Friday, February 12, 2010

"House with Butterfly Roof at Sunrise"

Most snapshots simply document our experience. I suspect, though, that much of the time the snapshooters are secretly hoping to create something beautiful and lasting and even fine art with that casual click of the camera button.

In my heart, this image, made quickly after I pulled open the shutters to check the morning light, transcends the snapshot label.

Grabbing my camera and rushing outside in my pjs to catch the most vibrant rays of sunrise was an instinctive, pure moment, filled with unplanned intensity and creative energy. I wanted to create art with that capture. I wanted to convey the excitement and beauty that sunrise in Palm Springs brings to our mountains, which almost all residents can see from where they live.

I also wanted to include the Palm Springs Modern-style home to convey what we who live here see in most neighborhoods, period pieces that reflect a simpler time long past but somehow preserved here in this unusual desert town.

This home, right across the street from my own, is a "Meiselman." It shows the butterfly roof that was one of several styles that Meiselman and the more famous Alexander family used in their design of homes here around 1960.

Nowadays these homes (many of which originally sold for under $20,000) are revered for their simplicity and desert-friendly designs. In the late nineties these homes became very popular here in Palm Springs, and although they don't have the cache that our famous architectural masterpieces have, they do appeal to most of us in a subtle, almost visceral way.

By framing only this one home, carefully tended to and being warmed by the sun's first rays while its residents were possibly still asleep, I also hoped to reference the promise that each new day brings.

That's a lot to try to convey in one snapped shot. How does it resonate with you?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

"Sunrise from Water's Edge"

This image aroused curiosity and praise when I posted it as the 'New Image of the Day' on my Facebook Fan Page. One person called it a 'masterpiece,' which may have caused me to privately blush like the alpenglow I've recently photographed so often, and several folks wondered where this surprising photo was made.

I had considered naming it "San Jacinto Sunrise from Indian Lake," just to further complicate matters. For although that is indeed Mt. San Jacinto in all its sunrise splendor, there is no Indian Lake anywhere locally. That foreground is a puddle!

The day before I made this image, while I was speeding southward into Palm Springs on Indian Avenue, I'd noticed this large puddle alongside the road, still there from our recent winter rains. I wanted to turn around and check it out it for photographic opportunities right then, but I was rushing to get to work and couldn't spare the time.

It wasn't until the middle of the following moonlit night that I thought of that puddle again. I had happened to notice that the 3 a.m. moon was enshrouded in masses of puffy clouds. As I had nothing else to do besides go back to bed, I grabbed my tripod and a selection of lenses and went out to create some sort of masterpiece on the sidewalk in front of my home. (I plan to render some of those moonlight images into prints soon.)

And then I remembered the puddle. I wondered what might be reflected in it at dawn. Would I be able to get a good image of the mountains?

So I drove out to the puddle (near where Indian meets I-10) and awaited the light. I could see that if the wind didn't blow the water too much I might have a clear shot of the mountains in the murky, muddy water so I set up my tripod as close to the ground as I could get it (and made a mental note to bring my smaller, closer-to-the-ground tripod next time.)

While early-shift workers rushed into Palm Springs on the road beside me, I lay on the cold, wet, rocky, sandy asphalt and positioned myself, trying various lenses as dawn illuminated the mountains and windmills. It was exhilarating and challenging and fun!

I found that to create the composition I wanted I had to abandon the tripod, instead propping up my dear camera in the watery edge of the puddle itself with sand and pebbles. In order to accomplish this perfect mirror reflection of the mountains and windmills, I had to get very low, and yet to get the closest surface water to be interesting too, I had to have the camera propped at just the right angle.

I played with most of the camera and lens settings, seeking the optimum combination to stop action of the close-in water and the distant wind turbine blades (as well as I could make them out.) My test captures were dark and blue-grey and in varying degrees of focus and depth of field. I tried long lenses and wider angle lenses and ultra-wide lenses. I got very cold and dirty and wet. And I was very happy.

