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Mood and creativity in image processing

Monday, December 12th, 2011

In February, I featured this image as my photo of the month; I took it in Buckskin Gulch, Utah on a cold, icy day.

Ice and sandstone in Buckskin Gulch, Utah

Original Ice Underneath, January 2011

The original scene stopped me because I liked the chilly feeling in the ice, and the way the light was reflecting off the walls of the canyon; the tafoni created an interesting pattern in the flowing rock wall.  In addition, I liked the sensuous line at the rock-ice interface.  However, mostly I liked the contrast between warm and cold tones.

While I was happy with the original edit of the image, I have recently revisited it in an effort to accentuate the feeling the original scene gave me.  With the current state of digital image processing, there are multiple ways to achieve my desired effect.  Guy Tal recently published a great article on understanding white balance; understanding that there can be more than one appropriate white balance within a scene has been immensely valuable to me as my own processing skills have developed.   Ultimately, I chose to use Nik’s Silver Efex Pro to give a slightly cooler color cast to the ice, thus conveying the contrast between warm and cool tones I originally envisioned when I was in the canyon on that cold January day.

Ice and sandstone tafoni in buckskin gulch, utah

Ice Underneath, rework, October 2011

While today’s cameras do an excellent job of capturing the “information” in a scene, there is still work to be done in bringing out the full potential in a scene during post-processing.  What are some of your favorite techniques in doing this?

Incidentally, my friend Guy Tal does have an excellent and in-depth e-book devoted to this subject; you can read more about it at this link.  Note that I’m not a member of his affiliate program, so I get nothing more than good karma if you purchase the e-book.

Photo(s) of the Month–November

Friday, November 4th, 2011

I think this is the first time since beginning this blog I’ve broken from my Photo of the Month tradition.  Its not really for lack of wanting.  The truth is, I have had trouble deciding on just one image.

Instead I’ve decided to share a few new images that I’ve been working on, all with a common theme:  long exposure.   In the right situation, a long exposure provides extra time for either the camera to move, or elements within the frame to move (like clouds or water), adding unique drama to a scene.

First, I recently purchased an 8-stop neutral density filter.   I’ve wanted one for quite a while, after seeing some great long exposure work from other photographers.  Mac Danzig has a great tutorial/informational blog post on them here.  I waited for a stormy morning with dramatic skies to try it out at a local beach, with some great rock formations.  The rock in the second image reminds me of a molar from a Pleistocene-epoch carnivore…

Stormy morning at Little Corona Beach, Newport Beach, California

Stormy morning, November 2011

A clearing storm at Little Corona Beach, Newport Beach, California

The sea's jaws, November 2011

In addition to letting the scene move, interesting effects can also be achieved by moving the camera while the shutter is open.  Zoom blurs have become more popular over the last few years, but I added another element.  In addition to zooming the lens during the exposure, I also rotated the camera.  The subject I chose to try this out on is California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum foliolosum); I have always loved the fall color palette of this plant, but haven’t been able to make an image of I like.  Finally, with this technique–although it won’t appeal to everyone–I feel like I’ve gotten the colors to blend in a way that’s appealing to me.

An abstract image of California Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum foliolosum)

Hallucination I, October 2011


An abstract image of California Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum foliolosum)

Hallucination II, October 2011

Looking out my window, I think autumn may have finally come to southern California!  I hope you have a great November; in the U.S. its a time we give thanks for many things–what are you thankful for this month?


Photo of the Month–October

Saturday, October 1st, 2011

With the first day of autumn just a few days ago, I have been reminiscing about the fall mornings I remember from growing up in northern New Mexico.  I remember chilly mornings that gave way to pleasantly warm days, snow-dusted mountain peaks, and as Jackson reminded me with my September photo of the month, the smell of roasting green chiles.

Autumn arrives in the high country much earlier than October–those cold mornings and changing colors can arrive as early as August, when lower elevations are still sweltering in summer heat.  This summer, on a visit to the canyon country of southern Utah, we were able to escape for a night to 11,000′ on the Aquarius Plateau.  Made up in part by Boulder Mountain, just outside of Torrey, Utah and Capitol Reef National Park, the Plateau is nothing like the ecosystems that surround it.  It is the highest elevation plateau in North America, and has hundreds, if not thousands, of tiny lakes.  On the August morning I visited, it was about 35°F–a virtual paradise compared to the desert located less than 10 miles away, as the crow flies.

A beautiful sunrise on the Aquarius Plateau in southern Utah

August Sunrise, August 2011

Here in southern California, summer is hanging on tenaciously, and the ability to “fast forward” to fall would be much appreciated, just like I was able to do this summer on the Aquarius Plateau.


