Photographing flowers has long been a favorite photographic genre of mine. Wherever my wife and I have traveled I have looked for botanical gardens. I have found some dandies. Some examples, Bouchart Gardens in Vancouver, B.C., the Denver Botanical Garden, Oregon Gardens near Portland, the Quebec Botanical Garden, & the Botanical Garden of Annapolis Royale in Nova Scotia to name just a few. Close to home, the San Francisco Botanical Garden, and right here at home, the UCSC Arboretum. As you might imagine these have allowed me to build quite a portfolio of floral images. And that doesn't even account for tons of wildflower photography I have done in many locations.
That being said, I find flower photography to be the most difficult type of photography I do. Why? Because it is extremely physical and my old body doesn't like it. To photograph flowers one has to get down on their level. That often means up, down, up down; it sometimes means standing on one's head to see the subject in the view finder. After about an hour of that I am totally exhausted. Moreover, it is also very painstaking to get the subject portion of the flower in proper focus as one is often using macro lenses which means close ups and a very narrow depths of field. A micro-millimeter off and the image is ruined. I have had more failures over the years than successes.
Flower photography is also gear intensive. The last time I went out I had a bag full of lenses, close up filters, stabilizing gear (tripod, platypod, clamps, etc.), extension tubes, focusing rail, etc. But one can generally do without much of that nonsense. I generally use only two or three lenses. One, of course, is a 100mm Macro lens; the others are special purpose Lensbaby lenses, specifically the Velvet series of lenses which I find myself using more and more...even for landscapes. These are "fine art" lenses that incorporate blur (where one wants it), and in the case of the Velvet lenses a beautiful glow effect at wider f-stops. Wow! What a difference these lenses make.
But, it is in post production where the magic happens. Of course one must have a good image in camera to start with, but post production is essential to me to create the effect I want. After a shoot I can hardly wait to get back to my computer to see what I can create. I generally apply textures to achieve color effects, surface texture, lighting effects, etc. I use photoshop to clean up the image, take out unwanted elements, blemishes, etc. It is all part of the creative process and I find floral images to be most receptive to creativity. When I'm shooting flowers the last thing on my mind is trying to capture exactly what I'm seeing. I think of photographer Tony Sweet who in my opinion is one of the best fine art flower photographers in the business. He is also a jazz musician who approaches his flower photography with that mindset; he creates as he goes along, and that's exactly what I try to do in post production. It's what makes flower photography so interesting and why I can put up with a few aches and pains to create something truly unique.
With exception of California, and maybe Alaska, there is no other state I have photographed so comprehensively as Colorado...west of the I-25 corridor. That, of course means mountains, and Colorado is the heart of the Rocky Mountains. Technically Colorado is not our most mountainous state; that distinction goes to Nevada with 50+ mountain ranges. But Nevada has only two peaks that approach 14,000' in elevation. Colorado is undisputed king in that category with 52-peaks better than 14,000'; no other state comes close to that mark. Perhaps the most distinct of the "fourteeners" are the Maroon Bells in the Elk mountains near Aspen, and iconic Long's Peak near Estes Park north-west of Denver. The latter features a tremendous shear east face known as the diamond (for its shape), a favorite draw for "real" mountaineers. Its shear face is very much like the face of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Although this peak can be seen from the east for miles I found it a real challenge to photograph well. Because of the way it is situated I think the only time it can be effectively photographed is in the early morning. By mid-morning its face is in shadow and bringing out detail is very difficult. The "Bells" are stunning, three like-shaped monoliths standing side-by-side, all over 14,000', flanked by two or three other neighboring "fourteeners". In the fall the color leading in to these behemoths create stunning compositions.
