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2015 year in review

Thursday, December 24th, 2015

It’s that time of year again when you start to see ‘best of’ lists popping up all over the internet.  I can’t lie–I enjoy them just as much as the next person.  It’s always fun to look back on the year, to think about where you’ve been, where you’re going, and to think about what lies ahead in the coming year.  In choosing my most memorable images of the year, it became all about reflection.

Photographically, the most notable thing about 2015 was travel to new and exciting places.  Iceland, Canada, and Basin & Range country in Nevada were some of the new places I got to see in 2015, and I also “rediscovered” some of the mountain ranges here in southern California, seeing them with new eyes.  Solo exploration allowed time for quiet contemplation, and of course the best adventures often are shared with people close to you–these are the ones I’ll never forget.  In the span of week in August, I was in central Nevada soaking in hot springs and watching wild horses at 11,000′, then hiking through the pouring rain in Alberta.  It was a very special year indeed.

Below are some of my favorite and most memorable images from this past year.  As always, I want to thank Jim Goldstein for putting together a very comprehensive index of best-of lists from photographers around the world.  Make sure to check it out on his blog; the list should be available in early 2016.

You can also see some of my favorite images from years past as well: 20142013 | 2012 | 2011

Stormy mountain scene near Vik

Icelandic mountain scene – January

Seljalandsfoss Waterfall

Seljalandsfoss, Iceland – January


Pinto Basin, Joshua Tree National Park, California – February

san juan river from goosenecks state park, utah

San Juan River, Utah – July

south twin river toiyabe mountains

Toiyabe Mountains, Nevada – August

playa in monitor valley nevada

Edge of the Playa, Nevada – August

avalanche creek, glacier national park

Glacier National Park, Montana – August

Saskatchewan River Banff National Park

Banff National Park, Canada – August

stormy sunset inyo mountains california

Inyo Mountains, California – November

san gabriel mountains moonset near wrightwood

San Gabriel Mountains, California – November

desert view sunrise, grand canyon national park

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona – December

lipan point sunrise, grand canyon national park, arizona

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona – December

Joining Seasons

Monday, October 7th, 2013

“People do not merely select roles suited to their native talents and personalities.  They also gravitate to environments that reward their hereditary inclinations.” — Edward O. Wilson, Consilience

After a long, painful, and torrential monsoon season soaked the Southwest, the Mojave Desert is greener than I’ve ever seen it.  The creosote almost glows in the midday sun as I drive up the long grade that separates the Colorado Plateau from the low desert.  For a fall day, it’s still warm: nearly 80 degrees.  Finally after many months of other obligations, I’m able to come back for a visit.  Living in southern California, I go saying I miss autumn, but really I just miss the place.

The Colorado Plateau is characterized in part by its vast expanses of Navajo Sandstone; although other formations infiltrate here and there, the Navajo is predominant, and it has many voices.  In harsh summer light, it can appear white as snow.  It glows blue in moonlight.  During twilight hours it turns a creamy pink.   It can be completely red or streaked with ‘desert varnish’; the redness is a continuum that depends on the amount of iron present, and the oxidation state of that iron.

Iron = strength.

I trust iron, and I come here when I need to be reminded of strength.  For some reason I have never been able to warm up to the sea like I have the high deserts and mountains of the southwest, and I don’t look to it for solace.

A sense of place does not arise solely from a space, nor is it necessarily a direct function of time spent there.  Memories and experiences transform a space into a place.   I arrive on the Southwest edge of the Plateau, the first sandstone cliffs greeting me, and memories come flooding back to me.  I can look across a distant vista and remember individual trees, places where I have found bighorn sheep skulls, and the place I found so many Calochortus lilies that I wished I had brought my camera.  I even remember friends who have never been here with me except in spirit.

Markagunt Plateau Aspens

Autumn is a special time to be here.  The busy-ness of summer is leaving, families of tourists are back to their routines at home, and there is a heightened sense of peace.  In the high country, elk bugles make for a perfect alarm clock, and the breeze carries notes of winter, even on an Indian Summer afternoon.   In Navajo, October is called Ghąąji’, which means “the joining of the seasons.”  For them, it is a time to cultivate the richness of the season–summer’s crops–while getting ready for the ceremonies of winter as well as the hardships that lie ahead.