By the time the alpenglow had passed, I was secure with this composition. I loved every element, including the sign post, and the telephone pole, and even the little dark stone in the foreground. And then, finally, there it was: the warming of the lower hills and the concommitant bluing of the sky filled with more of those clouds (that had surrounded the moon several hours before) arriving just before hypothermia set in. (I made that last part up for drama's sake.)

After I made this image and snapped some handheld shots of that gorgeous sky, I then followed the early morning light back to Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage (watch for new Elephant Carwash Sign images soon). I was encrusted in muddy, still-wet clothes, and I was on a roll. The adrenaline from having created my 'masterpiece' kept me working until long after the best light was gone.

Now that I was warming up, it was time to get ready to go to Imageville to upload (and take the first look at) my files and then begin my day serving up framed photos to hungry customers.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Alpenglow (From the Chino Cone in Palm Springs)

Rainbows fascinate nearly everyone. Alpenglow fascinates only those who awaken early and live near mountains in winter.

I’m thrilled by that rosy glow of snow-covered mountaintops as the first rays of sunrise strike them. And living in Palm Springs, California, I have the opportunity to witness and photograph this beautiful phenomenon.

Last week several days of relentless desert rain came with the promise of a spectacular sight when the clouds would eventually lift: bright white snowy peaks on the San Gorgonios, San Jacintos, and Santa Rosas. (Sometimes, when the rains are especially cold, we see our entire Coachella Valley ringed by snowy mountains.)

The anticipation of that had everyone talking even as they dealt with flooded streets and leaking roofs. And many photographers were looking forward to capturing the scenic juxtapositions of palms and citrus trees with snow.

What I looked forward to was the first morning of alpenglow. It’s then that the snow is freshest and deepest, and the rising storm clouds sometimes provide additional drama to early morning landscapes.

Shooting alpenglow requires getting up while it’s dark, dressing warmly, venturing out to my chosen vantage point, planning my foreground and composition, and setting up my tripod and camera in the chilly darkness. (It can also be accomplished in a more casual way by running to get your iPhone or digicam and grabbing a shot when you happen to notice the sunrise on the mountains as you pick up your just-delivered morning newspaper from your rain-soaked driveway.)

Just before this image was created, the black night sky had turned to a brilliant but dark shade of blue. The line of white mountain snow stood out in stark relief even though it wasn’t yet illuminated by the sun. (I’ve yet to photograph that to my satisfaction.)

I made this photo at the Chino Cone, an alluvial fan that spills from the base of Mt. San Jacinto and welcomes all who enter Palm Springs from the north with its broad expanse of boulders and desert flora and fauna. (The Visitor’s Center, formerly the famed, architecturally significant Tramway gas station, sits at the base of the Cone, and the road to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway passes through it.)

What made this image hard for me to capture and render as a printed photograph?

First of all, the foreground was illuminated only by sky light from above, and since the sky was still quite dark, so was the foreground. In this instance, the mountain peaks were illuminated from the side by the rising sun. The result was a very distinct contrast, requiring quite different exposures. (To show this great dynamic range, some photographers today might use HDR techniques to shoot multiple exposures and combine them into an image that would show both the foreground and the mountains exposed beautifully. I chose to try to keep this image more ‘real’ looking.)

Secondly, alpenglow lasted for a very short time. Just before the rosiness appeared, the snowy peaks became whiter; then they gradually turned pink, and then quickly they became bright white. It was a brief but thrilling moment. (Then the rising sun continued to gradually light up the whole landscape, and for a half hour or so, that warm light of sunrise yielded exciting opportunities for image-making.)

A third challenge for me was choosing which direction to photograph the alpenglow. Right in front of me the San Jacinto mountains were receiving the first kiss of the morning sun, and to the north, the spectacular San Gorgonio mountains were also in alpenglow. I chose to attend to both. (At another time I’ll feature an image of that incredible sight.)

