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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

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.

(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.


Monday, April 16th, 2012

I recently returned from my first trip to the Colorado Plateau this year.  After an extremely busy few months, I welcomed the chance to slow down and relax, as well as to revel in the warmth of the spring sun on the red rock.  I went alone.

While I wanted to explore a few areas that I had not been to before, I also wanted to take some time for introspection; growing up as an only child, I have grown to value silence.  After setting up my tent, I took a walk through a piñon-juniper forest that burned several years ago.  As the red ochre-colored hills receded toward the distant cliffs, the lifeless skeletons of these trees stood before me, each one seeming to take on a different, animated, pose.  I sat for a while, admiring the stark and barren, but pleasant scene.  In the West especially, fire is part of our ecology.

A burned pinion-juniper forest in the Kolob Terrace area of Zion National Park, Utah

The burn, March 2012

I often notice that when walking alone, I find myself whispering.  Why not talk to myself at a normal volume, or like some people, take the opportunity to scream out, knowing my confessions will be my own only?  I have never been a screamer, in fact when I have something important to say, you will find me saying it quietly to myself.  I am not sure whether this is a good trait or not, but part of me hates to muddy the already sweet sound of the wild.  On this particular trip, western bluebirds had already moved into the area (a sure sign of spring) and their song is surely better than anything I could say.

Silence.  When I whisper no one answers back.  At the same time, it can be comforting and empty, exciting and lonely.

“I fear silence because it leads me to myself, a self I may not wish to confront. It asks that I listen. And in listening, I am taken to an unknown place. Silence leaves me alone in a place of feeling. It is not necessarily a place of comfort.”

–Terry Tempest Williams

After dinner and a night’s sleep under a blanket of stars, I explore more canyons.  Part of the fun of a trip like this is not having any expectations, taking the time to poke your head into slot canyons, pretending you might find something no one else has ever seen before.  The lack of both a defined plan and a guidebook are two of the best ways to drive creativity in photography, to let your voice be heard.  In silence, I revel at the sky, the clouds moving over the top of me, dappled light falling on sandstone monoliths.

Shadow play.

A sandstone cliff in the Kolob Terrace area of Zion National Park, Utah

Monolithic, March 2012

I spend the afternoon–the next few afternoons–wandering up small canyons alone, admiring the potholes which are full of water from recent rains, watching tadpoles begin to make their transition from aquatic to terrestrial, and confronting the silence head-on.  There is a lot to see in this small corner of southern Utah–I know I will be be back, soon hopefully, for there is a lot left unseen, both in the landscape and in myself.

One of the things that amazes me about silence is that it so boldly opens our souls; this is at odds with the way we close ourselves off in the hustle of our everyday lives.  I am not sure how to reconcile this.  However, I know until I can return to the Colorado Plateau my daydreams will drift to clouds floating in a sky above red sandstone cliffs, of the cool air inside a tight slot canyon, and the way the morning smells when I am waist-deep in sagebrush.


Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

I realize that many of my recent posts have been about life and introspection, and you may be saying, “Hey what happened to the photography?”  Well, I have realized over the last few months that it is impossible to make honest images without first taking a good look at myself.  As a result, my posts have been more philosophical.  Its definitely not a bad thing, as I learn a lot of great things about myself every day.  I hope they come through in my images.

Lying at the crossroads of three major ecosystems, I have always thought Zion National Park is a bit of a confused place.  The Great Basin, Colorado Plateau, and Mojave Desert collide pretty much at the entrance to Zion Canyon, making for a unique landscape of red rock, datura, and ponderosa pines, one that draws thousands of tourists a year.

Lately I have been thinking about decisions, crossroads, and the paths we take in life.  A friend of mine has told me several times that each sunset gives us an opportunity to reflect on our decisions, and each sunrise is a chance to either change them, or stay the course.  The more I think about it, that’s a good way to look at life.  A few months ago, David Leland Hyde guest-blogged for me and wrote about the decisions we make as photographers.  Are we to make our own tripod tracks, letting the world hear our unique voice, or are we to make the derivative iconic images that have been made before?  Is that truly original?