Photographically, I have always struggled when I visit a location for the first time.   I find myself feeling hurried and stressed out, and as a result I cannot find a composition that feels right, cannot read the light, etc.  I just feel out of place.  Granted, sometimes magic happens, but most of the time it doesn’t.  When I visit a place I know well, the opposite is true and I am relaxed, allowed to focus on the details of the place.  I find myself taking fewer images and there are times I may not even take my camera out of the bag.  I don’t think I’m harboring an elitist agenda by only waiting for the “best” light, but I am simply content just to be.

Our world is wonderfully complex and so many things are interwoven.  All too often, we search for truths that are equally complex and intricate.  However, sitting on sun-warmed sandstone in autumn experiencing my own joining of seasons, I am reminded that some truths are simple.

Lava Point Sunrise 2


Lava Point Sunrise

A Canyon Offering

Friday, June 21st, 2013

Once I got to the ground, I laid down on the cold Navajo Sandstone, preparing to belay  my friends who would be joining me by rappelling over 300 feet into this remote canyon nestled deep inside the Colorado Plateau.  A few minutes ago, on the canyon’s rim, the morning sun warmed me, but now as I lay on the cold rock inside of this deeply shaded crevasse, I become chilled quickly.  Laying on here, I quickly realize that sandstone makes a crummy pillow, and it is my body that is forced to conform to the curves in the rock, not the other way around.  Still, although I have never been to this particular place before, I feel comforted and relaxed by my surroundings and I wonder to myself, “How much is it possible to love a place?”

My friends have joined me now, and the rope has been retrieved.  In a sense, we are now cut off from the world.  For the next several hours, we will work our way through the obstacles in our path.  Of course we will laugh (a lot) and enjoy each others’ company, but for me it is also a time of quiet contemplation, walking alone for brief periods as I soak up my time here.

Canyon Abstract 1

Inside of a canyon, we must embrace the notion that we are very small beings in a very large world.  It is one thing to be awed by a large ponderosa pine that has become lodged twenty feet up between a canyon’s walls.  It’s entirely another to return the next year only to find that the tree is gone, vanished.  Trying to understand the force that a flash flood exerts as it moves through a place like this is utterly impossible.  To escape from these forces inside of a canyon would be equally impossible: we would be crushed and our bodies washed away like the ponderosa pine.  Yet the rock endures, over time becoming more sensuously curved and beautiful in spite of (and because of) the nature of the destructive forces that shape it.

Canyon Abstract 2

We spend much of our time in everyday life searching for the bigger picture.  As I walk through the canyon, I can see pine trees hundreds of feet above me, and  I know that the world is going on “up there,” but I am not a participant in it today, however I have fallen into rhythm with the canyon, engaged in life down here.  There is something strangely liberating about surrendering to a world that rapidly–and voluntarily–becomes small and very focused.  As a reward for relinquishing my place in the world today, I am treated to some of the most sublime light imaginable.  Before my eyes, the canyon’s walls shift between shades of red, orange, purple, magenta, and blue that seem to exist only in dreams.  I can feel the peace deep inside of my soul.

Visitors to pretty much any national park in the American southwest will get a taste of canyons, whether they look in from the top of the Grand Canyon, or upward at the towering sandstone cliffs in Zion.  Of the millions of visitors to these and other parks each year, very few will experience a canyon close-up, and still fewer will get to experience the silence that true solitude can offer in between these extraordinary sandstone walls.

I am, I’m unashamed to say, in love with this place.

Canyon Abstract 3

The nature of loss

Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

I’ve often (somewhat seriously) joked that the only reason I’d want to be the President of the United States is because of the Antiquities Act.  This law enables the President–with the swipe of a pen–to protect our nation’s “antiquities” by declaring a national monument.  Theodore Roosevelt, who signed the bill into law, used the Antiquities Act to create Devils Postpile National Monument, as well as Grand Canyon National Monument, which would later become a national park.  Most boys want to be an astronaut when they grow up; I wanted to create national monuments.

