“Glorious Light” for photographers

One of the most important things I did as a budding landscape photographic artist was to study the work of others, particularly that of the masters. I was able to view their work and ask important questions such as:

  1. Why is this photograph successful (or not)?
  2. What is the light doing? (direction, quality, color, consistency, etc)
  3. How important is the subject matter?
  4. How are the elements arranged in the frame?

As a photographer-in-training asks these sorts of artistic questions, they will find that strong photographs often have many things in common, and weak photographs also tend to have things in common. If said photographer applies the attributes of strong photographs to their own work, their photographs will almost immediately improve and they will have a much clearer understanding of what they need to work on.

If you enjoy my work as a photographic artist and you are an amateur photographer, I encourage you to study the sixty-four photographs in my book Glorious Light. Ask the questions above for each image. While Glorious Light is not an instructional book, you can learn a tremendous amount by studying the photographs and reading some of my first-hand accounts, just as I studied (and continue to study) other photographer artists’ work.

If this interests you or perhaps you have an up-and-coming photographer in your family, you can pre-order my book now for only $39 ($10 off) and you’ll receive a special signed and numbered copy, plus a complimentary 8×10 matted print of your choice.

Click here to read more.

95 pages, Hardcover, 12″ x 9.25, 64 photographs, plus behind-the-scenes photos

 

 

The Art Divide

Over the past few weeks I’ve been scouring the internet, compiling a list of galleries from each state that might be interested in my work. I’ve looked at close to one thousand gallery websites so far and have come to the conclusion that there are two basic types of artwork: understandable, and bizarre.

Of course, it’s ridiculous to narrow down all art, everywhere, to perfectly fit into one of those two categories, and there is certainly some overlap. But I think you can understand what I’m talking about when I use those two terms. Our boundaries between understandable and bizarre are certainly different, but overall do you understand what I mean?

"Parched": About as bizarre as I get.

“Parched”: About as bizarre as I get.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t like bizarre art. I’m sure there are some exceptions, but to me it flies in the face of skilled artists who have studied and practiced for years. I think the ideals (or lack of) that bizarre art proposes might even reflect the general direction of society as a whole, which is a depressing thought.

(Note that bizarre is not the same as “abstract”. I’ve seen plenty of abstract work that takes skill, study, and creativity.)

But rather than have a completely negative post about what I, as an artist, am against, I’d rather make the same statement by explaining why I produce the kind of work that I do.

1. My work is representational. It is a capture of a real time and place. This happened, I was there. I witnessed it. It is not fiction. Although it requires copious amounts of imagination and foresight, it is not made up.

"Lightning With Rainbow": A real moment that required vision, foresight, and experience.

“Lightning With Rainbow”: A real moment that required vision, foresight, and experience.

2. Although non-fiction, there is still plenty of room for me to imbue my personal taste and vision into the photograph by choosing subject, moment, perspective, and by making adjustments to contrast, hues, saturation, etc…  This makes me an artist as opposed to a reporter.

"Gateway To Manzanar": There were 11 other photographers with me. None of them captured this perspective of Mount Williamson.

“Gateway To Manzanar”: There were 11 other photographers with me. None of them captured this perspective of Mount Williamson.

3. It is understandable by, I dare say, everyone. Not everyone likes my work, but you understand what you are seeing. And I think you can understand that I’m attempting to communicate an emotion to you. I try to make the sum of my photographs greater than their individual parts.

I find bizarre art to be pretentious, like the boy’s clubhouse that won’t let you in if you don’t know the password. My art doesn’t make the viewer feel unsophisticated or out of the loop.

4. My photography has required a lot of time studying and learning, plus practice and experience. Just one or the other wouldn’t be enough. It takes effort and initiative. Someone can’t just wake up one day and randomly produce the kind of art that I produce.

"Moonrise At Bryce": A very technically challenging photograph.

“Moonrise At Bryce”: A very technically challenging photograph.

5. It’s not solely based on imagination. Imagination is critical, but imagination alone begets chaos.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

 

Introduction to Photography: Interview with Jeff

In March of 2014, my buddy Jeff and I took a week-long photography trip to west Texas. I recently asked him about some of his thoughts on trip, and how it’s changed his views of landscape photography as an art form.

Jeff and me hanging out at our home base in Study Butte - a single-wide with a courageous mouse that would come out at night.

Jeff and me hanging out at our home base in Study Butte – a single-wide with a courageous mouse that would come out at night. He kept us on our toes!

