15 December 2010

The Yin and Yang of The Wave and White Pocket (part II)

Trudging a 100 meters or so through the soft sand, one has no idea what’s on the other side of the low hill.  Even if you have seen photos of White Pocket, you cannot really be prepared for it. Trust me.

Bold, expansive, riotous, chaotic, contorted and complex, bright white and popsicle orange, weathered and eroded, weird, strange and otherworldly. While all true, these adjectives only go so far to describe the pleasant insanity that is White Pocket.  Even photographs — no matter how beautiful and stunning — can only give you snapshots of the craziness.  Macroscopically compelling and microscopically arresting, you can spend hours working just one small area, following twisty-turny lines of strata with eye and camera, or sit perched on the elephant hide-like back of the highest point that acts as both a viewpoint and a visual reference point for this otherwise easy-to-get-lost-in-landscape.  Bring your panoramic camera (and/or ultra-wide lens) but don’t forget your 105mm macro: you’ll want them both.

It’s easy to imagine spending days here exploring the various nooks and crannies and since camping is still permitted, White Pocket really deserves at least an overnighter.  I spent two afternoons extending into and past sunset both days, and perhaps had covered maybe half of the exposed sandstone.  A mile or so away rises the bulk of White Pocket Butte and that would certainly afford many more exploring and photo opportunities.  While visually cacophonous, the arduous drive into White Pocket assures you of quiet, tourist-free time.

Though I had seen many photos, I was not prepared for The Wave.  After scaling the last steep and deep sandy hill, you enter The Wave through what appears to be a hollowed out sandstone hall with no roof.  Smooth lines flow sonorously through and around The Wave. Serene, graceful, and harmonious, this is the Yin to White Pocket’s Yang.  Very compact (another surprise as most photos can’t really reveal its scale), The Wave proper could easily be explored and photographed in a half of a day. If you had more time, you could try to find the Second Wave and and a small arch nearby. No camping is permitted, so get out there early and maximize your time.

The Wave has become the latest in a long-list of must-see/must-photograph landscape icons. Shooting them is a challenge, if you want to say something new, rather than just replicate what others have done.  In the case of The Wave, I initially shot from what has become the standard, central position, but then I crawled high up on the bowl edges in several places as well as chose low angles inches from the sandstone. I also used infrared and panorama cameras. There are always ways to put a unique spin on a familiar setting.

Upon my return I was asked which I liked better: The Wave or White Pocket.  The facile answer is “they are different” but it also happens to be very true. They are both sides of a (sandstone) coin.  It would be like saying you like ‘heads’ better than ‘tales,’ when really you can’t have one, without the other.


09 December 2010

At the Court of Chaos and the Hall of Harmony: White Pocket and The Wave (Part I)

I can think of no greater example of extreme difference in ostensibly similar landforms — with commonality in base components, age, agents of erosion, and location — than White Pocket and The Wave. Both are located in the Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs wilderness, now newly designated as a National Monument, in a remote section of northern Arizona bounded by the Paria and the Colorado Rivers. Both are formations of primordial sand dunes long since petrified and frozen in time, when dinosaurs wandered ancestral seashores occasionally leaving tracks for us to find. Sandstone of muted reds, brilliant oranges, bright whites and golden yellows, the ever-present building blocks of the Southwest, shaped by water and wind (but mostly water), provide the foundation for both landscapes, as well as an exercise in the study of contrasts.

Separated by less than 20 miles as the raven flies, White Pocket and The Wave offer completely different experiences. Since its “discovery” some 15+ years ago, The Wave has become, for the growing legions of aspiring landscape photographers, a “must-see/must-have.” Relatively easy access — 10 miles of the usually very well-graded House Rock Road, followed by a 3 mile, basically level hike over sand and slickrock — would normally contribute to a steady stream of visitors and your classic outdoor Disney experience. So much so that the BLM has implemented a contentious permitting process that allows for only 20 visitors per day. This has been frustrating for those without open-ended dates but pretty much guarantees that once you get a permit you will have, if not a solitary experience, a quiet one.

