Tag Archives: photography

You know you’re a photography nerd when…

You start getting excited about setting up a new camera bag kit. 

“It will have this camera, and this lens, and this filter, and this Tripod. I’ll be setup to do anything in an ultra light package!”

Just thoughts I have while hiking on a trail. 


Natural Bridges Part 1: The San Rafael Swell and Glen Canyon Roadtrip

When doing the big Southern Utah loop through the National Parks I realized half a day in Natural Bridges was not enough and vowed to go back. The added benefit is I could plan a roadtrip down through San Rafael Swell, Upper Glen Canyon, and leave past Comb Ridge, Canyonlands, and Moab.

Open field
Golden waves of grain

Although the goal was to hike Natural Bridges, getting there is half the fun. Plus some big beautiful storm clouds were chasing me out of Northern Utah. I checked weather.gov beforehand and the storm hitting the north wouldn’t impact me in the south.

Mile marker 68.99 instead of 69.
I guess the alternative was getting stolen too often.

It took me a few second to figure out why they wouldn’t be able to post mile marker 69??…
Oh!  Now I get it!

Barren Landscape in San Rafael
Barren Landscape

It was slightly longer to take I-70 to the monument but I wanted to drive through San Rafael Swell to scout for a future trip. After descending through pine mountains you come out on the barren desert plateau.

San Rafael Swell
Looking over the San Rafael Swell

The San Rafael Swell is currently BLM land very popular with ATV and slot canyon explorers. So far oil and gas interests haven’t been encroaching, but if any unprotected place in Utah is befitting a being elevated to National Park status it’s this place. If you like any of the Utah Mighty 5 parks, you’ll love San Rafael Swell.

Long Straight Road
The Long Straight Road

After I-70 breaks through the broken edge of the Swell it’s a long straight ride across the desert plains that separate the Swell from Canyonlands and the Green and Colorado Rivers.

Slickrock dunes
Slickrock dunes

After a last chance for gas in Hanksville more southward travel changes from desert plains as you start to cut down through the slickrock towards the canyons of the Colorado River. This area is prime slot canyon territory.

Glen Canyon Monuments
Glen Canyon Monuments

The Colorado River sliced through the sedimentary rock carving complex canyons into the desert named Glen Canyon. Covering much of the southern portion of Utah.

The north end of Lake Powell
The north end of Lake Powell

In 1966 Glen Canyon dam was completed 185 river miles away creating Lake Powell. It’s difficult to define where the river ends and the lake begins but Hite crossing is generally considered the north end of Lake Powell. The Lake used to cover the surrounding floodplains but recent drought has left the marina high and dry.

Hite Bridge
Hite Bridge crosses the Colorado

Even though it slices through nearly a quarter of the state the Colorado River only has 3 drive-able river crossings in Utah. Hite and nearby Dirty Devil Bridges were considered “The world’s most beautiful bridges” when completed in 1966. I don’t know about that but the setting could definitely sway the vote.

 Red Rock Plateau
Straight to Red Rock Plateau

After the flat desert plain it’s easy to see why this area of Utah is known as Canyon Country.

Milky Way Galaxy and ISS
The International Space Station crosses the Milky Way

Natural Bridges was the worlds first “International Dark Sky Park.” There are few places with as low of light pollution as this. And in summer the core of the Milky Way is in full view, occasionally the International Space Station and the odd satellite make an appearance as well.


Here’s the full roadtrip and all the pictures from the trip:

How much can you edit a photograph until it is no longer a photograph?

There was a recent* post online that got me thinking of a HUGE debate in the photography community:

How much photo editing is “too much” editing?

The debate often divides photographers into two main groups we’ll call the “purists”, who believe any edits change what you really saw and make it fake.  And the “editors” that believe editing is an integral part of the process of creating a photograph.

I’m going to be straight out confrontational but the “Purists” are inexperienced noobs; all photos are edited.

The first consideration is that digital cameras don’t accurately recreate images as film did and much less accurately than our eyes.  To make up for this cameras edit the picture theselves in the camera before you even see it.  When you shoot JPG images the camera is already adjusting the contrast, sharpening, and saturation the moment it takes the shot.  You may not have edited it but a computer processor did edit using a set of rules laid out in our camera settings (I prefer to take RAW shots and take over the process of the edit).

But what about the “Good-Old -Days” of film?  Often times this debate is really a complaint about Photoshop ruining photography because pictures have so much post processing they’re not the same using film; when you got back picture from the developer. There are many problems with this line of thinking.  For one thing the negative, developing emulsion, and print paper all have an impact on the image.  Some have higher saturation, some have higher contrast, and if you process with different emulsion it can completely change the image colors (basically the original instagram filters were cross processed film).

And snapshot weekend photographers may not have edited their negatives and prints but professional photographers did heavy editing.  Watching Ansel Adams dodge and burn a photo is like watching a painter work on an image.

