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.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

"San Francisco II"

I captured this image of the San Francisco skyline late in the afternoon from the popular tourist lookout Twin Peaks. It includes the famous Castro Theatre in the foreground, and Market Street threads its way down to the waterfront through the tall buildings.

In preparing this for printing, I lightened the shadows and increased the vibrancy to emphasize the rich colors of the scene. In "San Francisco I," which is on display at Imageville, the colors are so vivid that viewers often think it's a photo of a city in some other country.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

"Slot Canyon VI"

The slot canyons of northern Arizona are a favorite subject for photographers of all levels of experience. Eroded by flash floods over time, these fantastic underground walls are only part of what makes these canyons so irresistible. The light, penetrating through small openings above and then reflecting off the canyon walls, provides the rest of the drama.

In making this image I chose not to include the earthen floor or any of the shafts of sunlight that you often see in photographs of these wondrous canyons. I hoped to create a sculptural fantasy that might interest or thrill or challenge the viewer. My own interpretation of this photo includes layers of soft-serve ice cream and swirls of cake frosting.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

"Bougainvillea Shadows"

Deciding what to include within the confines of the walls of a photograph is the work of even the most casual of photographers. Oftentimes the wealth of beauty and subject matter is overwhelming as it was here in this Palm Springs, CA scene.

Exquisite light and colorful flowers and handsome artifacts surrounding this old door all called out to be included. Even the blossoms that had fallen to the ground were compelling to me. I finally decided to let the shadows be the story of this image and directed my composition to that end.

Monday, January 4, 2010

"The Lady in Red"

On a typically stunning Palm Springs day in October 2009, the"Casual Concourse" Classic Car Show was hosted by the local chapter of the Great Autos of Yesteryear. I accepted an invitation to photograph the cars as they were arriving and before the crowds gathered.

The Lady here is perfectly coiffed for her long day in the sun. In this photo I wanted to tease with her image while also showing the beauty of this classic Continental convertible.
I used a tripod to make this image so that I could carefully place all the elements. I sought to extend the image beyond that of a 'snapshot' of a car by deliberately creating some dynamic tension through such choices as the angle of the car, the inclusion of only one complete (and amazingly shaped) headlamp, the gleaming sunspots on the metal (which you can't see in this tiny screenshot), the reflection of the dried golf course grass in the smooth, shiny bumper, the palm tree 'driver,' and even the light wispy clouds in the upper left corner of the image, breaking up the otherwise perfect sky.
I love the small spot of red (from her hat) peeking out over the windshield. For me it adds a finishing touch to the image (like a cherry on top of a sundae).
I tried to create a pleasing, yet almost surreal image, one that might even enable the viewer to feel the crispness of the air on this lovely day even as it was wasted on this particular passenger.
How does this image resonate with you?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

"Windmills at Sunset II"

The wind turbines in this image are positioned in the pass north of Palm Springs, California. (I-10 runs parallel to them.) As the sun sets, the north-facing San Jacinto mountains are shrouded in darkness, leaving the exposed windmills to absorb the last rays of the sun. This image is cropped from a large panorama that I made to emphasize the exquisite lighting and the sculptural qualities of the blades turning in a sort of orderly chaos.

"Palm Springs, View from the Mountain I"

I captured this image from the Albert Frey House, the Palm Springs Modern icon, up on the mountain above Palm Springs. I'd been shooting the famous Burgess House just below there on special assignment, and I was struck by the late afternoon sky, which was filled with layers of beautiful clouds. The sun was still shining brightly but just ready to pop down behind the mountains darkening our town prematurely (because sunset was really still hours away).

I had to work quickly because the foreground was already dark in places so I set up my tripod, and used several lenses to shoot panoramic scenes like this one, planning some day to stitch several together to create a long narrow panorama of the entire view. This one overlooks the southern portion of Palm Springs and beyond to the other desert cities.

Starting This Blog in the Middle of the Night

A new decade has just begun, and it's the middle of the night. It seems like a good time, kind of an intimate time really, to begin my blog, as I know this time well.

Many people tend to work, relax, go to bed and sleep, and get up and start that process over. Being an entreprenuer and a creator of things most of my adult life has led me to develop a somewhat different pattern. My sleep gets interrupted by creative impulses.

I tend to use my middle-of-the-nights to read and write and make lists and even get ready to go out and be ready to photograph when the light comes up.

As for this blog, I'm really not quite sure what I'm going to do with it. It's a new experience for me. It does seem like a natural activity for me since I'm a fairly verbal person as well as visual.

It occurs to me that while a photograph is commonly said to be worth a thousand words, there is still a place for words, even in conjunction with a photograph.

That's why so often at Imageville (my Palm Springs gallery) I find that people looking at my work want to know more.

Over time this blog will give me a forum for telling more about my images. For those who want to know.

As I begin, I'm aware that there's an artistic side of me that wants to write rather crudely. With less than perfect grammar and with a stream-of-consciousness format. And there's a businessman part that wants to be more professional and proper, more politically and grammatically correct.

In a way I face this same dichotomy as I select which photographs to show at Imageville and on my Facebook Fan Page and on my website. I do need to sell my work so I try to show pieces that might have broad appeal, and I also like to show work that may never sell even though I feel compelled to have it be seen. So I do both.

And so I'll do both here, I guess. I'll straddle the artistic/commercial divide. I'll write intimately and without much attention to perfection, but I'll try to provide some thoughts about my work that some friends, customers, fans may find interesting.

Thanks for reading this first ramble. I look forward to hearing from you too. In the middle of your nights, over your early morning coffee, or whenever your writing moments come.

Warm regards,