Zion National Park

Creating a Black and White Photograph: The Selection Process

As a follow-up to my first post on black and white photography, I wanted to write about the selection process for choosing photographs to develop in black and white.

The Watchman, Zion National Park

In the past, black and white photography was the only option. Today, when digital cameras easily capture full-color images with no additional effort on the part of the photographer, black and white photography may seem like an old technology. But some of the most dramatic and compelling photographs made today are black and whites. Why? The absence of color requires the photographer to express emotion and tell a story in a different way. Creativity is forced from the artist, or the result is a bad photograph. In the end, the black and white photograph benefits from this extra creativity, and it is a much stronger image.

We now have a choice in whether we make a color or black and white photograph. We choose to make a black and white because of the drama it conveys. But when deciding to make a black and white photograph instead of color, what drives that decision? How do we select a particular photograph to be black and white?

As I mentioned in my earlier blog article, the selection process should not be something like the following: "The colors in this photograph aren't that good because the light was bad. I'll just make it a black and white." Wrong--if the light was bad, it's a bad photograph. Period. It shouldn’t be a color or black and white photograph.

London Bridge, Lake Havasu City, AZ

I am primarily a color photographer, so when I have an image with beautiful color, I want to create a fine art color photograph with it. So the starting point for my process is usually to evaluate the color. If I can't make a good color photograph, then I will consider whether it will make a good black and white photograph. It's not an automatic decision, however, and 90% of the time, I wouldn't do anything with it at all.

So if I look at a photograph and feel it’s a great subject and composition, and it communicates a simple, clear message, then if the color just wasn't there, I would likely consider converting it to black and white.

Mossy Cave Falls, Bryce Canyon National Park

When I am deciding whether to create a black and white version of a photograph, I also look at the elements in the frame to see if I think they will work in black and white. In general I prefer simple, graphic compositions without distractions. I think simplicity is even more important in black and white. I don’t think high frequency and random patterns look good in black and white. I prefer smoother, more gently changing shapes and patterns. An area of high frequency is one that has lots of small areas with different light levels. For example, the surface of a body of water has many small reflections. It’s like a disco ball of tiny bright and dark reflections. I avoid this pattern in black and white photographs. Black and white is about light and contrast. It’s difficult to establish a higher level of light and contrast when the effort is constantly interrupted and disturbed by these high frequency variations.

The photograph above of the London Bridge does include reflective water. But the water was very still to begin with, and by using a longer exposure I have eliminated any high frequency variations in the reflection. The reflection is more pure, and that simplicity makes it work in the black and white photograph. The same goes for the photograph of Mossy Cave Falls, directly above. Here the water is in motion and would normally appear very choppy with lots of high frequency variations. Again, I have made a longer exposure to smooth out those variations and simplify the photograph.

Old La Concha Motel, Las Vegas, NV

The Riviera, Las Vegas, NV

Another deciding factor can sometimes be the subject matter itself. Particularly with older buildings, I sometimes like to make black and white photographs, because they help communicate the era of the buildings. For example, these old Las Vegas hotels benefit from the black and white treatment. It helps tell their story and communicates the classic nature of the buildings.

There are additional factors, but evaluating the color content and the graphical nature of the composition along with the subject matter are some of the primary ways I decide whether or not to make a black and white photograph.

Why Am I In Business?

I’m in business to make money, right? It sounds like a silly question. The purpose of a business is to make money, but as a fine art landscape photographer, is money really my driving force?

Bridge to the Sentinel, Zion National Park

For me the answer is no. I’m in business because I feel I have something to share with people, and I want to share it. I love making landscape photographs, and I love presenting the results of my work and everything that goes into it. As a business, I want to be compensated for my efforts, and my compensation should be sufficient to cover my expenses and provide a reasonable profit. My goal is to continue growing my business, but I never want to lose sight of what brought me to this point: sharing my art with others.