This is one of his most famous works (and a personal favorite), “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico”

Ansel-Adams-Moonrise-Hernandez-New-Mexico-1941And this is the “Contact Print” of the same picture.  A contact print is the unedited version that hasn’t been dodged and burned and is used as the starting point in planning what edits to make.


There is still a lot of skill involved in getting a film print with this perfect exposure giving he potential to finish in the darkroom, but the contact print seems so much more ordinary to me.  You can see that the contrast was increased a lot, adding definition to the moon face.  The sky was darkened to the point of erasing a few higher clouds, and the gravestones lightened to make them stand out more.  It shows how much post-production skill is needed to create a masterpiece, even in the pre-photoshop “Good-Old-Days” of film.

The final issue and most important to me is that Photography is an art.  Apart from journalistic photography who cares if a photo has been edited?  The whole point is to create a work of art that invokes an emotion or depicts a scene.  So what if you cloned out an awkward light pole or increased the saturation of a sunset (although usually I have to tone down sunsets)?  While I prefer to do as little post production editing as possible my ultimate goal is to have the picture look as I remember it, not just the image in my eye but the emotions I felt and the memory it left so that somebody looking at the picture is transported into my shoes and see the scene how I saw it.

Bottom line.  Don’t worry if a photo has been edited, enjoy it for what it is instead of trying to deconstruct it.

*Reposted from a few years ago

How to develop a better eye for photograph composition.

One thing I hear from a lot of people is: How they can take better looking photos?  While being a massive all-encompassing question it’s often relating to photo composition.  Usually following the phrase “You have an eye for photography.  How can I do that?”  The number of “rules” and methods for taking pictures could (and does) fill many books but there is one simple practice I did that I think for me had the greatest impact on composing better photos.

Take 3 different photos of the same subject, then delete 2 that you like the least.

In practice it works like this.  You wander around someplace with a camera just looking at everything around you waiting for something of interest to catch your eye:

  • First, take a picture of the subject as it is when it caught your eye.
    This is your basic snapshot. An interesting building, a gnarled tree, a cool car, or some pretty flowers.
  • Second, change up the composition of the same subject.
    Maybe position a more interesting background behind the flowers.  Position the flowers so they’re not in the center of the frame and they’re juxtaposed with some other subject. Get up close to one of the flowers so the rest are out of focus.
  • Third, take an even more outrageous composition of the subject.
    Pretend you’re a first year art student and take the most over the top photo you can.  Throw in weird angles.  Get low to the ground and take a picture up at the flowers.  Get so close nothing else fits in frame. Try some blurred motion photography.  Make it a “pretentious artsy-fartsy” black and white picture.

Then when you get home go through all your groups of 3 and play survivor where 2 get deleted and only one remains.  You’ll find in most cases the basic snapshot dies, and some of the most over the top pictures are the best of the group.  Not only does the exercise force you to think of new and interesting ways of photographing subjects but it forces you to take photos that are different from the traditional snapshots most people take.

95% of the world is taking snapshots at eye level (5-6ft off the ground) with the subject in the center of the picture.  If you break this mold you’re already putting yourself in the 5% of people taking interesting and new pictures.

Trying to quantify the artistic quality of a Photograph

This one is for the photogs out there.
We have a tendancy to get tied up in the performance values of our equipment and think that has an impact on the quality of the art we can produce.  Nothing is further from the truth.  Today’s point and shoot cameras can out perform top end DSLRs from 7 years ago.  Those same cameras were creating pictures we raved about and still consider works of art.
The Canon 7D Mk2 came out recently and came under some flak because DxO Mark ranked their sensor at the same level as some smaller sensor cameras and people think that’s unacceptable for a high end professional product.  But even adding in the argument that the usability and other capabilities and features of the camera play into how good it is DOES NOT MATTER!

The artistic merits of a photograph are not based on the camera that took it. It’s like saying that Van Gogh was great painter because he had the best brushes.  Some of the most highly acclaimed photographs in the world are grainy, blurry, or have awful dynamic range.


Quit trying to put a number on a picture to measure how great it is.  Art doesn’t work like that.

Wikipedia in 120GB

1TB USB drive.
My entire photo catalog and images, plus a full offline copy of Wikipedia and it’s images.

I have Wikipedia that fits in my hand.

The world is an amazing place that so much information can be contained in such a small volume. A free open source project called XOWA allows you to download Wikipedia’s official backups (available through torrent) and use them as an offline Wikipedia. The size for en.wikipedia.org is about 120GB including images.

If ever the world was destroyed, rest assured I have a copy of an overview of the world’s knowledge on some important subjects (and many useless subjects). Water purification, and crop rotation should come in handy immediately. We can get back to quantum theory when the world is back on its feet.

Why this is relevant is that my entire photo collection is also backed up on the same drive and takes up more space.  So much knowledge and information in such a small container.  It would be a shame if it were lost.