Access to White Pocket is quite a bit different. Another 5 or so miles down the aforementioned road leads to you the first possible turnoff. This will lead up and over Paw Hole which can be nasty-deep with orange sand in the dry season. Further south is another unmarked turnoff in Corral Valley that will bypass the Paw Hole sandtrap but is longer and quite rough in some stretches. Both tracks (really, calling them ‘roads’ imparts a bit more dignity than they warrant) meet up in the middle of nowhere otherwise known as Poverty Flat. At this point, if you are not lost, it’s a good thing, as there are a number of spur tracks that seem designed to lead you astray. The land rises in such a way that only very occasionally will you catch a glimpse of the large white sandstone butte to the east which is labeled White Pocket on the map, but is not exactly the White Pocket you want to explore. Assuming you end up on the right track after Poverty Flat, you still have almost another hour of negotiating sand and rock (but mostly sand) before the “road” leads south around and past White Pocket Butte to end at a wooden fence that seems designed to keep ATVers off of the brittle sandstone but permits desiccated cows access to crap where they please.

Having survived the sandy and at times bone-rattling 2 hour drive from the nearest pavement, now would be time to set up camp and pop a cold beer, or, better yet, go exploring with cameras in tow.

(Part II: the Yin and Yang of White Pocket and The Wave)


28 October 2010

I see in Infrared...even better now

In early 2009 – a year after I purchased my infrared-sensitive Fuji IS-1 – I stumbled (online, so it really didn’t hurt) across someone local to me that performs IR-conversions on cameras other than Nikon and Canon. Well, actually I found two people who would do it but one guy is less than an hour from where I live and the other I would have had to ship the camera out of state.

Clarence Spencer of Spencer’s Cameras will perform IR-conversion on just about any DSLR so I gathered up my circa 2005 *istDS (yeah, I know: stupid model name…Pentax left it behind some time ago) and paid a visit to Mr. Spencer. There are three basic ways you can have the conversion performed: 1) remove the IR blocking filter and place a 720nm filter over the sensor, 2) remove the IR blocking filter and place an 830nm filter over the sensor, or 3) remove the IR blocking filter and place a clear glass over the sensor and use IR filters on your lenses. I opted for option #1.

Yes, this renders the camera useless for visible light photography (you can, btw, always have this conversion reversed) but this was an older camera that sat on the shelf and didn’t even act as a backup anymore. Additionally, with the IR filter over the sensor, I can now hand-hold for most of my shots. But option #3 seems more flexible, non? Actually, non. While ostensibly you could use the camera for visible light photography, you would need to buy a “hot filter” for your lens to counteract the negative color cast of the infrared bandwidth. And, for IR work, you will generally need to focus without the IR filter, then mount the filter on the lens, then take the shot. And, you’ll need that tripod again…and a set of IR filters for your different lens diameters (or at least step-up rings). I call none of this very flexible.

Pretty quickly this converted DSLR became my new go-to IR camera. It is only 6mp but being an APS-sized sensor meant that compared to the Fuji I should have much less noise in my images. And, I do. I very rarely ever have to run Neat Image and the clarity and sharpness of the images I am capturing amazes me. As I mentioned before, 99+% of the time I convert my IR images to B/W and the converted camera combined with post-processing via Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro really became a winning combination for me.

I was having so much fun with this camera that pretty quickly I decided to take another sitting-on-the-shelf DSLR – my Pentax K100 – and have it converted with the deeper IR filter of 830nm. I was hoping for richer blacks and whites to pop even more. For various reasons it took me longer to have the conversion made but this summer I started shooting with the 830nm converted K100. This model Pentax was the first with built-in (the body) Shake Reduction technology and because the sensor is now getting no visible light and is much deeper in the IR bandwidth, the Shake Reduction is giving me a much-needed extra 2-4 stops hand-held.