Today is the 105th birthday of Utah’s first national monument: Natural Bridges.  The monument protects three large natural bridges, including the world’s second largest, all of which are carved out of beautiful, white, Cedar Mesa Sandstone.  Two relatively untamed canyons come together in Natural Bridges, and between the large arcs of stone, Ancestral Puebloan ruins are also protected, standing sentinel over these canyons as they have for hundreds of years.  Natural Bridges is out of the way and remote, located in one of the darkest nighttime areas of the United States, earning it the title of the world’s first International Dark Sky Park.

White Canyon, Natural Bridges National Monument

Perhaps it’s an ironic coincidence, but on the birthday of Utah’s first national monument, a group of congressmen–one of whom is from Utah–will begin a hearing in an attempt to undermine the framework of the Antiquities Act.  If passed, this body of legislation would require an act of Congress to declare a national monument as well as remove restrictions on land use within national monuments.  In Nevada, the Antiquities Act would become null and void (as it is in Wyoming currently).  My fear is that in today’s hyperpartisan congress, these changes would make it virtually impossible to use this law as it was intended.

What strikes me even more deeply is the fact that I see the world changing.  We are developing land and extracting natural resources at a rate which is simply unsustainable.  As a nation, we are slowly but surely abandoning wild places, which is opposite of the notion on which we built our country.  Wallace Stegner wrote in his now-famous wilderness letter, “We need wilderness preserved–as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds–because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed.  The reminder and reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it.

Much has been written on the value inherent in preserving these places and I can’t begin to reiterate all of it here.  You can read about clear cuts, pipelines, and mining all day.  However, I can’t help but think there’s something deeper happening which we must examine.  The material impact of our society on wilderness is obvious, but what about the impact of wilderness on us?  Does it no longer move us?  Are we no longer in awe of what’s “out there?”  Are we simply missing the bigger picture?

What’s the connection to photography?  Honestly, I’m still working on this.  As landscape photographers, we have the ability to inspire people, to make them want to see places that they might not otherwise see.  We have the ability to become an impassioned voice.  It’s worth considering, and it beats the alternative.  The loss of nature will eventually force us to examine the nature of loss one way or another.

If these mountains die, where will our imaginations wander?  If the far mesas are leveled, what will sustain us in our quest to be larger than life?  If the high valley is made mundane by self-seekers and careless users, where will we find another landscape so eager to nourish our love?  And if the long-time people of this wonderful country are carelessly squandered by Progress, who will guide us to a better world?  — John Nichols

When I was a boy I didn’t want to be an astronaut; I wanted to be in the wilderness.  I still do.

Armstrong Canyon, Natural Bridges National Monument

Concerto in D minor

Monday, December 3rd, 2012

It’s chilly, gloomy, and rainy outside today; winter, it seems, has arrived in southern California.  Sitting here in my office, the heater is warming me up, and I am listening to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor.  The third and final movement ends on a happy and light note, but unlike some of Mozart’s other work, Concerto No. 20 is aggressive, in places even agitated and ominous; well-suited for the weather today.  As I listen, I think of our recent trip to the Escalante area of southern Utah.  How fitting I would be drawn to this particular piece today, as my imagination wanders back to the sandstone I love so much.

Just like a good friend, the redrock wilderness always welcomes me; my feet find purchase immediately, and it is as if we haven’t skipped a beat since being apart.  I am constantly amazed at the plant life that–like my feet–finds refuge in this habitat of stone.  These organisms eek out a living, nurtured by the harsh landscape, growing slowly but surely through the years.

A small yucca grows out of sandstone

Finding purchase, November 2012

Hiking up the Calf Creek drainage with my family, I think of a word that’s not often used in the desert: “lush.”  Harbored between the gaunt canyon walls is an ecosystem that supports thriving plant and animal life.  It is easy to see why you can look high up on the rock walls and see ancient Native American granaries, dwellings and rock art–they were drawn here for the same reasons as we are.  Sustenance.  Life.  Safety.  While I am not growing food or defending myself from marauders, all of these qualities are here for me.  They are undeniable.  As the morning progresses, cold night air moves out of the canyon, meeting the warm air that is radiating off of the sun-warmed rocks; the lingering scent of autumn hangs in the air, and it is difficult to imagine a place on earth where I would rather be.   Just like Mozart’s welcoming melodies, it is easy to feel that way here: embraced, peaceful, calm.