Storage is cheap, back up everything.  Then buy another drive, back it all up again and give the drive to a friend, family member, or safety deposit box for safe keeping.  You never know when something catastrophic will happen and all you’ll have is your photo backups… And your copy of Wikipedia.

Photographing America’s National Parks: What to know

I’ve noticed a lot of changes in the national parks in the last few years, what were once remote pockets of America’s beauty have become incredibly busy tourist destinations. I mean it was busy a decade ago but the last 3 years have grown exponentially. Plus everybody is a photographer now, even if you make a living taking picturesthe parks are owned by us all. The giant family lining up for a group picture in your frame has as much right to take a picture as you do.

So how do you navigate these crowded meccas of nature?

Angels Landing after sunset
Angels Landing after sunset

1. Know the park.

6 months to a year before your trip you need to read up on the park to learn what is accessible and what is not. Some parks like Zion don’t allow cars into popular areas and have shuttle service instead; this can have a huge impact on where you go and what gear you bring with you. And some of the most popular places to photograph like The Subway require permits to visit. Other parks have large sections that are closed depending on the seasons. The majority of Rocky Mountain NP is basically closed 7 months of the year due to weather.

Also photography for personal use is free but commercial photography/videography and workshops often require a permit. Make sure your shoot is legal if you’re doing more than your own personal shots. It may seem unfair to pay to lead a photo tour but the park needs reimbursement for the burden supporting you. Since you’re making money on the trip throw some money the park’s way. If it wasn’t there you wouldn’t have a commercial shoot in the first place.

2. Plan Ahead, and I mean WAY ahead!

The National Parks are more popular than ever before, due to their size not everybody can fit. Campgrounds, high traffic locations, and ranger tours need reservations and getting a slot for these fills up months in advance. Luckily the NPS is getting with the times and reservations can be done online however this means everybody else booking up the park too. Make sure you check for availability and book your reservations as soon as you can to guarantee you won’t be disappointed when you arrive.

Once you’re in the park head to the visitor center and speak with a ranger about what limits there may be to your photography and use them as a resource to find new shots and hidden areas people may not know about. Also a good time to see if you can get permits and special permissions to head into otherwise off limit areas. As mentioned above Zion Canyon is off limit to cars, that is unless you have a special photography permit from the ranger that lets you up the canyon during the off hours for some night and sunrise pictures. 😉

3. Stay in park

Besides being a magical experience you can see much more of the park when you’re sleeping just down the canyon and not 30-45 minutes outside of it in a nearby town. As mentioned above, check if you can reserve a spot online. Back in the day you had to be waiting in line when they opened the gates to try to get a first come first serve site. These days many of the campgrounds can be booked 6 months in advance, with traffic as high as it is now some fill up within a week of reservations opening. Some campgrounds are still first come first serve so do your research, always have a backup plan in case you can’t get a spot.

Balanced Rock
100ft down a dirt road makes the tourists disappear.

4. Scout less traveled areas

It’s great getting that postcard shot of sunrise hitting Mesa Arch, but be aware you will be there with 20-40 other photographers getting the identical shot. The Parks are massive and have a lot to see, try to find the places that most people don’t visit and get something unique in your photo-trip. Just because a rock spire or a narrow valley isn’t named by the park doesn’t mean it isn’t spectacular in its own right. And besides being unique you won’t have to jostle for elbow room to get a picture of it.

5. Go on “Off Days”

Everybody loves to use their free weekends to vacation, so go on a weekday when most people are at work. Or visit the park during the off season, less people to complete with and the added benefit of seeing what is usually common in and uncommon way. The deserts of Arches are beautiful but seen covered in snow is a way few people imagine a desert.

6. Be patient

No matter how much you plan and how remote you are there will be crowds, plan for lots of extra time getting to where you want to go. And when you get there be aware that you won’t be alone, you’ll be sharing this with people who have just as much right as you to be there. You may feel that as a photographer you can just tell everybody to “clear your shot” so you can best represent the parks in your camera but you’re not special, and they own the park as much as you do. Learn how to take multiple images and layer them in post-production to remove other tourists. While others are frustrated they can’t get a clean shot you’ll be able to use some post production magic to eliminate the blight of tourists from you work.

7. Remember you represent all photographers

Next to poorly led scout groups, people with cameras are the worst behaved of all tourist groups. Many “Photographers” believe that the rules don’t apply to them because the camera around their neck gives them special powers in the pursuit to capture the perfect image. Nobody is more important than the park itself; it’s a shared resource that’s already beyond its capacity and only likely to get worse. The reason I put the word Photographers in quotes above is that anybody who damages the very beauty they are trying to capture isn’t worthy of the title. Make sure you follow all rules, and are a paragon of the photographer community. Even the rangers should look up to you. When you’re done there shouldn’t even be a footprint to show you were there (seriously, footprints in Arches last years, stay on the trail and research in the visitor center beforehand).

At Delicate Arch.
The crowds on a slow day.