But picturesque mountain peaks are not the only element to draw the landscape photographer to Colorado. It is a mecca for fall color, arguably the best. I have had the privilege of photographing New England in the fall...and it is spectacular. Nothing approaches it for variety of color. But Colorado is special in its own right. Vast hillsides of golden aspen light up the landscape in the fall with colors varying from pale green to dark orange as the season progresses. Many other plants in the undergrowth provide reds. From early September through late October nature displays a rich palette of color in Colorado that will keep your camera clicking and your imagination for interpretation in high gear. Rivers, lakes, lingering wildflowers, and wildlife provide ample auxiliary elements to add to compositons.
There's more. On our last visit to the state I discovered sand...Great Sand Dunes National Park in south-central Colorado nestled at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains where wind blown sand seems to gather forming huge dunes that far exceed the more often photographed dunes of Death Valley in size and scope.
Colorado is also dotted with quaint mountain towns of historical importance and interest, places like Central City near Denver, Cripple Creek near Colorado Springs, Leadville, a beautiful drive from the ski mecca of Vail, Ouray, Telluride, and Silverton in the San Juan mountains of south-western Colorado. One could spend considerable time just photographing unique 19th century architecture in these places.
One of the major surprises to me was the Black Canyon of the Gunnison river near Montrose on the western slope of the Rockies. I visited this place kind of as an after thought after shooting thousands of fall color images. Holy moley, what a hole in the ground! If ever there was an iconic definition for "gorge" this place is it. Vertical cliffs fall hundreds of feet into the narrow canyon cut by the Gunnison river. It is so deep and narrow that sunlight can't penetrate into its interior which enhances the black coloring of the rock walls. I visited in the fall so there was a lot of color in the vegetation near the rim that offset the black of the canyon. While not as large or various in coloration as the Grand Canyon I thought this place a worthy rival. Since my visit came after the tourist season I had the place nearly to myself!
Our final stop on a not too long ago roadtrip through this state was Grand Junction near the Utah border. From that base I photographed color on the Grand Mesa, drove Jeep trails on the Uncompahgre Plateau, and photographed the canyonlands of Colorado National Monument, an area in whole worthy of several days. The mighty Colorado river heads in the mountains of Colorado, flows through this western Colorado canyon country, south through the canyonlands of Utah, thence on through Glen and Grand Canyons, defines the border between Arizona and Nevada, continues into southern California, and finally with whatever water is left flows into Mexico and the sea.
In the canyons of western Colorado one notices a transition from the high Rocky mountains to the rugged canyonlands of southern Utah that stretch across the southern belt of that state and into southern Nevada, the Mojave desert, and the Great Basin. Observing the geology of the landscape and following river arterials one acquires an understanding that this vast "machine" we call the Earth is intrically connected, every part of it is dependent on the other. Rivers rise from snowbanks high in the mountains, flow downhill cutting great chasms as it goes, waters parched earth, and eventually reaches the sea where the cycle one more repeats itself. On the way the waters are used by man to provide irrigation and life. It behooves us, therefore, to be good stewards of our resources. This might be taken as a trite comment by many (most?), but then we are constantly presented with evidence of our malfeasance in living in harmony with nature.
One of the central motivations of my approach to photography is to celebrate the beauty and wonder of the natural world in which we live. I photograph the beauty that I see; I deliberately avoid photographing the ugliness that man leaves behind wherever he goes, the trash, the cans, etc. As I'm driving about, in my home state of California...or wherever, and stop to photograph an interesting scene, I often wander away from the road to get a better vantage point and invariably find all kinds of junk, from discarded papers, beer cans and cartons to automobile tires, obvious human impact on the landscape. Perhaps I should photograph this stuff as an object lesson to underscore the point, but that is not what I'm about. I want the beauty as God made it.
So, as I post this rather large portfolio of images from Colorado you're not going to see the folly of man's handiwork, your going to see the magnificence of nature's handiwork, and even some of the good that man has complemented it with. Colorado is indeed a place full of marvelous sights and color. I hope you enjoy these images as much as I enjoyed creating them.