There are many ways to share my photography without being in business. I could set up a website. I could post photographs on 500px, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media sites. In fact, I do many of these things. But I find this online way of sharing to be unsatisfying, even if appreciated by many people. When someone sees my photograph on a social media site or other online location, they see it along with hundreds of other photographs. Even when viewing a photograph on my website, they see it and then it’s gone. They may never think about it again. I value permanence in art. I want people to take time to explore my photographs, not just click through them. I invest much time and effort in creating my photographs, and I want people to have the opportunity to take time to appreciate them and extract value and enjoyment from them.

Cascading Falls in the Virgin River, Zion National Park

The best way for me to accomplish that goal is with a print. I believe the primary outcome of fine art photography should be a print. That’s the finished product. The digital image on screen is fleeting. It’s not real. It’s just a representation. A screen cannot communicate my vision because I can’t control your settings--are your colors distorted? Is the brightness and/or contrast wrong? The print accurately communicates my vision exactly as I see it. Ansel Adams referred to the print as being the performance. Everything else just leads up to that performance. Yes! It’s a performance that lasts and lingers, and you can come back to it either casually or with serious intent to study it. You can observe it up close or from a distance. It’s physical. You can hold it in your hands and feel it.

So why am I in business? I’m in business because I love making prints of my photography and sharing that permanence and artistry with people who appreciate my work. I want to give that performance for people. Through my blog and any personal interaction we might have had at art festivals and other events, I hope you can sense the excitement and passion I feel for my work, and that’s why I enjoy it so much. That’s why I’m in business--because I love what I’m doing. The money, when it comes, is just a side benefit.

Navajo Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park

The Colors of Sunset

One of the most enjoyable aspects of watching a sunset is experiencing the different colors that appear in the sky. I made the photograph below from the Watchman Trail in Zion National Park a couple weeks ago.

The Watchman, Zion National Park

Many sunsets are orange, yellow, and red, but other colors are possible depending on the sky conditions. Because of the arrangement of clouds this night in Zion, the sunset featured the colors pink and blue. I was excited to be going to Zion on this day because the skies were partly to mostly cloudy. On days like that, the sun may have an opportunity to light up the clouds from below just after sunset. In this case, the distribution and thickness of the cloud cover created these interesting colors.

Around the Watchman itself, the clouds were thinner, and the pink sky of dusk illuminated the clouds from behind. Meanwhile, the other half of the sky had thicker cloud cover, and that’s where the sun was setting. Not much light was shining through those clouds, and the deeper shadows created the blue color in that part of the sky.

Clouds make all the difference in landscape photography. Here’s a photograph I made a couple years ago from a similar location. This photograph has a completely different feel to it because of the different light and colors created by the clouds.

The Watchman over Springdale, Zion National Park

Without the clouds and the beautiful colors they help produce, I had to create interest in my photograph in other ways. For example, that night I chose to make my photograph a little earlier so I could include the sun in the frame. As a result, the photograph has a completely different color pallette from the one above.

That’s another one of the great things about landscape photography. Returning repeatedly to a beautiful place creates opportunities to make different kinds of photographs of the same subject. I was very happy to return to the Watchman Trail in Zion National Park to make a new photograph of one of my favorite mountains in the park.

Zion From My Perspective

Most mornings and evenings at sunrise and sunset, a couple dozen people and their tripods occupy the side of the bridge over the Virgin River along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway in Zion National Park. From that vantage point you see the Virgin River and the Watchman, and this scene represents the iconic image that everybody wants to capture. The photograph here is not that photograph.

Virgin River and Watchman, Zion National Park

This photograph is not the famous, iconic view of the Watchman at Zion National Park, but it is a similar composition. I’d like to address this question: when visiting a national park, should we feel obligated to make certain photographs, or should we simply follow our own eyes and our own hearts and make the photographs we want from where we want?

The iconic image is a perfect composition, and that’s why it is so popular. But as an artistic photographer, should I rush out to make that photograph so that I have it in my portfolio, or should I find something different? It’s difficult to improve on perfection, but just because one composition is perfect does not mean other compositions are not equally perfect. Art is not a zero sum game. There are probably an infinite number of extremely effective compositions to make in that location. It’s hard not to find a great composition when you have all these elements coming together in one place. The iconic image is iconic simply because it is the most famous one originally created by a well-known photographer.

