I recently attended a workshop on bird photography presented by Larry Lyons, a fellow local photographer. When describing how to photograph our feathered friends, he used the expression, “f/8 and be there.” For non-photographers, f/8 is a camera setting and in this expression it means know your equipment. Be there, means just that, be in the moment.
Recently, one of those moments happened outside my dining room window. During breakfast, my wife noticed that there were a bunch of robins eating the berries on our holly bush. When we looked closer we saw that there were actually hundreds of birds. We figured that a flock of migrating robins noticed our bush and decided to make a little rest stop and take turns eating the berries.
I don’t have the super fast cameras and lenses needed to photograph birds, but I do have equipment that I know very well, so I set the camera and started shooting. I learned that morning what it means to “be there” when photographing wildlife. By not having to fuss with my equipment, I could watch what these little birds were doing and study how they move, eat and react. I was eventually able to anticipate what they would do next.
Not having the right gear to freeze the action, I decided to catch the robins in their decisive moments while they treated themselves to the large number of tasty berries our holly bush is sporting this winter. I love these images because I got to know these little birds better while spending time watching them.
I enjoy taking inspiration from landscape painters because they do not suffer from the limitations of photography. When art starts with a blank canvas and a creative mind, reality can be completely bent to an the artist’s vision, style and skill. Landscape photographers, on the other hand, have to start with the reality that we place in front of our cameras. Sure, we can manipulate it to an extent with our choice of lighting, exposure and lens. We can even further manipulate an image in post processing. But no matter what we do, landscape photographers build art around reality and cannot completely build the reality itself like our painter friends can do.
Most of the painters that continue to influence me are no longer living, but one named Peter Fiore is very much alive. Peter is a master landscape artist living in the Delaware Water Gap. What I love about his work is the way he delicately shows how light can create quiet moments of stillness on the landscape.
Winter Afterglow by Peter Fiore
Peter’s latest show at the Travis Gallery in New Hope, Pennsylvania was called “Last 15.” It was a series of paintings showing the last 15 minutes of the day. This powerful series has influenced some of my recent work.
I do not desire to create something that looks like a painting with post processing. Software, like Topaz Labs’ Impression, tempts one with some very sophisticated tools to do this. While I love using Impression, I feel that being a photographer means my work should ultimately look photographic.
I created the image Fire in a Winter Sky because I wanted to show that feeling of eerie calm in the last moments of a winter day before night descends on the frozen world. The painting of Peter Fiore’s Winter Afterglow was on my mind as I stood with my camera capturing the light fading over a cedar swamp. My desire was not to imitate the look of the painting, but to convey the feeling in the same way the painting by does using color and light.
Just outside of Death Valley National Park is an old ghost town called Rhyolite. It is near the funky little city of Beatty, Nevada. The old buildings are a popular place to photograph. We stopped at Rhyolite, but the flat light from a rare fully overcast sky just wasn’t making for compelling photography.
Then I saw Aly. She and a friend were modeling for some photographers. When they took a break, I approached and asked if I could photograph them. Aly said she could give me a little time, so I posed her by one of the old buildings that had a lot of graffiti. The tattoo on her chest worked well with that in the background.
The few minutes I had to work with her were a lot of fun. You have to love a good model. Aly followed directions and did some nice improvisations. You can see, she wasn’t dressed for a cold and windy day, yet she never showed how cold she was until we were done and she ran to her car to warm up.
There is nothing like a chance encounter to make a questionable photography day a good one.
One of the greatest things about being a member of Canon Professional Services is that you get to borrow expensive cameras and lenses and play around with them for a few days. Because my photography interests have moved beyond just creating fine art landscapes, I have been looking for a camera that will be a good tool for action photography. After photographing bears in Alaska and World War II re-enactors in Pennsylvania, I realized that I could have been better equipped. That’s why I tried out the new Canon 7D Mark II Camera. Here is the probably least technical camera review you may ever read, it’s just the opinion of a guy who loves to use a camera to create things.
Build – This camera is very solidly built and sturdy like its predecessor, the first 7D. Canon’s specs say it is weather sealed. I didn’t use it in to bad of weather, but did shoot outside for several hours in windy 20 degree F weather with ice blowing all around and the camera held up just fine.