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

Jeff: Oh, back in middle school, my dad was really into photography and he used to take pictures for the newspaper, but he didn’t really teach me very much so I ended up getting a camera from my grandmother. I actually shot pictures for the middle school newspaper, but I didn’t really know what I was doing though.

Tim: Did you enjoy it?

Jeff: Yeah, it was enjoyable, you know. It was fun. Past that I really didn’t do much with it.

Jeff trying a different perspective next to the highway in Big Bend State Park.

Jeff trying a different perspective next to the highway in Big Bend State Park.

Tim: You still have the camera?

Jeff: I do still have it. It’s not digital so I don’t use it. It was my grandmothers. She was really into photography. She used to take pictures for her newspaper too, for the Weatherford Oklahoman. But uh, I didn’t really know a whole lot for the trip. I learned lessons from you the first drive out there, reading through the books.

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

Jeff: Really just to get out and see nature and be able to record that, and to learn a little bit about it. Maybe be able to put what I learned into action and take some decent pictures that would be fairly good quality that I could print out and put on my wall.

IMG_5616 copy

Tim: How closely did your expectations match your actual experience on the trip.

Jeff: I think you taught me a lot about a different way to look at things; about lighting and using the right settings. Not just the location but the timing. Being there at sunrise or sunset to get the right light, using clouds for more depth in the photograph, things like that. I thought I learned a lot on the trip. I thought I captured a lot of good quality shots.

Tim: So your happy with what you came home with?

Jeff: I like the ones I took. You might have seen something different when you looked at the same setting as me, and took it at a different angle, but I enjoyed what I got.

IMG_0010

Tim: Any particularly memorable or exciting moments from the trip?

J: I liked driving along the highway by the river in Big Bend State Park and stopping at different sites along the way. Walking down Closed Canyon was really awesome. Most people don’t see those things because they don’t want to stop.

T: What was your favorite location on the trip?

J: Santa Elena Canyon, I loved that area. I liked walking back into the canyon by myself. You didn’t come back there with me because you’d already done it before and it was nice to get back there and set up on my own and take my own shots. That area was pretty awesome.

Inside Santa Elena Canyon

Inside Santa Elena Canyon

T: Several of the sunrises and sunset had what I call “peak” color that lasted less than a minute, sometimes only a few seconds. Did you ever find yourself scrambling to get the shot?

Jeff: I think that the minute or two window that we had to take the picture and then set up for another one, I think that was scrambling but the first composition we were already set up for and once we took that, we’d have 30 seconds to move somewhere else for another shot to try to get another before that perfect light was gone.

Just before sunrise.

Just before sunrise.

Tim: So you pretty much knew the first shot you were going for and once you got that one, you would get busy looking for others.

Jeff: Some of that was kind of cool because when we were working below Castalon peak, you took a picture there, but then if you moved in toward the mountain a little more, the sun still hadn’t quite come up over so you had a small window to get a different angle.

Working some wildflowers in a dry river bed.

Working some wildflowers in a dry river bed.

Tim: How has this trip changed how you look at a landscape photograph?

Jeff: I’ve always enjoyed landscape photographs. It’s probably one of my favorite types of photography. Portrait photography is not as.. you know… landscape is capture the moment in a certain place. Just the beauty of what you saw, and you can see it again without having to go there.

I’m going to art shows now. Certain artwork does nothing for me at all. Landscape photography, I’ll stop at their booths and look at their work. And not just landscape but a lot of photography booths I’ll stop and look at.  Photography is the media I enjoy the most.

Balanced Rock

Balanced Rock

Thoughts on shooting the Forts and Missions of Texas

In February I launched a week-long project to photograph several of the historic forts and missions of Texas. I find both to be an important part of Texas and US history. With this in mind, I wanted to capture the beauty and peacefulness of these places. (Note that the photographs in this post either did not make the final cut or are only for documentation.)

For this trip, I invited Dad along as he seemed to really enjoy last years trip through Arizona and Utah and I bought him a camera for Christmas so I wanted him to have a good opportunity to use it.

Our first stop was San Antonio. We woke up at 2am to shoot the moonrise over the Alamo. It was mostly cloudy, but there were just enough breaks to make me hopeful. While we were waiting, we met a security guard walking around the premises and talked with him for a while. Later, a very drunk or high or mentally challenged lady was cussing me out from the other side of the street trying to get my attention. I dared not to turn around as I wasn’t much interested in what she had to see at that point.