I think there’s more buried in David’s post than there initially appears to be.  What I am realizing more every day is that my decisions as a person shape who I am as a photographer–these two things are not mutually exclusive.  My images are my voice; through them you see the world as I do.  To some extent, you see sadness, elation, and melancholy in my portfolio.  I can feel the days that creativity is flowing inside of me; its like a warmth deep in my bones.  Terry Tempest Williams wrote, “To discount wild beauty is to discount inspiration.  Without inspiration, creativity dies.”  This must surely mean that with inspiration, creativity can thrive–we can choose to accept beauty, and thus to be creative.  Our choices affect us deeply and they shine through in our body of work.

The junction where we find Zion Canyon is arguably one of the more beautiful places in North America.  There is a lot of solace here, knowing that each decision we make has the potential to be very positive, both for our general character, and for our art.  What we do with that knowledge is up to us.

Half-bare Fremont Cottonwood trees in Zion National Park, Utah

At the crossroads, November 2011


Intimate Zion

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

I remember my first visit to Zion National Park as a teenager, on spring break, with my parents.  It was one of the only trips we took as a family that was a vacation for vacation’s sake.  All other car trips to that point had been to visit family in Wyoming or Nebraska.  I have to admit it felt odd to be on a vacation with my parents!  But, the massive sandstone cliffs and buttresses left me nothing less than floored, making me quickly forget about the awkwardness of “being seen” with my parents.

Since then, I’ve returned to Zion several times; I’ve hiked the entire length of the Narrows, the classic Virgin River hike, and I’ve been through many of the technical slot canyons in the park.  I feel privileged to have seen parts of the park that <1% of its visitors get to experience.  Most recently, I’ve returned to Zion with my own family, sharing its serenity and sanctuary with them.

Like all heavily photographed areas, Zion has its own repertoire of icons: the Towers of the Virgin, the Narrows, Court of the Patriarchs, the Subway.  Moving past these locations, though, I have consistently found it very difficult to make a compelling image in the midst of the breathtaking beauty.  I should qualify that statement: I find it difficult to make an image that makes me stop and say, “Wow, that’s awesome!”

On our most recent trip to the park, I focused on the intimate details.  Autumn is in its final throes in Zion Canyon right now, with most of the cottonwoods and maples half-naked, ready for their hibernation.  Three weeks ago, this place was crawling with photographers, I’m sure, now these trees have been all but forgotten about.  Still, I find a certain beauty in these vestiges of fall.

Fremont cottonwoods in autumn foliage, Zion National Park, Utah

Autumn's final vestiges, November 2011

Big leaf maple, Zion National Park, Utah

Hanging on, November 2011

Early morning is my favorite time to be in Zion Canyon; deer are peacefully grazing, turkey are out, and the chill is still in the air because the sun hasn’t penetrated the depths of the canyon yet.  There’s often a breeze blowing, almost as if the canyon is starting fresh every day.  As the cliffs begin to greet the sun, the light reflects on to the river, giving it a wonderful tonality.

Virgin River cascade

Cascade, November 2011

I welcomed Zion into my heart and mind years ago.  The fight I have with the place is that I haven’t–until recently–let it drive my creativity.  I’ve been trying to force the park to reveal itself to me in ways it isn’t ready to do.  Letting go of the notions I held on to let me see in a different way, making images I never expected to make, but am happy with.   I will continue making my yearly pilgrimages to the park; I look forward to seeing how the canyon reveals itself to me next time…and I’m grateful my son is years away from that stage of not wanting to be seen with me.  🙂

Happy Thanksgiving

Thursday, November 24th, 2011

In the U.S., we’ve taken the day to give thanks for all the things in our lives–material and non-material things that bring us comfort and happiness.  If you’ve turned on the radio, opened the newspaper, or watched TV at all, you are well aware that there’s no shortage of opportunities to obtain happiness from material goods (rock bottom deals, starting at 10pm tonight!!!).  However, I sit here tonight thinking that the old cliché holds true–the best things in life are indeed free.

I spent the afternoon walking with my family in Zion Canyon, fallen cottonwood leaves littering the ground, the smells of autumn in the air.  As the sun went down, wild turkey, deer, and a grey fox graced us with their presence.  It gave me an opportunity to reflect on the things I’m thankful for; a few things are:

  • My capacity to feel love, and the people in my life who bring that out in me.
  • The fact that we have wild places to escape to.
  • My son, who’s curiosity, enthusiasm, and perception of the world always remind me to keep an open mind.
  • Good beer.  🙂
  • The ability we have to visit places (wild or not) that inspire us.