And fourth, since I wanted maximum depth of field (to allow me to show the rocks and the field of brittlebush that will soon be abloom with bright yellow flowers), I had to increase my ISO to levels where noise, especially in that dark foreground, became a factor in printing the image.

And lastly, I found that I wanted to change lenses during these brief moments, moving in closer to the peaks for a few shots and then back out to reveal the context of this exciting event. (To see a close-up image of alpenglow on a nearby peak, please check out my Facebook Fan Page “Image of the Day” for Sunday, January 24, 2010.)

After every photo shoot, the work continues: the uploading and organizing of files, the selection process, and the preparations for printing. My goal is to choose the capture that will best convey the story of the experience of alpenglow. It is marked by soft brilliant light coming from out of the near darkness and then changing to the harsh white of the snow as daylight takes over.

Even with a well-captured image, rendering a photographic print that shows both the subtleties and the magnificence of alpenglow can take many hours of work on the file, including changes in vibrance, saturation, contrast, brightness and sharpness.

I think I improve my chances at perfecting the photographic story of alpenglow every time I put on my photographer’s gloves in the field to prepare for and await the coming of the light.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

"Whiteout at the Tram"

It was indeed a dark and stormy night. I closed Imageville and drove through the rain to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway Station. It had been pouring downtown and snowing on the mountain most of the day so I was inspired to see what it would be like to ride the Tram through a snowstorm and then photograph the fresh heavy snow at the top.

The Christmas lights at the Tram station looked beautiful as it was getting dark, but I still thought there was enough light for me to make some interesting images and experiment with low-light shooting while moving.

The station workers all turned and looked as I entered the building with my long lens protruding from my rain gear and my pants already soaked from my short trek up the hill. They advised me not to take the ride up. Whiteout conditions were making visibilty near zero even at lower levels, they said.
So I just splashed around in the cold rain outside the station, seeing what images I might make even as the darkness was quickly settling in. I set my camera to mostly automatic settings, even allowing it to adjust the ISO to 2500, where noise really does reduce the quality of the images.
I love the intense colors that pop out in such adverse conditions. Amber autumn leaves that still festooned the branches of some trees dripped and shimmered in the backlight provided by the bright white of the mountain snow up above. Clusters of golden grasses stood out along the flooded stream bank. I was unprepared for shooting in this much rain, but I did so anyway and got everything really wet, including my lenses. The images I captured suffered as a result.
Nevertheless as I walked to my car I looked back up at the mountain and composed this photograph of another beautiful evening in Palm Springs!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

"Green Fence, Dark Blue Sky"

Some images have their constituencies. My photos of rubber ducks, wildflower landscapes, even classic cars, all appeal to certain groups of people.

This image, however, must prove itself to the viewer. At first glance, I suspect the observer may be tempted to move on, dismissing it as a snapshot of something not very beautiful.

Why then do I like this photograph so much? It helps, of course, that I created the image, that I was there where these colors and textures and objects and weather all came together. To be sure there was a certain thrill in the air as I was composing this image. More about that in a moment.

As the artist I hope that patient observers will spend some time with this image. What are we to make of these elements held together by this uncommon light? This green fence, appearing initially to look like a downed palm frond, is not doing its job. And the white posts in the background, so boldly illuminated by the bright light, appear to be placed there on purpose but without apparent function. Only the distant telephone poles appear as we expect them to be, still standing and functioning.

I love how this image feels to me. The beautiful combination of cool colors and a nighttime sky are subtley warmed by the bright early morning sun lighting them from the side. I like the rock in the lower right, its small solid shape helping to make the image feel balanced in a somewhat surprising way. And in the distance (though they're hard to make out in this tiny version of the photo) are some mounds that replicate the shape of the foregound rock.

I don't remember now who famously first said that "bad weather equals good photographs." That's not literally true, of course; lots of images are made in all kinds of weather that aren't very moving or compelling or beautiful, but my experience has shown that some of the worst weather yields the best surprises for artists.

