Introduction to Photography: Interview with Keith

A few weeks ago I met up with Keith, my buddy from high school who now lives in Phoenix, and we took a week-long photography trip that included the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, and Arches National Park. Last night, I did a short phone interview with Keith as I wanted his perspective of what the trip was like from someone with no photography experience. Note that the landscape photographs are his.

Keith & Tim at Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Keith & Tim at Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Tim: So how much, if any, experience with photography have you had before this trip.

Keith: That would be zero.

Tim: How about art in general? You did some wood-burning and woodworking, right?

Keith: Yeah, I did some wood-burning. That was self-taught. And I’ve been to a few painting classes. But that’s about the extent of it.

Tim: Knowing that this was going to be a photography trip, what were you expecting?

Keith: I was expecting to carry all of your stuff! Like I was going to be your bag-boy, you know?

Monument Valley

At Monument Valley, goofing off while waiting for a cloud to move.

Tim: How closely did your expectations match your experience?

Keith: Totally opposite.  It was like, free reign. I thought I was going to be in prison and I was actually set free, you know?

Tim: Any particular memorable or exciting moment?

Keith: The thunderstorms. That was fun, yes. And probably, the four-wheel road in Arches, that was pretty memorable. And breaking down on the side of the highway in the middle of the desert on our way home. Very memorable.

Lightning Over Valley of the Gods

Lightning Over Valley of the Gods

Tim: Not in a great way though.

Keith: No, not really.

Lightning Over Valley of the Gods

Lightning Over Valley of the Gods

Tim: Maybe someday we’ll look back and laugh about it.

Keith: Some day, some day.

Tim: Not yet?

Keith: Not yet.

Tim: So what was your favorite location on this trip?

Keith: I’m gonna have to say the Grand Canyon.  I’d never been there, it was quite amazing.

Keith working a composition at the Grand Canyon

Keith working a composition at the Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon in B&W

Grand Canyon at Sunrise, B&W

Tim: Several of the sunrises and sunsets had what I call “peak” color, that lasts less than a minute, sometimes only seconds. Did you have moments where you found yourself scrambling to get the shot?

Grand Canyon Sunset

Grand Canyon Sunset

Keith: Yeah, when we were at Monument Valley at sunset, and our last sunset at Arches National Park. That Arches sunset came quick. I didn’t even get a photo of the rainbow.

Tim: You actually did.

Keith: Yeah, it’s very small. You can barely see it. Ashley was like, “That’s not a rainbow!”. I was like, “See, it’s right there! It’s just small!”  She was like, “That’s not a rainbow.”

Rainbow Sunset At Arches

Tim: So how does this trip change you look at a landscape photograph?

Keith: Totally different. I never really thought of a landscape photograph other than, you know, like if you take a picture of the sunset you take a picture of the sun going down; but if you turn around, you actually see all the colors that the sunset actually makes.

Monument Valley At Sunset

Monument Valley At Sunset

Tim: Were you surprised at the different colors and types of light?

Keith: Oh yeah. Yeah. I was very intrigued. It actually got me motivated to get my own camera and start taking my own pictures.

Tim: So are you ready for our next trip?

Keith: Yes! Are leaving next week or??

Ashley: No!

Keith: Oh, Ashley says no.

Storm At Arches

Storm At Arches

Thoughts on Shooting Palouse

The Palouse region is named after the town of Palouse in southeast Washington. It is a corner of the world that I didn’t know existed until I ran across a few photographs of it. I’m so glad I did. It is beautiful, American-proud farmland. Rolling green hills, miles of vacant dirt roads, curious horses, old red barns, and wheat. The air is clean and the folks are friendly.

Shooting Palouse

One afternoon while waiting for sunset, we drove into the small town of Fairfield (population of 612) looking for a restroom. There were cars parked all over downtown along the street but no one was around. “Where the heck is everyone?” We turned down a side street adorned with red, white, and blue flags and saw that the building labeled “Community Center” was in full swing with a big BBQ pit outside brewing some delicious smelling grub. A small community that lives like a community, enjoying one another’s company, celebrating our independence and freedom; and I suspect that most, if not all of them know each other. Down-to-earth people. I love that about the Palouse region.

Sunset from Steptoe Butte

Sunset from Steptoe Butte

While the area is absolutely incredible to drive through and experience, photographing it is challenging. Most of the roads go through valleys so there are only a few places to get a good overlook unless you have access to private property. Steptoe Butte state park is the best location for this.

The area also requires a lot of exploration on dirt roads.  Actual dirt roads, not gravel or rock.  If it rains, forget about it. I suspect most four-wheel-drive vehicles would struggle. The plus side is that you’ll rarely come across another person out there. At least that’s a plus until you break down. There is virtually no cell service other than in the towns.