Speed – One of the most significant features of this camera is its speed. At 10 frames per second, there is not a lot this thing will miss. Speed is a great asset for wildlife, sports and other action photographers. Of course, this will require larger cards in order to record all those extra shots. Fortunately the Canon 7D Mark II has two card slots, one each for CF and SD cards.
Auto Focus – I don’t use auto focus at all for my main artistic work, but it is useful for commercial and action shooting. The auto focus system on this camera is supposedly state of the art. Without dissecting all the technical details this appears to be true. Out of 2142 shutter clicks, only 25 were out of focus and those happened when I was figuring out the auto focus settings. Basically the camera focused on the wrong subject which was probably my fault. After I figured it out, it focused right where it needed to be.
Noise – This was the major downfall of the first 7D camera. It was built well, fast and designed for action shooting, but action shots require fast shutter speeds. Fast shutter speeds in low lighting conditions require high ISO settings to get the right exposure. Unfortunately the original 7D produced a lot of noise. Above ISO 800 the image was just about unusable. I’m happy to report that this problem is definitely fixed. The indoor photographs below were shot at ISO 6400 and while there is noise present, most of it was easily reduced using Adobe Camera Raw’s noise reduction filter. Adding Topaz De-Noise or another more sophisticated noise reduction filter would probably do even better. My opinion is that the 7D Mark II has a little better noise control than the 5D Mark III which is over $1000 more in cost.
Picture Quality – In my humble opinion, the original 7D did not have the best picture quality. These photographs of the Ice Carvers at Mt. Holly, New Jersey’s Fire and Ice Festival show that the 7D Mark II produces very good photographs. The first and third photograph was shot under very high contrast lighting. There was a enough dynamic range in the RAW image to pull out the details from the shadows and the highlights.
Ice Carver #1 by Richard Lewis 2015
Ice Carver #2 by Richard Lewis 2015
Ice Carver #3 by Richard Lewis 2015
These photos were shot at a shutter speed of 2000 @ f/4 with a 70-200 mm lens. The ISO was 6400. While the noise would be unacceptable for a fine art landscape, in street photography the quality of the subject matter is not as tied to the image quality.
Oh The Wonder by Richard Lewis 2015
Girl Scout by Richard Lewis
Canon has been dissed for not including an articulated LCD screen and wifi on this camera. While a movable LCD would be helpful, I’d prefer a more more bulletproof camera with a fixed screen, if that was reason it was left off. I do not see the need for wifi. While some photographers would, I shoot full sized RAW files and at 20+ megabytes a photograph, I’d rather transfer them directly to a computer.
So Rich, are you going to buy one? Maybe. This is one amazing camera. First and foremost I’m a fine art photographer and while this camera would be helpful for commercial work, it would not replace my main camera, except playing the role of a back up.
I’ve been critical of Canon for not keeping up with technology. It seems that they will make up for it this year with introduction of 3 new versions of the already very great 5D camera. Two will be 50+ megapixel cameras and the third will be the 5D Mark IV which according to the CanonRumors.com website “will focus on being a lowlight event and sports type of camera with good enough image quality for pretty much anything else you throw at it.” It might be wise to wait and see what these cameras will be like.
Understanding the nature of the desert landscape means being open to its amazing range of light. Driving across the desert in the early evening revealed the scene below. I’ve never seen the moon’s glow reflected quite like this.
Lunar Glow in the Desert by Richard Lewis 2015
What’s So Bad About the Badlands?
The more I photograph Death Valley’s Badlands, the more I fall in love them. The colors and textures revealed in the early light are so beautiful that I’d rather call them the “Goodlands.” Sure, that is easily said when a sturdy 4 wheel drive vehicle is parked a mile away and it is a short drive to a hardy breakfast. One can only imagine looking across this scene, years ago, when life was dependent on crossing this rugged landscape on foot or by horse to know why they were called the Badlands.
Badlands at Dawn by Richard Lewis 2015
Saved By the Light
The following images are the result of a bad navigation mistake. Because my phone’s GPS was not working here, I used compass readings from various landmarks to get to a shooting location in the dark. On this morning, I wanted to shoot the sunrise from the less visited side of the Mesquite Sand Dunes. I had the correct compass heading, but started from the wrong landmark which was one of many sign posts along the road. In hind sight, a sign post was probably not the best landmark to pick and was too late before I realized that I was not where I wanted to be.