These two IR cameras are now always with me and there have even been days (two most recently in NYC for instance) where I never even pulled my K20 (visible light) camera out of the bag. I still use Sliver Efex pro for many of the 720nm images but have developed a taste for duo- or tri-tones with the images the 830nm camera produces. This combination yields some very nice slightly blue-cast photos that are subtle color-wise but feel different from a typical B&W. I’m very much liking where I am IR-wise, but it’s not all roses though…

Hot spots have been greatly reduced and are now easily managed, but I have found that wide-angle zoom lenses are anathema to these conversions. Focus and image smearing are real issues with three zooms that I like for landscapes (or cityscapes for that matter): the Sigma 10-20mm, Sigma 12-24mm and even my 18mm-50mm (that latter is only a problem at the widest focal length). Whether manual or auto focusing the images are soft at best and smeared at worst. And, not just on the edges, but side to side, top to bottom. After a bit of research, it does appear that super wide angle zooms can be prone to this problem when shooting IR. I have three primes: a Pentax 20mm, a Sigma 14mm and Sigma 15mm Fisheye that yield nice, sharp images. (All three of these lenses are designed for full-frame cameras so the edges might be soft but I just wouldn’t know it.)

Even with those limitations, discovering digital infrared photography has added a new dimension to my portfolios. People can’t always tell what is different about an image but they know something is. It feels unique, mysterious even, black and white but not quite. When I tell them, as I always do, that they are infrared images, there is often an ‘aha’ moment. Then, perhaps, the question comes: but how do you know what exactly will look good in infrared? That’s easy, I tell them…I see in infrared!


22 October 2010

I See in Infrared: The Next Phase

Per my previous post, I had been taking a number of infrared images with a variety of point-and-shoots for quite happily for several years. Then in early 2008 I got wind of a new, infrared-sensitive camera just out on the market: the Fuji IS-1. This camera was a follow-up to Fuji’s much-acclaimed, but discontinued and hard as a four-leaf clover to find S3 Pro UVIR. (The S3 Pro UVIR was a DSLR that was not only IR sensitive but also sensitive in the ultra-violet bandwidth – a real rarity.) Fuji called the  IS-1 a ‘neo-SLR’ and it looks like a miniature plastic DSLR but with an integral 28-300mm zoom lens. Like the S3 Pro UVIR, it was not targeted for professional photographers, but rather the forensic and scientific community. Unlike its predecessor the IS-1 sacrificed one critical component to go into that smaller and lighter package…can you guess?


Sensor size. The IS-1 uses essentially a point-and-shoot CCD sensor while the S3 (and most other digital SLRs that are not full-frame) has an APS sized sensor. Here are some sensor size numbers to chew on: Canon G1 (my previous IR camera) = 0.38cm2; Fuji IS-1 = 0.45cm2; Pentax K10 (APS sensor) = 3.68cm2. There is an 8-fold difference between the sensor size of the IS-1 and my K10. Yet, the IS-1 is rated at 9 megapixels and the K10 is at 10mp. How is this possible? The pixel densities on the two sensors are quite different: 2.7 MP/cm² for the Pentax and a whopping 19 MP/cm² for the IS-1. So what and why am I spending all this time on this? Bear with me.


Flashback to February 2008 and I was seduced by the thought of shooting IR hand-held using a variety of infrared filters and working with a 9mp RAW file. I plunked the dough down and couldn’t wait for it to arrive along with my Hoya 720nm, Tiffen 780nm and B+W 830nm infrared filters.


One of the first images I took was of our golden retriever, Hannah. “Cool shot” I thought, but was struck immediately by the grain in the 400 ISO image. This – and one other aspect – are the major demerit points of the IS-1. The grain – let’s call it what it is: noise – is a consequence of cramming so many pixels into such a small sensor. I have managed the noise via two methodologies: try to shoot no higher than 200 ISO and certainly not above 400 ISO; and use noise reduction software in post-processing. This combination has permitted me to shoot lots of great images and print them up to around 13x19 size.


The different IR-depths of the three filters allowed me to be able to shoot hand-held in generally most types of light, while also realizing some subtle differences between the wavelength captures. But I also came to experience pretty quickly the other downside to this camera: persistent hot spot at f5 and above. In bright sun this becomes a major annoyance, especially if I want maximum depth of field. Why Fuji did not design an IR-sensitive camera to inherently baffle these stray, bouncing IR waves is beyond me. Depending upon subject matter sometimes I can tone down the hot spot via spot adjustments in post-processing. But if the spot is in the sky, well, as the New Yorkers say: fegitabowtit.