Some time ago my wife, Jean, and I returned from an extended RV trip that had taken us to northern Alberta and back through the Canadian Rockies, ultimately re-entering the United States in Idaho where we spent a few days. At that point we were very close to an area in southeastern Washington known as the Palouse. Knowing that area to be a reknown photography destination it was a perfect time to take advantage of an opportunity. I first visited this area as a young boy when travelling to Idaho on a fishing trip; I recall being totally unimpressed, it being nothing but miles and miles of rolling hills and wheat. My opinion has now changed.
When one thinks of Washington he thinks of mountains, forests, and a spectacular coastline. But eastern Washington is far different. This is farm country indeed, fields of wheat & lentels as far as the eye can see. Farms dot the countryside but unless you have a high vantage point you're only going to see one at a time because the landscape rises and plunges relentlessly, and country roads twist and turn until one becomes completely disoriented. But what a venue for photography! If you like picturesque farms, old barns in various stages of repair (or disrepair), and wide vistas this is the place.
The experience differs by season. For instance, in the spring one will see a sea of green...young wheat. In the fall the palette changes to gold, yellows & ochre...earth tones. My visit was in the fall. These rolling hills were reputedly formed by sand blowing from the southwest and indeed looking at many of my "broad vista" images I see something that resembles my images of sand dunes in Death Valley. One has to look closely to see that those "dunes" are really "waves" of wheat. At the time of our visit the majority of the fields had been harvested leaving behind acres of stubble crisscrossed by "trails" left by harvesters. But the color remains with the chaff. This is a relaxing venue in which to photograph with plenty of country roads to explore and bucolic scenery to photograph. Take your time and explore slowly; have lunch in one of the many quiet towns that dot the Palouse.
I recently scanned through some of my images and revisited this portfolio. I had previously edited some of these photos but my style and taste have radically changed in just a few short years. Consequently I decided to remaster some of these images. The portfolio Palouse is the result.
Southern Utah is one of my favorite places to photograph in the United States. Along the southern tier of the State, known as the Escalante Staircase, lie no less than five spectacular national parks and a national monument; the western most is Zion.
I consider Zion in the same category with Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon, a crown jewel in the national park system. Within its boundaries, and those of adjacent parks, is some of the most rugged, extraordinary and varied landscape in the United States. To properly understand the geography one must view it in the context as a part of the larger Colorado plateau that covers the entire southwestern United States including the Grand Canyon, indeed the entire Colorado River drainage system. It is vast, largely bereft of human habitation, some of it inaccessible and unexplored. I can think of only a handful of photographers who have photographed this region in detail. Even from a more "manageable" perspective one could isolate Zion and easily spend the better part of a lifetime photographing this one portion of the Colorado plateau.
To photograph such a place requires more than just a casual day or two visit. My experience has been that the first visit to such a place is largely a reconnaisance, a learning experience. Then on subsequent visits, after having sorted things out, one can systematically cover a place piece by piece. One could concentrate on many subjects, landscape, water, plants, wildlife, differing points of view, etc. I think I have visited Zion four times which means I'm getting a start. To put this in perspective I have visited Yosemite on dozens of occasions (because it's closer), hiking through it on foot as well, and still have room for more inspiration; I will never exhaust the potential. Such is my feeling about Zion. I think I am still in the stage of looking at it from a macro point of view, e.g., trying to accomplish too much with each visit. Perhaps I'm ready to begin "drilling down" to a micro level. When one is at the point of approaching a subject from that point of view I think the subject matter becomes sharper, more focused, delivering a more cogent message. Alas, there just isn't enough time to do it justice.
Most visitors see this park on one or two occasions from the shuttle bus, or by hiking some of the easier trails. That is a start, but there is more. There are units off the beaten track and an incredible hike through the "narrows" of the Virgin river which only the more determined visitors attempt. I spent several days there in 2012 concentrating on something different each day. One day on that occasion I ventured into the narrows for an incredible experience. A few of those images appear with this new portfolio, "The Vertical World of Zion", and inspired the portfolio title. The title is self explanatory.