Abbie and I shooting sunrise at Steptoe Butte... at 4:50 am.

Abbie and I shooting sunrise at Steptoe Butte… at 4:50 am.

By far, the hardest part about this trip was the incredibly long days and short nights. It never “dawned” on me that we were going to be shooting at the summer solstice in the northern latitudes. Nor did I realize how much of a difference that can make. So sunrise was around 4:50am and sunset at 8:50pm. So we were going to bed around 11 and waking up at 4. This was really difficult as I treasure my eight hours. Usually we were napping back at the hotel by 9 when the sun was already high and bright in the sky. Thank you black-out curtains.

The rewards of getting up early to catch the golden hour, 2000 miles of driving, and having to stretch my compositional creativity a bit, the resulting photographs from this area are awesome and I can’t wait to release them in September at my home gallery show. I hope you can attend!

Sunset At Palouse

How important is having a good camera?

Gulls on Catwalk

Gulls on Catwalk

Many I talk to at shows think that I can create great photographs because I have a “really nice camera”. It’s true that I have professional equipment, but how important is that to making compelling photographs?  Answer: It’s not. What is important is training my brain to see great photographs. This comes from knowledge and experience. This photograph of gulls was taken with an inexpensive “bridge” camera, a Minolta Dimage z2, now available for a whopping $60 used on Amazon.

Abbie in Sunlight
Abbie in Sunlight

Here is another from that trip to Disneyworld (our honeymoon) with the same camera. Light, composition, story, mood, emotion, expression, moment – these are the things that make a great photograph. Not technical details. These photographs could have been taken with any point-and-shoot.

Chipmunks on a Trunk
Chipmunks on a Trunk

This photograph is one of my very first. I believe it was taken in 1997 with an inexpensive Minolta SLR that I got as a high school graduation gift from Wal-Mart. Light, story, moment, emotion, expression – these are the things that matter the most when creating a compelling photograph. And no, it’s not simple or easy. It’s very complicated and it requires vision and a lot of thinking and decision-making.  Sometimes split-second decision-making.  Sometimes patience.

So why do I have expensive equipment? A few reasons. Here is a list from least important to most.

1. Status Quo – I’m a professional and I desire to be taken seriously. That’s difficult to do when shooting with a pocket camera.

2. Dependability/Durability – I sometimes shoot in wet ,cold, and dirty environments and I need gear that will work and survive.

3. Image Quality – If I’m going to put so much time, effort, and money into creating my photographs, I want the image quality to be as good as I can afford. That comes from having high quality lenses.

4. Ease of Use – Counter to intuition, the more professional the camera, the easier it is to operate. Consumer-grade cameras usually have a lot of buttons and cater to those shooting in auto exposure mode. A professional camera is generally much easier and faster to use when shooting in Manual exposure mode because it’s designed for that purpose. The less I have to think about the operation of the camera functions, the more I can think about composition and creativity.

5. Print Size –  Any camera can print a great 5×7, but when I’m making prints that are 70″ long, I need as much detail as I can muster. That’s the biggest advantage of having a nice sensor.

So, let me assure you, upgrading equipment to the latest and greatest does not allow you to create great photographs. You’ll just be creating larger versions of what you are already doing.  You’re better off buying a used $17 book on composition from Amazon. Or better yet, let me do the hard work and you can just sit back and enjoy!

My Favorite Thing

People are often envious of the places that I travel to and the things that I get to see. It’s true that I visit awesome places and see some incredible things, but I must admit that my favorite part of being an artist photographer is coming home and processing my images. Dare I say it, I actually enjoy processing my photographs more than I enjoy the travelling involved and creating the exposures.

Horseshoe Bend before processing

Horseshoe Bend Panorama Before Processing

Horseshoe Bend after processing

Horseshoe Bend Panorama After Processing

White House, Canyon de Chelly - Before Processing

Before Processing

 

 

It’s like a kid coming home after Halloween and counting his loot. Getting dressed up and walking house to house is fun, but hard work. The hard work pays off when he gets home and dumps out all of the colorfully wrapped goodies in a big pile on the floor and begins to sort them into piles, counting, arranging, and re-arranging.

 

White House - After Processing

After Processing

 

 

Sure, there is excitement in exploring a new location or seeing something I’ve never seen before, or capturing an interesting juxtaposition or camera angle, but it isn’t until I put my finishing digital touches on the photographs that I feel my vision is complete. The creation is finished. The photograph has come to life. I am now able to show others what I first could only see myself.

Photographer or Artist?

Sometimes people will mention that a certain type of commercial photography is in demand, such as wedding, aerial, oil, or other commission work. I often get asked at shows if I do portrait work. I typically avoid these gigs and I’ve always thought it was because “people are hard to please” when it comes to photos of themselves. Well, I’ve recently done a few commission jobs and I actively sought out these jobs. I asked myself, “Why these jobs and not others?”