Photo of the Month–September

Thursday, September 1st, 2011

With September arriving, and–in the United States–Labor Day weekend marking the unofficial end of summer, it seems like people are beginning to turn their attention to the arrival of autumn.

If you’ve been in the high country, you’ve probably already felt the first hints of fall: crisp evenings, the smell of dry leaves, and the slow disappearance of monsoons are all things that–for me–mark the beginning of my favorite season.  Some of my fondest memories in the mountains are at this time of year.  And, while fall hasn’t quite come to the deserts and canyons yet, it will.  There’s nothing quite like laying out on a sun-warmed slab of sandstone on a brisk fall day.  Autumn really is the best time to be in the redrock wilderness.

This month’s image celebrates the transition from summer to fall.  A golden cottonwood leaf rests on clay soil that’s drying after a summer rainstorm.

Peaceful scene in Capitol Reef National Park

Transitional, August 2011

They say the sense of smell is mostly closely tied to memory.  For me, the smells of autumn are what mark its beginning.  How are your senses stimulated when the seasons change?

Photo of the Month–August

Monday, August 1st, 2011

Sometimes, its the small scenes that really grab you, draw you in, and move you.  Indeed, the intimate landscape is often the grandest.  I made August’s photo in Nevada’s Valley of Fire State Park, where a tiny mineral deposit in the sandstone stopped me in my tracks.  It took a few different exposure settings to get the effect I wanted: to really accentuate the fine lines in the deposit, making them prominent in the frame.

Abstract sandstone image in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Dendritic Connections, April 2011

At the time I made the image, as well as now, this little pattern reminds a neuron–our brains are made up largely of billions of these cells, each one connected to the other by thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of other connections.  In this way, information travels in the form of electrical impulses from cell to cell.  While biologists understand the basics of how information is transmitted, they do not understand completely how information is perceived and interpreted.  It is clear, however, that perception is an incredibly complex trait.

Although the basics of perception are probably quite similar between individuals, we only have to look around to see that everyone is different–we’re all uniquely us.  As such, it is logical to conclude that our brains all interpret scenes, beauty, differently.  If you’re reading this, you probably agree that art is subjective, but rather than simply accepting it, I find great joy in knowing we all see the world differently.  There are so many ways of seeing; that’s a fact worth celebrating.


Photo of the Month–July

Friday, July 1st, 2011

Wait?  What?  2011 is half over?  When did that happen?

Indeed, its true.  It feels like just yesterday, we were celebrating the arrival of a new year, now, many of us are baking in summer heat, enjoying the cool climate of the high country.  Time does fly, but its been an incredibly productive year so far, not only photographically, but professionally; in addition, my year has been incredibly enlightening on a personal level too.

I’ve been taking the time over the last few days to review some of my images from the year so far.  There’s no real purpose for this, nostalgia I suppose.  However, in selecting my July image of the month, I decided to re-introduce an image that’s already been featured on my blog.  I know it won’t appeal to everyone, but I keep coming back to it as one that’s very special.  Its definitely one of my personal favorites.

The Paria River Narrows, Utah

Subtle Beauty, March 2011

As I said previously, the Paria is one of those rivers that isn’t for everyone, and its surely not as sought after as the Green, Colorado or Dirty Devil, but its gorgeous, and I think the simple beauty of it is what moves me so much.  Like so many of you, I feel safe and comforted when I’m in a canyon, and the way the walls of the Paria sweep overhead, sheltering the hiker, only adds to the effect.  Katie Lee describes a friend’s reaction to Navajo Sandstone (1):

I have licked sandstone so many times, just gotten on hands and knees and passed my lips right over the surface, either the smooth on narrow canyon walls, or the sandy-rough up on top.  And Navajo Sandstone…that rock has gotten inside of me…whales and thighs and water and moons.  MY GOD, ITS SHAPES!!!  SHOULD WE EVEN BE ALLOWED TO SEE SUCH THINGS?  I started using the word sensual all over the place.

Without getting too risqué (this is a family-friendly blog after all), I’ll agree with the author of that passage.  The redrock wilderness of the southwest moves people in special ways, and I think that’s why this image moves me so.  I hope you enjoy it too!

(1) In her essay, Sandstone Seduction.

Photo of the Month–June

Wednesday, June 1st, 2011

In a previous blog post about the San Bernardino Mountains, a local range here in southern California, the comment section filled up with people who believe in finding the beauty in your own backyard, so to speak.  For this month’s image, I chose another from this range, because it represents the happiness of finding something quite unexpected and very photogenic, right in your own backyard.

A few weeks ago, we were driving to the mountains to attend a party my wife’s boss was throwing.  Due to a couple of wrong turns on the way up there, I noticed more and more Pacific Dogwoods (Cornus nuttallii) that were in full bloom.  I’m well aware of the huge flux of photographers into Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Park for the spring Dogwood bloom, but I had no idea they bloomed so close to my home.