I won’t bore you with a long list, but those are a few of the things that come to mind at this instant.  If you’re celebrating Thanksgiving today, I hope you’ve had a wonderful day connecting with friends and family…what are you thankful for today?

A cottonwood in fall colors along the Virgin River, Zion National Park, Utah

Happy Thanksgiving!

Desert Sentinels

Friday, November 11th, 2011

In the deserts and canyons of the southwest, water can be tough to come by; as a result, charismatic megafauna that rely on that water are often elusive and secretive.  The desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) is a widespread, but uncommon resident of the southwest.

They truly are sentinels of the desert; on any given afternoon in Joshua Tree National Park,  you might see one surveying the landscape from atop a granite boulder.  In southwest Utah, they return to the canyons from the high country when the temperature starts to fall.  In the desert communities around Palm Springs, they illustrate the interaction between man and nature very well; bighorns have taken to eating ornamental cactus and other plants, so large fences have been erected to keep them out (which is ironic, because some people would pay to see a sheep!).

Desert Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) in Joshua Tree
Desert Sentinel
Desert Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni), Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

The interaction between humans and bighorns isn’t a recent thing, though.  In fact, humans have been interacting with them since the southwest was first settled, probably thousands of years ago.  If you take any interest in rock art at all, you’ll quickly find that bighorns were a ubiquitous subject of prehistoric artists.  Indeed, I wonder if the Ancestral Puebloan and Fremont peoples who lived with these animals found them just as captivating as we do today.

Fremont River petroglyphs, capitol reef national park, utah
Badly weather damaged petroglyphs depicting desert bighorn sheep
Wolfe Ranch Petroglyphs, Arches National Park, Utah

In some ways, the desert bighorn sheep embodies the spirit of the west: it is largely solitary, is resilient, and has shown a great ability to adapt to the desert environment.  Its a true steward of the ecosystems it thrives in.  The Desert Bighorn Council is a great resource to learn more about the biology and conservation of desert bighorn sheep (they list links to many local organizations as well).

But I’m Not Dead Yet

Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

Over the last few weeks, family trips, a busy work schedule, and various home improvements have kept me extremely busy.  Of course this would drive any photographer/blogger crazy because I really enjoy writing, and I do have some new images to share.  I’ll be posting more in the latter half of July, but in the meantime I do want to put up some links to new images.

A few weeks ago, I shared an image from a small drainage near the northern border of Kolob Canyon, in Zion National Park.  Kanarra Creek, near the small community of Kanarraville, is such a great place, and despite its small size, it rivals the more popular Virgin Narrows in beauty.  In addition, south of Zion Canyon is a virtually untracked wilderness–the Smithsonian Butte National Scenic Backway.  Both of these locations, although “known” seem to be virtually “unknown.”  However, to celebrate the entire area, and perhaps to emphasize that there is indeed more to photograph that just Zion itself.  You can see my images of the Greater Zion Region here.

The Smithsonian Butte, south of Zion Canyon

Smithsonian Butte, June 2011

Over the Fourth of July, we made a trip out to the Four Corners Region to visit my parents in northwestern New Mexico.  While there, I got to re-visit the Bisti Badlands Wilderness, south of Farmington, New Mexico.  Although I grew up less than an hour’s drive from this amazing moonscape, I have to admit that I never fully appreciated it as a 17 year old (in fact, if I remember correctly, it was downright torture every time I was “forced” on a hike by my dad!).  What a difference several years makes!  I was sad to get only one morning in the Bisti, but you can view the images here.  Finally, in addition to visiting the Bisti, I was able to visit several other archaeological sites in the San Juan Basin; most of these sites were occupied by early Navajo inhabitants in the early-mid 1700s.  While this gallery will grow with time, you can see a couple of images here.

A Navajo pictograph from the San Juan Basin of northern New Mexico

Warrior Pose, July 2011

I hope you enjoy the images, and don’t give up on me…I’m not dead yet!  More to come soon!

New Mexico Images (Bisti Badlands & the San Juan Basin)

Greater Zion Region Images