24 February 2011

One Man's Liberation is Another's Limitation

On the drive south for a several day trip to the sandstone lands of Utah and northern Arizona, a fellow photographer asked me what gear I had with me. My normal field kit, I declaimed, comprised of two straight DSLRs, two converted infrared DSLRs, a panorama film camera, and lenses ranging from 10mm to 500mm. Politely he asked if all that equipment wasn’t a burden. Au contraire, I said, I find it liberating.

For the next 25 miles or so, we discussed the different, and quite contrary viewpoints. He, with one film SLR and a couple of lenses, felt that it was the essence of liberation as he didn’t need to worry about, much less lug around, a lot of equipment. I understand that perspective and employ it when I am strolling around downtown or perhaps in a small village in Provence. But, for me, photography is also about possibilities and I feel those increase if I have the camera gear to extend and capture my vision. That does not mean that I carry – or hire a Sherpa to carry – all my equipment in the field. Whether traveling overseas or to southern Utah, I can easily leave in the hotel or the vehicle, what I feel I don’t need on a given day. Decisions are made based on locale, likely subject matter, lighting, time of day, and my mood. I don’t always make a perfect decision, but I usually have a range of equipment to closely match the conditions and my inclinations. Limit the gear, limit the decisions, but also limit the possible outcomes. So I believe.

The range of focal lenses probably makes sense to most photographers, but why so many camera bodies? Though never a Boy Scout, being prepared is not only a motto…it makes a lot of sense. I’ve had equipment stolen as well as damaged on trips. Back-ups saved me from being merely a camera-less tourist. There are also times – especially in urban environments replete with the micro and macro details – where having one body mounted with a telephoto and another with a medium or wide-angle zoom lens, allows me to capture a wide range of subject matter, from gothic gargoyles looming high above to panoramas of narrow medieval streets.

Photography is as much about possibilities as it is actualities…perhaps even more so. After all, we strive to match on paper (or screen) what we see in our mind’s eye. We don’t always realize that ideal, but the pursuit keeps us motivated. How you achieve that goal is your liberation.


21 February 2011

Icy Serendipity

“Stuff happens” and “it is what it is” are both tired but true aphorisms. Yes, things do happen that may not be in our immediate control, but decisions are always at our fingertips. To quote another tired, and it this case slightly goofy saying, “when at a fork in the road, take it.” I was presented, on a recent trip to Zion National Park, with both the ‘stuff’ and the ‘fork.’

It was mid-January and though relatively warm in the sun, there was still plenty of snow – and more to the point – ice in the shady, shadowy, north-facing parts of the canyon. The first morning there I caught sunrise at the Zion Canyon overlook just past the tunnel on the Mt. Carmel/East Canyon road and then spent another hour or so working Pine Creek near the bridge past Canyon Junction. By the time I made it to the Angel’s Landing trailhead it was around noon and the thick sandstone column that the landing rests upon was fully in the sun. But the Wiggles weren’t.

Walter’s Wiggles are a set of 21 narrow, short, steep switchbacks carved in the sandstone some 90 years ago. It was originally designed for pack horse trains but now the only lines it sees are tourists at high season making the trudge to Angel’s landing, some 1500 feet above the valley floor. This was not high season and my goal was not the landing per se but rather Scout’s Lookout which is just beyond the top of the Wiggles but well-short, height and length wise, from the top. 

It had been almost 30 years since I last clambered up Angel’s Landing and I had completely forgotten about the Wiggles (how could I have!?). They may well get light in summer ,but at this time of year with the sun further south in the sky, they were in deep icy, shadow. Despite my vibram-soled boots, by half way up I was slipping more than not. Steeper and slicker the Wiggles got until at switchback 14 I went down fast, blooding my nose and banging my shoulder-born camera on the ice so hard that the batteries ejected like mini-missiles. After gathering up the slithering batteries and ensuring that the camera sustained no damage, I realized that “stuff” just happened and I was at a “fork.”

It was disappointing but a pretty easy call to bail at this point. The prospect of attempting another 7 switchbacks going up and, even worse, the prospect of trying to descend them, was unappealing to say the least. So, I slid and slipped back to the bottom of the Wiggles and cursed myself for not bringing my YakTrax.

But, as ‘stuff’ happens, so does occasionally, serendipity. And the decision I made after my icy face-plant afforded me that bit of luck. As it turned out a large California Condor was seated on a ledge on the lower part of the landing and though I didn’t have my 500mm telephoto lens with me, my 80-200mm afforded me enough range to photograph him/her as she/he took flight. Watching and photographing the languid ascent of the large bird as it climbed a thousand feet above me, I was quite content to have taken that ‘fork’ and be rewarded with this bit of serendipity.