Specifically, within the past 90 days I’ve done two sessions involving airplanes and automobiles. How are these different than the commercial shooting gigs that I avoid?

Front Pano RV-7

As in the example above, I am not simply “taking pictures” of something.  Instead, I am using that “something”, in this case an RV-7 airplane in a hangar, as a canvas to create. The lights, the camera and lenses, the colored gels, the modifiers…. they are my brushes and paints.

Green Camaro

I don’t get pleasure out of “taking pictures” or collecting equipment as that is a very passive and completely technical activity and the camera most of the work. I don’t get pleasure from using software, or printing, or stretching canvas. Believe it or not, my pleasure doesn’t even come from travelling to these incredible locations and seeing them in the best light of the day. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy these places and things and am grateful to experience what many people do not. But that’s not what inspires me.

Whtie Bug

Instead, these places and things inspire me to create. Therein is my pleasure. First, the formation of a vision, and secondly, using all of these tools to see that vision come to completion in the form of a tangible photograph that people take a true pleasure in viewing, owning, and displaying in their own personal space. This is the beginning of every art piece that any artist creates. Inspiration and a vision of “what could be” or “what can I create with this?”. It’s different than simply capturing or replicating what is in front of me. It is about using what is in front of me as a starting point – a blank canvas.

RV-8 Silhouette

This is why I consider myself first and foremost an artist. If I were to sit down and paint a painting, I would approach it in the same way that I approach photography. I would envision something interesting or a beautiful place, and I imagine it in the best light, and then I paint. Being a photographer-artist is the same creative process.

Saying Good-bye

My Favorite PortraitOn Friday, when I came home from the Bayou City Arts Fest, I learned that our four-legged daughter had suddenly and unexpectedly passed away. Abbie and I were crushed. Lucy means so much to us and so much of our day-to-day revolved around her. She moved in shortly after we bought our house in 2007. She was there when I began learning photography. She was a great model and put up with a lot of flashing lights.

She was there when I made my first print. She was there when I made my first mat and my first canvas. She hated the sound of the staple gun but after a while she’d come upstairs to my studio and stand on her hind-feet to get a hug.  Or she’d interrupt my work with a short gruff bark to let me know she wanted to outside to sunbathe.

Me & LucyShe knew how to sit, down, speak, stay, leave-it, take-it, and roll over.  She never did well with fetch however.  But she loved keep-away. She liked to get into the pantry when we weren’t home. Once she took a potato bag with a single potato in it and hid it in our entertainment center behind the VCR. We found it a few weeks later.  No idea what she was thinking.

 

Lucy on Chair

 

 

I don’t think she’d admit it, but she liked it when we took her picture and made videos of her. A real diva.

 

 

Executive Lucy

 

Lucy in her executive chair. I’m pretty sure she knew she was the one in charge.

 

 

Bathtime

She loved bath-time. Sometimes we’d hold her over the water and no matter how shallow it was, she’d flip her paws like she was dog-paddling.

 

 

 

Lucy, you completed our family and brought life and cheer to our home. It’s just not the same without you.  It’s so quiet without you and it’s so sad to come home with no one to greet us at the door. We’re glad and blessed that you spent your life with us. We miss you so much.

Lucy

Lucy Herschbach, April 6, 2007 – March 27, 2015

 

Old Texas: Forts & Missions

A few weeks ago I completed a significant portion of my latest project “Old Texas: Forts & Missions”. While the project is ongoing and have yet to decide how I’m going to present these photographs, I want to give you a sneak preview of this project to see how it is coming along.

FortLeatonEmptyRoom#22

Fort Leaton, Presidio

Fort Leaton is really what inspired this project of photographing these old historic places. It’s an adobe fort just outside of Presidio, less than a mile from the Rio Grande and Big Bend State Park is just down the road. If you’re in the area, don’t miss this beautiful place.

CaleraIndoors#22

Calera Chapel, Balmorhea

Calera Chapel is exactly how you would imagine a small adobe Catholic church on the side of a dusty road. While it is a Texas Historic Landmark, it is a no frills location on a small highway near Balmorhea. Here the late afternoon sunlight is coming through the one side window of this quaint sanctuary.

Mission San Jose, San Antonio

Mission San Jose, San Antonio

Mission San Jose is impressive, both in size and architecture. It is both a fortress and a church… a compound designed to host a complete community, harboring them from those outside the wall that might do them harm. This large and airy room is the granary. I loved the soft light and the textures of the floors, ceilings, and walls.

Stay tuned for more information on “Old Texas: Forts & Missions”.