Despite all this, the flexibility and generally superior image of my IS-1 relegated the Canon G1 (not to mention the previously mentioned Olympus and Nikon point and shoots) quickly to retirement on my shelf. For a year, I shot infrared exclusively with the Fuji. Until, that is, I made the next leap…


15 October 2010

I See in Infrared, Part I

My first foray into infrared photography (IR, for short) was ‘some’ years back in the film days. I tried a few rolls of Kodak’s b/w negative and color transparency films. The results were, well, interesting and as a budding hobbyist I found handling and usage quirky. Not an auspicious beginning.

Fast forward 25 years and by 2005 I had been shooting DSLRs for a little over a year. I remember cruising some online photo forums and seeing these completely captivating false-color landscape images and wondering what in Hades these were. They were odd, strange even, but still compelling. Further digging yielded that they were in fact digital IR photos. I started searching on the web how to get into this and found a number of very good sites. Do a Google search for “digital infrared photography” and many of these sites are still there offering the same great advice on digital IR. (In particular, the Eric Cheng and Andrzej Wrotniak sites were a big help to me.)  


First, a very brief IR primer. What we call infrared photography is really near-IR imaging. The distinction is important. Many folks think of infrared in terms of giving off heat. Thermal imaging is in fact long-wave infrared and is not of interest in our photographic explorations (there is a very good article on Wikipedia that discusses the different types of infrared radiation.) What we are capturing with near-IR cameras is a narrow part of the electromagnetic spectrum just beyond visible light. This corresponds to the wavelength range of 700 nanometers (nm) to 1400 nm. (Compared to the visible light range of 390 nm to 750 nm, and ultraviolet range of 10 nm to 400 nm.) Most digital camera sensors are sensitive in varying degrees to UV, visible and IR light. To control the usually undesirable effects of infrared radiation, manufacturers will install IR blocking filters over the camera sensor while UV effects are controlled via lens coating and the addition of after-market UV/haze filters. In order to photograph in infrared we need to circumvent that IR-blocking filter somehow. Or, do we…?

Many early digital point-and-shoot cameras were to some degree sensitive to the IR spectrum. After some research (check out

Jen Roesner’s site) I picked up my first Canon G1 (3.3 megapixels!) – which was by then quite long in the tooth (manufactured in 2000) – a lens adapter and a Hoya R72 (720 nm) filter. Because the IR-blocking filter was still in place a tripod was still necessary as even on super bright days, exposures were still measured in the low tenths of a second (at best). But what a world was opened up!

At first, what I call false-color IR imaging was of interest to me and my IR images mainly featured muted magentas and blues as I tried swapping channels and performing other feats of IR wizardry. But soon the pureness of B/W became the way I saw my infrared world. During this period of exploration I purchased a number of used IR-sensitive point-and-shoots including the very sensitive Olympus C-2020-Z (2.1 mp!) and the Nikon Coolpix 950, as well as deeper 780 nm and 830 nm filters. The Olympus produced a few really stunning images (one of which I still sell and is included with this post: the white reeds and water shot), while I was never happy with the performance of the Nikon. But, my go-to IR camera was the G1 and it traveled everywhere with me including trips overseas to France, Japan, Czech Republic, Scotland, Italy, and Iceland, where stunning images of landscapes and cityscapes were created.

Of the three filters I carried with me – a Hoya 720 nm, a Tiffen 780 nm, and a B+W 830 nm – the Hoya was the easiest to work with, as it included the lower end of near-IR waves as well as a bit of the high-end of visible light (in the red channel). On bright days though the deepest filter, the B+W, could and did produce truly startling images. The downsides to this mode of IR exploration – older point and shoot cameras coupled with lens-mounted filters – was that I always needed a tripod and just about any shots with motion, were going to produce blurs. And, of course, there was also the in-camera limitation of small sensor size + few megapixels = low resolution output + greater chance of noise.