Foliage in Calf Creek

Autumn in the Desert, November 2012

Calf Creek Falls

A Desert Utopia, November 2012

In the same way that Concerto No. 20 turns turbulent, so can the desert.  Here in the Escalante, temperatures can drop below zero in the winter and can soar to well over 100 degrees in the summer.  While plants and animals find a way to survive, it is not without compromise; life here is harsh.  A summer’s worth of water can arrive in one storm, destroying everything in its path as it crashes through the tight corridors of a slot canyon.  I have never seen the desert her in all of her fury, and am not sure I would want to.  However, it is just that fury that has helped shape this landscape into what it is.

Under a wine-dark sky I walk through the light reflected and re-reflected from the walls and floor of the canyon, a radiant golden light that glows on rock and stream, sand and leaf in varied hues of amber, honey, whisky — the light that never was is here, now, in the storm-sculptured gorge of the Escalante.

–Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Navajo Sandstone

Gloaming, November 2012

I am now sitting here listening to the rain hit the window of my office; Mozart’s Concerto is over.  After 227 years his music lives on, and is still evocative; it will be until we as a species cannot hear–or feel–any longer.   So will the Escalante, which is not exactly a piano concerto, but is–without question–a work of art.

Happy Thanksgiving

Thursday, November 22nd, 2012

It hardly seems like a year ago I was writing a similar blog post from Zion National Park.  This Thanksgiving, I find myself in Escalante, Utah, a small township located in the heart of the Colorado Plateau.  The weather today was unusually warm for this time of year, and it made hiking extraordinarily pleasant, the perfect St. Martin’s Summer.  My family and I started the day in the northern Mojave Desert, and ended sitting quite alone on a sandstone outcropping admiring the sunset just outside of Escalante township.

Escalante has some of the darkest night skies in the United States; it is far from electricity, out of the grasp of large metropolises, and tonight I am only blinded by one of the darkest night skies you will ever see.  I am thankful places like this still exist.

For my friends in the United States who are celebrating Thanksgiving today, I hope you had a day with your family and friends, celebrating everything in your life that you are thankful for.  With some time in the car today, I was thinking about the things I am thankful for.  I am grateful for a family who is willing to travel with me.  Having stopped in four national parks or monuments today (Zion, Cedar Breaks, Bryce, and the Grand Staircase-Escalante), I am thankful that the citizens of our country have had the foresight to put land aside, for the well-being of our souls, if nothing else.  Sun-warmed Navajo sandstone is also on my list, as are sunsets that make me smile.

From the bottom of my heart, let me wish you a warm and happy Thanksgiving, whether you are officially celebrating or not.  There is much in life to be thankful for.

Navajo Sandstone aglow

Thanksgiving sunset, November 2012


Zion Canyoneering

Friday, June 29th, 2012

Can•yon•eer•ing /ˌkænjəˈnɪərɪŋ/


The sport of exploring canyons by climbing, rappelling, hiking, swimming, or wading.

It might seem like a silly way to spend a vacation, but I recently met some friends to go through several technical canyons in Zion National Park.  As the definition implies, there are all sorts of obstacles that you encounter in these canyons, from tight squeezes into slots, to extremely cold pools that you have no other choice than to swim through, and very large drops (sometimes several hundred feet) that you have to rappel from.

A technical canyoneer in Das Boot Canyon

A canyoneer moves through Das Boot Canyon

Of course, that’s part of the fun.  Problem solving, using your brain and working as a team to move past these obstacles.  There are times when I feel like I’m literally walking into the heart of the earth, the sky disappearing above me, as I move into some sort of subterranean wonderland.  The aspect of adventure is always there; canyons can change quickly, and often do with flash floods.  But also, there’s the aspect of having the privilege to see these wonderful places.  These are the parts of our national parks that very few visitors get to see–most don’t give much thought to their existence.