Experiencing the Narrows requires a bit of work although there is a well worn path into the gorge...the river. Most visitors hike a mile to the mouth of the gorge then turn around. While a gorgeous hike to that point it is just the beginning. The real experience starts once one steps into the river. Fifty yards into the gorge I found myself up to my chest in cold water. Just as I thought I might be a swimmer the river "shallowed out" and became merely a wade. There was no alternative; water often extends from wall to wall and a good portion of the time in the canyon is spent in the water. The canyon walls become higher as one proceeds into the gorge and vertical walls on either side rise hundreds of feet above, nearly touching in places. The sky becomes just a narrow ribbon far above the river. One has the feeling at once of being entombed in the Earth and in the midst of a vast cathedral; a feeling of confinement...and yet it is so huge! Human beings appear so small and insignificant compared to the vastness in which one stands. While perhaps not a religious experience one's thoughts certainly point in that direction. There are only two exits, 1) to continue several rugged, wet miles to the upper entrance or 2) return the way one came. For this reason it can also be a death trap. Canyons such as this in the southwest are prone to flash floods and it would be fatal to be caught in one in this place. It is wise to check the weather throughout the entire region AND with the Park Service before entering the narrows. Rain a hundred miles away could result in massive water draining through this canyon. One must understand that while the "little" Virgin River might appear benign it is the instrument by which this massive canyon was created. A chaos of boulders, trees, etc., testifies to the raging torrent it can be. It cuts deeper into the Earth year after year, century after century, millennia after millennia.
On my excursion into the Narrows I met a couple who had started the previous day at the upper end of the canyon expecting to exit the lower end that same day. They had been overcome by darkness the previous night and forced to spend a cold, wet night in the Narrows without supper or a place to shelter. They were in no danger or difficulty...but were ready for some dry clothing and a hot meal. Still they seemed quite upbeat about the whole experience. They were a tough pair.
I had opportunity to visit Zion again this past October for a couple of days. I had to pass up the Narrows on this occasion due to limited time and hip and knee problems, but was able to concentrate on fall colors, a herd of Big Horns, and shooting "painterly" shots with Lensbaby optics along the Virgin River. The possibilities are endless and limited only by the imagination.
Those who know me understand that I am a confirmed believer in post production editing. In fact, my images do not see the light of day until I have processed them through whatever post production protocol I choose to employ. There are a couple reasons for this. First, I shoot in RAW format, that is I do not allow my camera to make any processing decisions for me. What I get from the camera is literally a RAW image containing all the data my camera is capable of delivering, but nothing has yet happened to that data. At this point the image is dull and lifeless and not yet ready for public viewing; it remains for me to bring it to whatever state of completion I choose, or to put it another way, to exercise my artistic expertise to realize whatever vision I wish the image to represent. Second, while modern cameras can be configured to process the image for us and produce a credible image it does compress it into JPEG format which is a fraction the size of a RAW image, meaning much information contained in a RAW image is lost as well as control of the end product. Simply stated, compression into JPEG format is a destructive process as opposed to non-destructive processing of the image in say Photoshop, Lightroom, or similar software. For that reason most serious photograpers want a RAW image even though it means time on the computer to process images. If this is of no concern to you and you are happy with JPEG's then read no further. But, if you are interested in editing "tools" then the following may be of interest.
That said, I employ a number of tools (software) to enable me to finish my images. The process of editing is commonly referred to as "workflow". There seems to be as many "workflows" as there are photographers. A great many utilize Lightroom, Photoshop, or others...or a combination of many. I fall into the latter category. Everything I do starts in Lightroom as an organizer...which also has a good processing module among other features. I use this to do basic edits, e.g., exposure and contrast corrections, white balance, perspective corrections, etc. That might be adequate for some, but to me the real magic happens in Photoshop which I use to apply more complex edits, and as a central hub to access third party plug ins, like NIK or onONE software which I use extensively. Some might consider that a lot of bother, but Photoshop allows me to make each adjustment as a non-destructive layer which I can return to at some later time to make needed adjustments, and I can access all my plug-ins to create my desired "look" from that single platform. It took much trial and error to develop my "workflow" and while I won't claim it's the best or only one it does work for me. The downside, (and there's always a downside isn't there?) it takes a lot of time and storage space. To be sure, everything I do could be done without ever leaving Photoshop, but most of us are not that sophisticated in the use if this complicated program and look to "expert" presets (or those created by ouselves in plug-ins) to get the job done. In fact most presets I use today are those I have created myself.
