note on this image is composition.  I’ll discuss this in a future post but this image is an example of learning composition from Nature.  Composition is a funny thing in landscape photography.   I’ll be blunt and say 99% of landscape images have a predictable composition.  BORING.  I’m just as guilty of this as anyone but I’m attempting to transition to a different style.  More to come on this soon.

The final image is much less abstract and uses the same light and colors from the previous images.  Choosing to focus on the sharp needles with a wide open aperture made the orange light on the needles in the background appear as soft orange dots.  All these images were on Portra 160 film (35mm) on a very basic camera and explore a few different interpretations of a single scene.

Thanks for reading,



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