Reflected light in a southern Utah canyon

Even in darkness there is light

Das Boot Canyon, Zion National Park

A tight squeeze inside Das Boot Canyon

In three days, we went through four different canyons, each with a different story to tell.  First we went through Das Boot, which is the technical start to the much more popular Left Fork of North Creek (The Subway).  Even on a dry year, Das Boot is wet and cold–at the minimum wetsuits are a requirement, and swimming multiple (sometimes stinky) pools is unavoidable.  It is a stunningly beautiful canyon, though, with some of the most amazing reflected light I’ve ever seen.

Reflected light, Orderville Canyon, Utah

Into the heart of the earth, Orderville Canyon, Utah

The next day we went through Birch Hollow, which is a technical start to Orderville Canyon; Orderville ends in the Zion Narrows.  It’s a long day, but there’s a little bit of everything in there, ending with some classic Zion scenery.

A canyoneer rappels into Pine Creek, Zion National Park, Utah

Rappelling into Pine Creek

Finally, we went through Keyhole, which is a very short, but cold and wet canyon, and Pine Creek, right in the heart of Zion, and a true classic.  The last rappel in Pine Creek is a lot of fun, about 120′, and you’re hanging free of the rock face for most of it.  I was able to have my friend belay me while I made a few images on my way down.

A canyoneer's beat up and dirty hands

Hard on the hands

Being able to explore these canyons, to get up close with the earth, and see something very few get to experience is good for the soul (if perhaps a little hard on the hands).  That’s not a bad way to spend a vacation.

Floris van Breugel also recently has done some canyoneering in Zion; check it out here (fantastic images), and if you are interested in even more canyoneering, check out Dan Ransom’s work.  He goes into some pretty serious places, and comes home with some beautiful images.

Two new ‘Wind’ images

Monday, June 25th, 2012

In January, I introduced my wind portfolio, a black and white set focusing on shape and form, and celebrating landscapes that have been created (in part) by wind.  I am happy to add two new images to that portfolio.

View from Yavapai Point, Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon, May 2012

The Grand Canyon is a place that has been shaped by the powerful erosional forces of wind and water for millions of years.  Attracting millions of visitors a year, it is truly one of the seven wonders of the world, and has always captivated me.  At sunrise and sunset, the receding hill layers create depth not only in the landscape, but in the imagination, and it is difficult for me not to imagine John Wesley Powell exploring this canyon for the first time, being completely awed.

“The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resources of the graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail.”

–John Wesley Powell

The second image is an intimate landscape from Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.  If you have been in southern Utah in spring, you know the wind can blow, and you have have even felt sandblasted a time or two.  How do you think the sandstone walls feel?  The walls of this alcove have been shaped by grains of sand being blown against it for hundreds, probably even thousands or tens of thousands of years.  Beautiful cross-bedding patterns have been exposed, creating some very powerful lines.

A sandstone alcove

Sandstone Alcove, June 2012

My Wind Portfolio is special in that 25% of the sales of these prints is donated directly to the Wilderness Society and I offer special pricing when you purchase more than one image from the portfolio.  Please click here to view the entire collection.

(Digital) Darkroom Confessions, part II

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

In my last blog post, I talked about my opinion regarding “rules” in photography.  In short, I believe it is okay to manipulate exposure or crop (for example) in order to take an image from visualization to the final product.  In this post, I would like to revisit the image I introduced last time and dissect it a bit.

Navajo Sandstone Cliffs

Sandstone & Clouds, March 2012

In the field

I am not normally a “grand landscape” sort of photographer; I tend to focus more on intimate scenes.  However, when I saw these cliffs, what initially struck me was the fact that the buttresses were receding away from me.  Although the mid-morning light had eliminated some of the shadows, I liked that each buttress was casting a bit of a shadow on the buttress behind it.  This alternation of light and dark creates a wonderful sense of depth in images, and was a compositional element I wanted to take advantage of here.

Another confession: guys like me do not normally score skies like this.  Cloudless blue skies are the story of my life.  However, on this particular day, I was loving these high clouds; they were constantly changing and they added a great geometric element to the scene.