Climate Planning

I often say that the worst thing you can have in a landscape photograph is a cloudless sky. The more dramatic the clouds, the better the photograph in my opinion.

Great cumulus clouds over Colorado!

Great cumulus clouds over Colorado!

I’m planning a trip sometime this year to the Grand Canyon area. I have been there several times but have never photographed it properly. Step #1 for me is to find out what time of the year the weather is the most active. After a few quick minutes looking at various sites, I find that Arizona’s monsoon season is roughly July and August. It sounds like it would be hot during the middle of summer, but at the Grand Canyon’s altitude, the high’s are typically in the 80’s. Not bad!  Just don’t hike down into it where the temperatures climb into the 100’s.

How about other factors like foliage? Many times you’ll want to plan a trip around the most colorful time of the year – either when the leaves are changing or when the flowers are blooming. Unfortunately, this doesn’t coincide with the monsoon season. For the style of photography I like however, the dynamic light that a great thunderstorm can create is a higher priority to me than using wildflowers as a foreground. Having both would be great, but if I’m only there for a week, I need to maximize my potential for great light.

Therefore, I need to shoot for July/August. That’s great because that is the slowest time of the year for me; it’s just too hot in Texas for art shows!  So expect to see some more work from Arizona from me around late summer.

Texas: God & Men

*This is a follow-up from my previous post about my next photography project.*

I truly love monochrome (black & white) photographs. They take me to an alternate reality. I love working with them in the digital dark-room as the process seems natural to me.  Monochrome emphasizes light, texture, and detail, and invokes drama and mystery in a way that a photograph with color can really only hint at.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy color also; but color photographs tell a completely different story and have a different set of strengths.

White House - Canyon de Chelly, Arizona

White House – Canyon de Chelly, Arizona

I also love dramatic light that sometimes even seems tangible. I love how light bursts through a window and reflects off of the floor of a dark room to subtly lighten up the stone or adobe walls from below.  Everyday objects like a table or a chair glow like they were posing for a timeless portrait.

History.  Well, it’s important that we are aware of where we come from.  As a state, as a nation, as a society. Many have sacrificed much, and still do, for the rich lifestyles that even the poorest of us enjoy.

I want to use my photography to take these three concepts and meld them together.  I want to create beautifully lit, detailed, and monochromatic images of historical locations in Texas that played an important part in our past – particularly forts and missions.  Unfortunately, most of these forts and missions no longer exist… some wasting away to nothing, some destroyed, and others having been disassembled into raw materials to be used elsewhere.  But I’ve found a handful of them that still stand, although some only a skeleton of the past.  I will be visiting several of these over the next two months to create a collection of photographs that will represent a huge part of what made Texas the state that it is today. I’m not a native Texan so it’s exciting for me to go out and explore these places and learn how each played a part in our history.

In case you’re curious, here is a map that I put together of most of the locations that I will be visiting over the course of at least two week-long trips.  I won’t hit each location on this map, but most of them.  I will begin my first trip next week and expect to be finished around April.  The green markers are “High Priority” targets: San Antonio Missions NHP, Presidio La Bahia Fort, Fort Leaton, Fort Davis, Fort Phantom Hill, Fort Concho, and Fort Stockton. I also plan to visit the Battleship Texas, which is not on this map.

My Next Photography Project

I’m always thinking about what I’d like to photograph next.  As an artist who sells my work, it is important to create not just great individual photographs, but great collections of photographs. These collections may be of the same location, the same subject matter, similar color palettes, or even represent an ideology, but they must have something in common.  I do not simply shoot whatever catches my eye.

So when I photograph, I photograph with purpose and I plan my excursions so that when I come home, I have a group of photographs that are related in some way. Up to now, my projects have mostly been themed around landscapes of a certain location – a geographic profile, a visual description of a state or region.

I think for a near-future project, I’d like to push a little deeper and photograph a series that incorporates even more elements that are close to me. I haven’t yet decided on the exact details of this project, but I would like to explore the historical roots of Texas. Specifically, a handful of its historical religious and military buildings.

What spurred this interest was during my trip to west Texas last Spring. My buddy and I just happened upon Fort Leaton, which is on the outskirts of Presidio. This old military outpost was beautiful in its own way. Mud walls, old log frame-work, deep dark rooms where only a whisper of light could penetrate.  Some of the blacksmith’s tools still hung from hooks in the walls. The beautiful lines, textures, light and shadows made for endless dramatic compositions. I didn’t even set up my camera because we were on a tight schedule for the day, and I knew if I started shooting, I wouldn’t stop.  I knew this was a place that I would like to come back to and spend hours exploring through a rectangular view-finder to give it due justice.

To read more about Fort Leaton, visit the State Historic Site website.