Of course I knew about IR-conversions (wherein the internal blocking filter is removed from the sensor) for Nikon and Canon DSLRs, but being a lone-wolf Pentax shooter I was out of luck. Fuji (temporarily) saved the day for me and elevated my IR photography to the next level. More on that, in The Next Phase post.


07 October 2010

Work versus Play

We humans love the apparent dichotomy that surrounds us. We love the yin and yang of things: black and white, male and female, dog people and cat people, square peg or round hole, right and wrong, good and evil, work and play. But note I wrote 'apparent' because in fact these dichotomies -- plus many more -- really only exist in our minds.

It's not that black and white or good and evil don't exist. The falsehood is the concept that ONLY those two extremes exist. Take black and white...as a photographer do you truly not believe that there are shades of rich grey in between the purest white and the deepest black? Of course, just as there are many shades of behavior -- whatever your moral compass -- between right and wrong. (Absolutists may argue with me, but they are wrong ;->). Even the seemingly clear line between the sexes is not so distinct. Never mind overt behaviors or trans-gender migrations, most experts acknowledge a clear difference between biological sex (one chromosomal difference out of 46) and social gender. Mars and Venus are much closer than their respective orbits would imply.

Those were some of the thoughts buzzing about my brain whilst I was scrambling through a stand of fall-tinged aspens this past Sunday. I was working my way through that particular swath of orange and red, looking for lines, interesting tree formations, shadows, and leaves against sky patterns. I was in fact 'working' that grove and yes I was enjoying myself but I was not playing at it. So, my mind started noodling at the difference between Work and Play.

We are all familiar with the equations: work = drudgery and play = fun! But ask anyone who truly likes their job and they will admit to some non-glamorous aspects of their work but they will mostly talk of satisfaction and enjoyment. Play is of course fun and you can derive real enjoyment from it. But, in my mind, what really separates work and play is seriousness. Seriousness is the grey between the black and white of work and play. How seriously you are pursuing a particular activity determines where you are in that particular spectrum. I was seriously working that grove (for almost two hours!), and not playing around.

Is this important? Perhaps only to a quasi-semanticist like me, but I do use the term 'work' often as in that grove of aspens or when I am working an image on my computer, much as a film developer would be doing the same in the darkroom. This is distinct from when I am playing with some new software before getting down to the business of really using it.

Also for me, when someone asks "Are you going to ________ for work or play?" the flippant answer is 'yes,'  while the true answer is 'work.' I am going to that country, state, city, location to work it. Yes, I will be enjoying myself, but I also expect to come away with a body of work for my efforts. So, if you stumble across me 'working' with camera(s) in hand, you may see a serious expression on my face, but rest assured, the smile is in my mind.


04 October 2010

Life after Drowning


Is it possible? In the case of cameras, apparently it is.

A couple of weeks ago I was checking out the early (too early as it turned out) fall colors up one of the local Wasatch Mountain canyons. Coming down from the long hike I was not a little tired and fording a small stream slipped. I often hike with a tripod-mounted camera in one hand and, and, depending upon the scenery, an infrared camera in the other with the rest of the gear in my Lowe Pro back pack. This was not the first time I have fallen with no hands free to protect myself, so you’d think, to paraphrase my understanding wife, that I’d learn. Evidently, not so.

At any rate, down I went into the stream, my right hand holding aloft the tripod and my Pentax K-20 mounted with a Sigma 10-20mm. Approximately $2000 worth of non-water proof gear. I got wet but not that gear. Unfortunately I can’t say the same for my infrared-converted Pentax DS: it flew out of my hand and into a pool of water. The pained squawking noise I was making had less to do with my bruised posterior than with the fact that I was watching my out-of-reach camera (mounted with a prime Pentax 20mm f/2.8 lens) slowly sink to the bottom of the shallow pool. I felt like the proverbial turtle on its back: in an awkward position, struggling to right myself and reach my submerged camera. It didn’t help that the backpack and muscle cramp in my left calf was conspiring to keep me ground-bound and my camera submerged.