The next morning, a friend and I headed back to the mountains to spend some time with these lovely flowers.

Pacific Dogwoods near Crestline California, in the San Bernardino Mountains

In Bloom, May 2011

Also, I wanted to mention that I’ve put up a gallery of some of my images from the San Bernardino Mountains (click the image, or here).  It really is a pleasing mountain range that continues to surprise me.

Photo of the Month–May

Sunday, May 1st, 2011

Its true what they say: sometimes the unexpected surprises are the best.  Although I live a few miles from the Santa Ana Mountains, I haven’t explored them nearly enough.  The Santa Anas are one of the peninsular mountain ranges in southern California, and while they are a coastal range, they are far enough inland to get quite dry and hot during the summer months.

One of the things I love about this range is all of the waterfalls and cascades.  Not nearly on par with anything you might find in Yosemite, these little rivulets are quite charming, and each is a little bit different.  Last year, I spent some time with San Juan Falls, one of the easier falls to access.  This past week, Marc Perkins and I headed back to the Santa Anas to look for another waterfall.

Upper Hot Springs is another small stream, and the falls cascade about 30 feet over some very colorful rocks.  Last year, I attempted to hike to this area, but was turned around because of dense poison oak.  Last week, the trail was much more easy to find, and we found the falls with no problems.  In contrast to the oak and sycamore environment of the stream bed, the area around the falls was covered in succulent plants (whose name I do not know).

The falls on Upper Hot Springs Creek, Santa Ana Mountains, California

Upper Hot Springs

As far as I could tell, the falls don’t live up to their name in that the water wasn’t especially hot.  Oh well.  It wasn’t the best day for a soak in hot springs anyway!

I hope you enjoy the image; you can see the rest of my images from the Santa Ana Mountains here.


Photo of the Month–April

Friday, April 1st, 2011

Sometimes choosing an image of the month is really easy, but this month its rather difficult.  I just returned from a fantastic trip to southern Utah and Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada.  Of course I wanted to capture some new images, but it was a time to clear my head, shake some of winter’s cobwebs out of my skull, stretch, and welcome spring on the Colorado Plateau.

The added bonus of revisiting some favorite locations in Utah was discovering someplace new and wonderful.  Among landscape photographers, Valley of Fire State Park, near Las Vegas, has been getting a lot of buzz lately, and for good reason.  To say this place is amazing is an understatement.  If you love colorful vistas, sandstone, and interesting geology, you need to pack your bags and go now.  It really is that spectacular.  And, there are a lot of unexplored areas waiting to be discovered.

I don’t have a Valley of Fire page set up yet, but I’ll be sharing some new images over the next few days, and will tell you when you can view the gallery.  Until then, I hope you enjoy this lovely sunset.

Dramatic sunset at Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Candy Land Sunset, March 2011

Photo of the Month–March

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

Despite some of you feeling like you’ve been stuck in a perpetual winter, and others wondering why winter never really seemed to arrive this year, spring is definitely on its way.  Here in southern California–earlier than other parts of the country–spring wildflowers are already beginning, and will be continuing for at least the next month.  However, as I’ve learned, those wildflowers are more complicated than one may think.

Rain is the most important, and most obvious, ingredient to making wildflowers.  However, the pattern in which that rain comes is very important.  For instance, last year, we had a lot of rain during late fall in southern California, but a very dry December and January didn’t leave us any flowers.  It seems that the good years have a significant fall/early winter rain, and a “primer” in the spring.  This year, that’s been the pattern, and there is hope of a great wildflower year.

This month’s image was made just a few days ago in Phoenix, on the tail end of a strong Pacific storm that swept through the area.  I love the way the light played on the distant clouds.  So, with the hope of a beautiful spring wildflower season, I hope you enjoy this month’s image.

Sunset at phoenix mountain preserve near phoenix arizona

Sonoran Sunset II, February 2011

If you are interested in learning more about where to find the bloom in your area of the southwest, there are several great resources available:

  • Desert USA has a hotsheet that’s updated regularly: click here.
  • Ron Niebrugge spends a few weeks each spring in the southwest; he posts occasional wildflower updates on his blog.
  • The Theodore Payne Foundation publishes a weekly wildflower hotline (mostly for areas in southern Arizona).

Living in southern California, I’ll be watching Anza Borrego Desert State Park, and Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks pretty closely over the next few weeks.  However, its noteworthy that Saharan Wild Mustard, an exotic invasive species, is taking over much of what used to be the finest wildflower habitat in the area.  I suspect many of the last strongholds will be taken over by this plant in the next few years.