Which brings me to the point of this blog. I was recently given an opportunity to try a somewhat different concept by SLEEKLENS in exchange for my review. SLEEKLENS markets presets for Lightroom and "Actions" for Photoshop that apply desired effects to photos within those particular programs without switching in and out of plug-ins or being an advanced user of Photoshop, which does require a rather steep learning curve. Since I utilize Photoshop as my hub the SLEEKLENS actions were my choice to review.
What is a preset or action? Simply stated a preset is a "look" or "effect" that can be applied to an image with one click of the mouse. An "action" in Photoshop is similar whereby a single click sets off a procedure, or indeed a combination of procedures, to achieve an effect. They are created by ONCE recording a series of steps within Photoshop that can later be used over and over again as many times as one desires...with a single click. The advantage? They reside right in Photoshop with no need to navigate to an outside plug-in...and then navigate back into Photoshop. So what's the big deal? SIMPLICITY & TIME. It requires time to move back and forth in programs, and if you're using an aging computer with multiple external storage devices like I do time becomes an issue. With these "actions" there is no need to leave the Photoshop platform.
The download I received for Landscape editing included over 50 actions that address most commonly executed edits such as Exposure and contrast adjustment, Tonality adjustments, Special Effects, Resizing, actions to create a specific Mood, Enhancements, etc. The actions are delivered in a zip file that when opened easily loads the actions into Photoshop where they appear in the "Actions" window and easily identified under a Sleeklens caption. As many as you want can be applied to an image by simply running the action(s) and adjusting to suit your taste. A couple caveats...you must own Photoshop version 4-6, or CC, (also compatible with Elements 11-16), and have a basic understanding of its use (e.g., layers, masking, brushing, opacity).
There is a bit of a curve in learning what these actions actually do but with practice that should become pretty much automatic. Compared to third party plug-ins I have used there are fewer preset options, but virtually the same effects can be produced via adjusting opacity and/or brushing in desired adjustments. One thing that disturbs me a bit is that once an action is applied the layers are flattened or merged before applying another action. This means one cannot go back and adjust a previous action; that is but a minor annoyance because in practice I seldom go back to re-edit an image. But, on the positive side I find the actions execute quickly, they are convenient to access, they can be easily adjusted to personal taste, and they include all editing options most photographers will need. And the price, $49.00, is far below that of any plug-in of comparable quality I have encountered.
Here is a sample RAW image for editing:
This image is right out of the camera with nothing done to it. Note how dull and lifeless it appears. I would like to add clarity and definition to this image to bring out definition in the sky, rocks, and surf...and improve the color. Additionally I'd like a bit more light on the right hand pinnacle. There is also a white seagull with the sun shining off its feathers right in the middle of the image; it is barely visible. I think a bit of clarity will bring that into sharper visibility. Finally, this photo was taken in mid-afternoon just as the lighting is at its worst. It is harsh and rather flat. I'm going to warm this entire scene to create more of a late afternoon ambience.
This then is the result after applying three or four SLEEKLENS actions. I think I have accomplished all the goals set out above. Contrary to what some perceive as "editing" I have not changed any of the elements of this scene; I have merely brought it more into conformity with what I saw and visualized for this image even to the extent of bringing that little dot of a bird into visibility. And as added benefit the resultant image is less that a quarter the size of my normally edited images with a lot of positive implications to the massive storage space I utilize.
The following are links to SLEEKLENS where more information is available and the "Actions" purchased. Just copy and paste to access the SLEEKLENS website.