For me, the decision of how to balance the composition was pretty easy, and despite the fact I like to think of myself as a rebel, I roughly divided the composition into thirds. I wanted the sky to be the star of the show, so I gave it 2/3 of the frame, and I let the cliffs occupy the remainder.  I like sagebrush, and wanted to leave some foreground in as well; this also gives a good visual “root” for the cliffs to sit on.

To expose the frame, I had a couple of choices.  To underexpose would have meant preserving the shadows that attracted me to the scene.  But, it would also introduce shadows to the foreground, which I did not really want to do.  The alternative I had was to overexpose to the point where the shadows were not as dark while maintaining detail in the rest of the frame.  You have probably heard the phrase, “expose to the right;” that is what I chose to do here.  Phil Colla has a concise and clear explanation of the technique here.

You can always darken a scene in post-processing, but to lighten it up risks introducing noise.

To get the exposure I wanted for the lower part of the image, I had trouble preserving detail in the bright white clouds, so I made two exposures, 1 stop apart from each other.

At home

I opened the RAW files together, and in Adobe Camera RAW I adjusted the images based on the vision I had in the field.  After opening the images in Photoshop, I continued this process.  First I blended the images using a technique I learned several years ago from Younes Bounhar.  You can read about it here.   After checking carefully to make sure the images had aligned properly and there were no artifacts, I made my initial adjustments largely using Nik’s software plug-ins.  The two I used here were the ‘Tonal Contrast’ filter (in Color Efex Pro), and then I used Silver Efex Pro to get the black and white conversion I wanted.

I do not have a lot to offer in terms of strategic choice on this (I did what looked best to my eye), but I only made subtle adjustments and I made careful choices based on my vision.  In choosing the black and white filter, I made sure to keep  the detail in the clouds, but also to make them stand out.  I also kept an eye on the tonal contrast between the sagebrush and the beginning of the cliffs.

I applied a global curves layer, and then used separate levels to mask the cliffs, and selectively darken the shadows.  I saved the TIFF file (with all of the layers), and then flattened, sharpened, and saved a JPEG for the web.

The beauty of image processing is that there is definitely more than one way to skin the proverbial cat.  When you start with a creative vision, you learn ways to arrive at the final product in post-processing.  As you gain experience, you build skills that will eventually become a tool kit that you can selectively choose from when you process more challenging images.

(Digital) Darkroom Confessions, part I

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

When I look in the mirror, I see a man with secrets.

You see, I have broken the rules.

Not only do I consider Alister Benn a good friend, I also consider him a mentor; if I have learned anything from Alister, it is to take control of the image-making process, from visualization to capture to processing in the digital darkroom.  The more I work to embrace this philosophy, the more I realize it involves breaking the rules.  But it also requires a strong understanding of my own vision, as well as the technical capabilities of my equipment.

I have heard the argument several times that photographers should “get the composition right in the camera,” or “get the exposure right in one frame.”   To some extent, I completely agree with the opinion that one should not make a frame with the intent of cropping out an annoying foreground element, or bracket haphazardly, without much thought–these behaviors are often regarded as laziness or a display of lack of knowledge.  As an analogy, this is similar to a student choosing every possible answer on an exam because, “one of them has to be correct.”

However, the other side of the coin dictates that a strict adherence to these “rules” (and others) severely limits the artist’s creative process.  For instance, the image I visualize in the field may not fit perfectly into a 3:4 or 4:5 aspect ratio, and exposing multiple frames for stitching later may not always be practical.  Similarly, if one understands the technical limitations of their camera in exposing for a scene with a high dynamic range, it should be perfectly acceptable to bracket exposures.

In other words, when breaking the rules is in line with vision and an understanding of what the scene demands, it should be encouraged.  Be rebellious.

So, how does an image evolve?  When I was recently in Zion National Park, I was driving along the road and saw a scene that jumped out at me.  Sometimes scenes really present themselves to you.

Navajo Sandstone cliffs

Navajo Sandstone & Clouds, March 2012

It was mid-morning, and I loved the way the clouds contrasted against the cliffs, and the way the buttresses in the rock created layers.  I wanted to emphasize this in the final image, but was presented with a few choices as to how to do it.

In my next post, I will go through my thoughts in the field and a few of the processing steps that led me to the final product.