Was I in the wrong place? No--I was in the right place for me.

I decided to make my photograph below the bridge from the side of the river rather than from above. I feel my composition brings the viewer into the scene more effectively rather than presenting a more bird’s eye view of the landscape. My intention was not to find something better than the iconic image. That’s probably not possible. But the perfection of that image does not mean my photograph is not equally valid, beautiful, and perfect in its own way.

The key here is that I decided to find my own photograph and express my own vision. I might very well have decided to make my photograph from the bridge like everyone else. If that’s what my eyes and my heart told me, fine. But I allowed myself to search independently. I did not allow that iconic image to influence me or obligate me in any way, and instead I thought about how I wanted to present the scene.

As an artist, it’s important for me to think. My goal is not to take all the same photographs others have taken. But neither is my goal to avoid taking photographs similar to what others have taken. I approach a location with my eyes wide open. I follow my eyes, and I let my heart tell me where to point my camera. My photographs represent me, so I go out there and search for my vision. I try to remain independent, and whatever I feel is right, that’s what I photograph. That way, when you look at my photographs, you are always looking at my vision. You’re seeing everything the way I want you to see it, not the way the majority of people think you should see it.

I was joined by three other brave individuals that evening. The first came and set his camera down next to me and asked if I minded if he joined me. I said, no of course not, this is a great location to make a photograph. A little later a couple others came down to join us. They said they wanted to see why we chose this location. The point is, when I turn around and see 20 people with cameras on the bridge behind me, I don’t think to myself, maybe I’m in the wrong place here. Instead I just do my thing and make my photograph in the privacy of my own thoughts and the space of my selected location.

2015 In Review

It has been a great 2015, and I thought I'd share with you some of the photographic highlights of my year.

I visited Joshua Tree National Park for the first time this year. I made two trips to the park. I focused on the trees but also on the Milky Way when I was at the park in the summer.

Joshua and Joshua, Jr., Joshua Tree National Park

Amazing Milky Way, Joshua Tree National Park

I made several trips to Death Valley this year. I was excited to get to visit the Racetrack for the first time. I also made several photographs of the Mesquite Sand Dunes. And I made the photograph of Darwin Falls that I wrote about in my last blog article. Here are some of my photographs from Death Valley this year.

Tranquility on Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley National Park

Morning Marathon on the Racetrack, Death Valley National Park

Morning Marathon on the Racetrack, Death Valley National Park

Desert Heat, Death Valley National Park

I also made a few trips to Zion. I returned from the Narrows hike with a couple of beautiful photographs. I also visited the park in the Fall and captured some of the colorful foliage.

Big Spring in the Narrows, Zion National Park

Burst of Color on the Virgin River, Zion National Park

During the summer I focused my attention on Great Basin National Park, hoping to make some Milky Way photographs. I created this photograph featuring Mount Wheeler and the Milky Way.

Milky Way Over Mount Wheeler, Great Basin National Park

I also took a trip to the Los Angeles area. Here’s a photograph I made at Laguna Beach.

Laguna Beach Aurora, Laguna Beach, CA

Those are just some of the highlights of my year photographically. I also made several new photographs around Las Vegas and during some smaller trips as well. I’m looking forward to visiting new places and returning to familiar places and seeing what I can produce in 2016. Happy new year!

How to Hike the Narrows - Equipment and Photography

The Narrows is one of the most beautiful areas in Zion National Park, and the hike through the Narrows is one of the park's best-known hikes. The narrow passages of colorful sandstone carved out by the Virgin River create a cathedral of beautiful scenery.

The Narrows, Zion National Park

There are three ways to hike the Narrows. You can start from the top and do it in two days. Or you can skip the overnight stay and do it in one long day hike from the top. Starting the hike from the top requires a permit in either case. The third alternative is to start from the bottom, which does not require a permit as long as you don't go beyond Big Spring (about 4.5 miles up the river from the Temple of Sinawava). Starting from the bottom is a round-trip hike. You go in as far as you want up to Big Spring and then turn around and go back out. This third option is the way I hiked the Narrows a few weeks ago.