The clouds were still thick and no sign of the moon coming through. We were about to leave when we finally caught a break. Unfortunately it was already high in the sky and further south than I expected so I didn’t get the shot that I wanted. To make matters worse, all of the chains and posts in the foreground were an eye-sore that I simply couldn’t get around. I’ll just keep this as a documentary photo.

Alamo at moonrise, with a belligerent woman behind me cussing me out.

Alamo after moonrise, with a belligerent woman behind me cussing me out at 3:30am.

The next day we spent visiting each of the missions along the Mission Walk. Some were more photogenic than others. The best was the San Jose mission. Large, lots of rooms, doors, windows, and arches. Plenty of opportunities.

Dad shooting the chapel at San Francisco de la Espada mission.

Dad shooting the chapel at San Francisco de la Espada mission.

San Jose Mission arches

Arch windows at Mission San Jose.

Defensive Turret at Mission San Jose

Defensive Turret at Mission San Jose

Presidio de San Saba

Presidio de San Saba

After shooting into the early afternoon, we moved on down the road to Menard and stayed the night. In the morning we photographed Presidio de San Saba at sunrise, but there wasn’t much left of the fort and I wasn’t feeling particularly inspired as it had been mostly reconstructed.

We went down the road to Fort McKavett which was pretty cool. Many of the buildings are locked and the insides are staged with period furnishings so you can look through the windows. There are a few interesting ruins though that you can go into. These were my favorite.

Ruins at Fort McKavett

Ruins at Fort McKavett

Through a window at Fort McKavett

Through a window at Fort McKavett

Fort McKavett Bakery

Fort McKavett Bakery

Our next stop was the Calera Chapel in Balmorhea. This was a great little church to photograph. Because it was still in use, the door was unlocked and there was no one there so we had free reign. We shot sunset, had dinner in town, and then came back to try some night shooting. We got creative with our headlamps. It was fun but spooky at the same time as it was pitch black out there. It gets very dark in the desert with no moon.

Inside the Calera Chapel, late afternoon

Inside the Calera Chapel, late afternoon

Playing around with the headlamps. I'd trip the shutter, run inside, and paint dad with the light. Took several tries to get it just right.

Playing around with the headlamps. I’d trip the shutter, run inside, and paint dad with the light. Took several tries to get it just right.

Fort Davis Ruins

Fort Davis Ruins

 

After a quick sunrise shoot at the chapel, Fort Davis was next on the list. This is a huge place, but I didn’t find it to be as scenic as McKavett. Interesting photographs abound, but not exactly what I was looking for. Regardless, we spent a few hours there exploring most of the grounds before moving on to the border town of Presidio, home to Fort Leaton.

 

 

 

My buddy Jeff and I had briefly visited Fort Leaton the year before on our Big Bend trip, but we didn’t stay long enough to photograph. I saw enough to know that I desperately wanted to return. For me, Fort Leaton was the highlight of the trip. Beautiful soft light, natural southwest architecture, rugged and dirty but tidy and clean at the same time – just a fun, inspirational place to photograph with a multitude of possible compositions.

Fort Leaton Architecture

Fort Leaton Architecture

Fort Leaton Supply Room

Fort Leaton Supply Room

Dad next to a HUGE cart!

Dad next to a HUGE cart!

Wood Planes in the blacksmith shop

Wood Planes in the blacksmith shop

Terlingua Ruins

Terlingua Ruins

The next day we drove to Terlingua and photographed there. Terlingua is half ghost town, half tourist trap. And the line between the two is blurry. Some of the buildings are difficult to distinguish between abandoned ruins and working shops. Most of the ruins are small and not kept up, so it was common to see evidence of people having used them as overnight drinking locales. This made for a very run-down feel. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; a few of my favorite photographs here actually have trash in them!

Terlingua Window with stacked rocks

Terlingua Window with stacked rocks

After shooting Terlingua for a few hours, we had lunch at Study Butte and drove down to Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park for a quick peak. I wanted Dad to see it, as I consider it to be Texas’ most impressive geologic structure. Santa Elena is difficult to shoot, but we were gifted with some nice clouds.

Santa Elena Boardwalk

Santa Elena Boardwalk

On the way out of Santa Elena, we stopped to shoot some bluebonnets that were attracting some bees. I wanted to Dad to see how much fun it was to work with a macro lens. Then, deciding to cut the trip short so we could spend a day processing and discussing his photographs, we drove 9 hours straight home.

Blue Bonnet Bee

You are invited to see the nine choice photographs from this trip at my home gallery show on September 26th 2015, in Pearland, TX, 5pm-9pm. Email me now to reserve your spot!

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.

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.