Finally I was able to pull myself up and grab the camera strap to lift my dripping camera out of the water. It seemed like it had been under for several minutes but in reality it was certainly no more than 10-20 seconds. Time enough! Even the weather seals on my K10 and K20 would have been hard-pressed to resist the cold, flowing stream water.

I pulled the batteries out -- if ever in a similar situation, don’t turn on a wet camera as you run a good chance of shorting out the electronics -- and opened up the various doors, pulled the SD card out and twisted the lens off. Water ran out of every orifice. “Toast!” I thought, “Perhaps the camera docs can breathe life back into it.”

Once home I opened all the camera’s doors and left the lens off in the hopes that our dry Utah climate would work its magic on the camera. The lens itself was fine. If I had had a cheap plastic lens perhaps I would not have fared so well, but this 20mm is a fine prime and apparently well-sealed.

After a couple of days, I dropped some batteries in and turned on the camera. All seemed well at first as I reset the date but then all of a sudden the LCD panel began displaying characters that looked to be a cross between Cyrillic and Klingon. Looking at the LCD monitor I could clearly see water behind the glass. I quickly pulled the batteries out and gave it another day. Returning to it a day later I popped the batteries in, set the date and Lo and Behold (imagine trumpets and angels), it lives!

Perhaps life after drowning is not as rare as I had imagined. I found several posts online discussing just this and also advanced some additional treatments such as the use of white rice (uncooked, to be sure) and silica packs to help absorb water. These would likely help in more humid environs than the Southwest. I’m a happy infrared camper once again and I swear that the dowsing even took care of three annoying spots on the sensor I could not seem to remove by more reasonable measures. Of course, I can’t recommend to everyone sensor cleaning via drowning, but it seems to have worked for me!

21 September 2010

Travels with Non-Photographers

Generally, I take three types of photography trips: solo, with one or more photographers, or with my patient and long-suffering wife (who is decidedly not a photographer).

The first type of travel is easy: I do what I want, when I want and take as much or little time as I wish doing it. The down-side is that if you are rut-prone, you may stay in it longer than think, not even realizing you have a wheel or two in the ditch.

Traveling with other photographers can introduce compromise into your schedule and subject matter. But that is often leavened with the opportunity to sound new ideas, bounce concepts off of each other and try things you might never have thought about. In other words, you may find yourself pulling out of that rut. Good traveling companions are important though. Stubbornness is rarely a virtue in a group. Patience is though, as photographers understand each other at least enough to know that good image making takes time and perseverance.

My wife...what can I say? She is the ever-patient photo-widow one could only wish for. She understands that I need the time and space to make my images. She also understands that sometimes it may be best for her to not venture out for those late evening Provençal village strolls or a sunrise on the Charles Bridge. She knows that I will be taking just a bit more time than she wants to give, and I understand that. During the day she slowly sight-sees and I slowly capture my scenes. Occasionally she'll swap a camera out of my pack or hold my tripod for me. I will occasionally say, yep, that's a nice ceramic plate...buy it. It's a good partnership.

But what about traveling with a mass of non-photographers? Sounds like a recipe for frustration, non? It can be but like most things, it is all in how you manage it. I got a full dose of that recently when my wife and I traveled to Provence to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary with 19 other people...non-photographers mind you. Oh sure, there were a lot of cameras, and even two other DSLR users, but no one else (crazy enough) trying to make a living at photography!

So, did it work out? Did I get frustrated? Yes and almost never. The trick was to let them do their thing and I would do mine and we'll meet in another hour or two (or more). C'est parfait! I got to wander narrow medieval cobblestone alleys or shadow-ridden Roman corridors with my only constraint being to meet the others at a certain time. I can work with that. The time allotted was not always enough, but usually that had to do with the overall day agenda that I (fortuitously) set. Often I was a bit aggressive in estimating what we would be able to cover in full, busy day. But, we made adjustments as needed. Waiting for folks does try one's patience, but I can honestly say that I waited for others as seldom as they waited for me. A reasonable approach and attitude begets a satisfactory outcome...n'cest pas?