In this case, I'd been awakened by a friend calling to tell me about an amazingly beautiful early morning rainbow that was arching over the Palm Springs desert. As I pulled on my pants to rush out the door I could see that the rainbow was fast disappearing, but the sunlight peeking from beneath deep gray clouds was lighting up the foreground objects everywhere while the background sky remained foreboding and dark. I headed toward the windmills in the wide open spaces north of the city, and by the time I reached my vantage point, the winds had picked up and there were raindrops flying through the air. A man walking his dog had to turn back because the dog refused to venture further into the stormy weather.

I was suddenly struck by the tones of the fallen fence. I saw its similarity to a palm frond (one of my favorite subjects for photographic studies); I loved how the fence meandered across the desert into the distance with a certain lyrical beauty. And there were those darkened telephone poles and the white posts and the mounds in the background and the rock with its greenish cast.

And so as the wet wind whirled about me I fought to achieve this image with my 50mm lens.

No tripod was used. Settings were left pretty much to chance. It was indeed a snapped shot, made with as loose and elemental an attitude as I ever assume in my work. Maybe that's why I particularly love the image. Its ruddiness and complexity and mystery and surreal lovely colors reflect something deep and unknown about my artistic soul.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

"Sunset Photographers"

Although the subtle tones of the rocks in this image aren't showing up here in this small version, I think you can see that I was interested in conveying the effects of the setting sun on this otherworldly rock pile.

Sunrises and sunsets are often so thrilling to witness that one is in awe. A photographer who wants to capture some artful images has to overcome the tendency to just relax and observe and soak in the experience, while reacting very quickly to the rapidly changing light.

It helps me to have been shooting for considerable time before the sunset so that I have some approaches in mind. I sometimes don't know whether to shoot toward the sun or to show the effects of the sunlight on the surroundings. I chose the latter here.

Although they're very small (and definitely too small to be seen here), the human figures were for me a delightful bonus against these enormous rocks. I love how they are positioned both in their postures and in their placement at different levels, and the really fun aspect of this image for me is that both of them appear to be photographing the setting sun with their camera phones.

The timelessness of these rocks and the sun going down meet the oh-so-current human activity of everything everywhere being photographed. Today we are all photographers. And yet, as the three of us photographers reveal with this image, we each receive our own inspirations and render our photos with amazingly unique personal styles.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

"Evening Rays over Mountaintop"

Nearly every day the sun going down behind our San Jacinto Mountains in Palm Springs results in some spectacular moments when light rays and clouds and mountaintops yield breathtaking scenes. They don't last long, and they change quickly.

If you have your camera at the ready, you may capture some of these inspirational moments. I've rarely been as impressed as I was with this one, and I was happy with allowing the mountains to be seen in silhouette in favor of not blowing out the highlights.

"Poppy Fields II"

As a former biology teacher, plants and animals are always of interest to me. Wildflower season, whether in the Midwest where I grew up, or in California where I now live, is always a special time. I try to visit areas left unspoiled by the activities of man during those times as often as I can.

The vistas at the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve in Lancaster, California, offer spectacular color even in years when the California Poppies are not in full bloom. Many other species, including lupine, owl's clover, and goldfield (the yellow stripes in this photograph), share the landscape.

Photographing these beautiful flowers is fun and often tricky. In the early morning, when the light is often most interesting, the flowers haven't opened up yet, and by the time they do open up, the winds have often picked up, making capturing close-ups of your favorite flowers more difficult. Partly cloudy or cloudy days often work well for photographing wildflowers because shadows are less problematic and colors can be rendered without glare.

I always take a variety of lenses to allow for close-up shooting and expansive panoramas, and then I just wait to see what the weather will bring. No matter what I capture (or don't) I'm never disappointed on wildflower excursions.

Incidentally, several years ago I made an image that was similar to this one. It was punctuated by two horses with riders in the far distant corner. Limited editions of that image, in several sizes, sold out. I wonder whether the tiny empty bench in this image will be as compelling as the horses.