Hiking the Narrows is an adventure. From the shuttle stop, it's about a mile hike on the paved riverside trail to the Temple of Sinawava. Then it's about 4.5 miles to Big Spring, and during that 4.5 miles you are in the river about 60-70% of the time, at least in late May or early June when I did it. Earlier in the spring, there is more water along with the increased threat of flash flooding. Once you enter the river at the Temple of Sinawava, there is no more trail. The river itself is the trail, and you wade through it slowly and cautiously the rest of the distance. The water is cool. It is shallow for most of the way, but it is often knee-deep, and there are a few places where it gets chest-high. Depending on the options you choose, you may also have to swim. I found myself swimming unexpectedly a couple of times on the way back down!

Let’s talk about equipment, because it’s important to be equipped properly for the hike. I saw a lot of people wearing sandals and other flimsy footwear, but I was very glad I had some real hiking boots on. I also wore wet socks to keep my feet nice and warm all day. They were very comfortable. I wore dry pants during my hike. I saw several other people with dry pants as well, but this time of year it's not really necessary. In colder weather, dry pants would be needed due to the colder water temperature, but shorts or a swimming suit is fine in late spring and throughout the summer. The most important clothing to me were the wet socks and sturdy boots.

Big Spring in the Narrows in Zion National Park

Some other equipment is also very helpful. First, I used hiking poles. I haven't used them on hikes in the past, but I was very glad to have them once I got in the river. Without those poles I would have fallen down a couple dozen times at least. The poles provide balance and stability while walking through the river with its rounded and slippery rocks, not to mention the current, which is quite strong in many places. I was probably very lucky not to have broken a pole, however. A better option would be an unbreakable hiking staff. Finally, I brought a dry bag for my camera equipment, food, a towel and other items I wanted to keep dry. Even after swimming through some sections of the river, the dry bag kept everything completely dry and safe.

Glowing Mountain in the Narrows at Zion National Park

Now for the photography. The photographic opportunities are huge! It all comes down to composition and light, though, because wherever you look the scenery is beautiful. To create a photograph that captures that beauty requires some patience and planning. Let's talk about the light first. There is a specific kind of light to seek among three lighting possibilities in the Narrows. The first is when the rock walls are in direct sunlight. This lighting is not desirable for all the reasons it rarely is desirable in any photograph. The direct sunlight is harsh and creates sharp, contrasty shadows. The second possibility is when the rocks are in the shadows. That lighting is not desirable because it diminishes the beautiful colors that exist in the red sandstone of the Narrows. Finally, the third possibility occurs when only some of the rock faces are in direct sunlight. Those rocks are not in our frame, however. Instead, the light reflects off those rocks and lights up the rocks that we do include in our photograph. This light is perfect because it is soft and produces a glowing effect in the rocks. It brings out the color and creates a much more interesting environment that reveals the true beauty of the Narrows.

Because I intended to do the entire hike, I did not have time to wait for good light. Further, since I had never done the hike before, I didn't have a specific location in mind where I wanted to photograph. The photographs I created were therefore dictated by the light. When I encountered the third lighting scenario with the soft, glowing, and colorful light, I stopped and searched for a good composition to make a photograph. I feel fortunate to have returned with the photographs I made given this approach, and it ended up working out very well.

I will be hiking the Narrows again, and next time I will take a different approach to my photography. The best part of the Narrows is in the Wall Street area, which is about 2 miles up the river. Instead of searching for the light, I will hike to that area, spend some time finding the composition I want to create, and then wait until the light is good. In other words, I will decide what photograph I want to compose and then wait for the light to accommodate my choice rather than having my options limited by the light at the particular time I happen to be in an area. I am very happy with the photographs I created this time, and I'm looking forward to creating additional photographs next time.