Fortunately, I was saved by one of the most amazing shows of morning light I have ever seen in Death Valley. While the foregrounds in these photographs may not be most exciting things to focus a lens on, the light makes up for it. That is why I feel the need to share this early Death Valley morning with you.
Morning Dunes by Richard Lewis 2015
Morning Light on Cotton Ball Basin by Richard Lewis 2015
I’m including this image which shows the peaceful feeling of an early morning in the desert. Although far from a dramatic desert landscape, it shows that the desert is a rough environment to try to exist in, no matter what species you happen to belong to. In the early light on the morning, before the challenges of a day in the desert begins, it is a magical and beautiful place to be.
On our second trip to Death Valley, the plan was to visit some of the more remote places in the park. We found that the journey was actually as interesting as the destination and often revealed interesting and unusual things about the desert.
The moon was a big factor in my photography this trip. It was full and just happened to rise, set, or appear at the most convenient times while photographing.
Moon Set in Death Valley
Very early one morning, as I left the the hotel room, I noticed the moon setting. I have never seen a moon set quite like this one. It looked like some kind of bizarre, alien sunset. I had to photograph this, but the moon had already set. The only option was to race up a mountain to create this photograph as the moon set again from the higher vantage point.
Moon Set in Death Valley by Richard Lewis 2015
The Badlands of 20 Mule Team Canyon
In order to find a good spot to photograph at sunrise, we spent a day hiking up and down the canyons that spill into the 20 Mule Team Canyon. Not being on marked trails means you have to pay attention to where you are. More than once, we hiked up one canyon and started down another only to find that if we kept going we would end up miles away from our car.
The Badlands of Death Valley by Richard Lewis 2015
The Last Chance Mountains
The last Chance Mountains stand between Death Valley and the Eureka Dunes, a remote set of high country sand dunes. At sunset, we found ourselves in the pass which runs through these mountains, catching the full moon in a great spot to be photographed.
Full Moon in the Last Chance Mountains by Richard Lewis 2015
Bad Water Basin
The interplay of wind and rain will cause geometric shapes to form in the playas (flat basins) of Death Valley. These polygon shapes are always changing. Sometimes they look almost as smooth as ceramic tile floors. This year they were still forming and very rough in appearance.
Badwater Basin by Richard Lewis 2015
Like No Other National Park
You sometimes come across relics in Death Valley from the time before it was a national park. These two old and shot up cars were just sitting in the middle of the desert begging to be photographed.
Together in Death (Valley) by Richard Lewis 2015
Watch for a few more images from our trip to Death Valley.
California has a lot to see if you are a landscape photographer. The state has more than its fair share of beautiful national parks like Kings Canyon, Sequoia, Yosemite and Death Valley. There are also many lesser known places with beautiful and unusual landscapes. While some are popular with photographers, many offer a lot of room to explore and create some unique imagery.
The Alabama Hills and the Eastern Sierras
The Sierra Nevada Mountains have been called one of the most beautiful features of the United States. While the western side is home to Lake Tahoe and several national parks. the eastern slope of the Sierras is very different. The Eastern Sierras are far more rugged with Cliffs steeply dropping to the valley below. This provides a dramatic background for the Alabama Hills which themselves are a rough, wind formed desert landscape. Unfortunately, due to weather and time constraints we only got to spend one morning there. We will be back for sure to explore this unusual and amazing place.
Below are the Eastern Sierras framed through Mobius Arch which is the most dramatic of several arches in the Alabama Hills.
Mobius Arch by Richard Lewis 2014
The Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains lit by the first light of the dawn on New Years Day. The jagged peak in the center of the photograph is Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States.
First Light in the Alabama Hills by Richard Lewis 2015
The wind tortured landscape of the Alabama Hills just begs to be explored on foot.
Rock Formations in the Alabama Hills by Richard Lewis 2015
Anzo-Borrego Desert State Park
The small town of Borrego Springs, California is surrounded by the Anzo-Borrego Desert State Park. At 950,000 acres it is one of the largest state parks in the country.
Fonts Point Badlands in Anzo Borrego by Richard Lewis 2014
Early Morning in the Anzo Borrego Badlands by Richard Lewis 2014
The more we travel to California, the more we fall in love with its amazing variety of landscapes.