When photographing a landscape or a building or some other location you ask yourself: what is the thing about that place that makes it that place. A place that isn’t any other place.
While driving aimlessly in San Diego last month, I came across an open spot in the Torry Pines Hills. It provided a view looking out over the beach at La Jolla. An impressive view at that.
I also noticed there was nearby parking. Parking had been a challenge all day so that made an impression.
I decided to come back closer to sunset and see what the conditions would be like.
Late that afternoon I set up the camera on my tripod at the viewpoint and waited. And waited. And waited.
I never did get the conditions I was hoping for but, as usual, I took about a hundred photos as the light changed through all it’s gradations as the sun went down.
I ended up with two photos of La Jolla that seemed to me to be fairly representational. The one above is the one I would choose to represent the place. It invokes for me the feeling I had when I was there.
The second photo (below) is more true-to-life. The first image is more photoshopped than the second. Even so, to me it says “California sunset at La Jolla” more than the other one.
why? I’m not sure. Maybe you know? Maybe you disagree?
Everybody takes an evening skyline photograph of San Diego from the exact same place. There’s no option — there isn’t any other good place you can shoot a skyline of San Diego from in the evening.
So I shot it from the same place as everyone else. You may say why bother? Fair question.
It’s hard to shoot some places without doing the same photograph everyone has. After all, how many shots are there of every square inch of the Grand Canyon?
It used to bother me to shoot something that has already been, pardon the pun, over-exposed. Then I realized something. When you go and shoot the same location that so many others have already shot, you learn a lot. You have to.
When you make your photo, you are hoping to bring something to the shot that no one else thought of. Sometimes you are fortunate and it happens. Most of the time you only wish you were so lucky. Either way, you learn a lot just from the mental exercise.
On the other hand, you always get the chance to compare what you are doing with what someone else did. You might say to yourself, “hey why can’t I get that color in the sky like so-and-so did?” Dozens of questions like that crop up as you work. They trigger new ideas for angles, settings, lenses, etc. that you take with you to the next shoot and the next..
So, go ahead and shoot the Grand Canyon just like everyone else. Maybe you’ll hit paydirt and come up with something completely new. Either way, I guarantee you’ll learn something.
Here’s one of my favorite photos…
It’s a picture of Hunt’s Tomb at Papago Park in Tempe, Arizona.
Hunt was the first Governor of Arizona and he was interred in this pyramid with his wife, mother-in-law and, I believe, one of his wife’ sisters.
I love this image both because it’s a good night shot which is something I always enjoy but also because the image has certain memories associated with it. There’s a personal connection for me with the image. Having an emotional connection to an image is something that doesn’t always happen but when it does, it always make the image more than just a technical exercise in composition, exposure, focus and lighting.
I confess to a certain degree of photoshop manipulation in the image. It’s impossible to expose for both the moon and the pyramid together. If one single exposure was taken that exposed for the pyramid, the moon would be all washed out. If the moon was properly exposed, the pyramid would be much too dark.
For this image I took two exposures (using a tripod of course). One exposed for the moon and one for the pyramid. Then I combined them in photoshop into a single, properly exposed image.
If you like this photograph as much as I do, you can order prints here.
The animals have claws or venomous fangs. The plants have vicious needles and thorns. Some, like the Sacred Datura hide poisons with beautiful blossoms that entice thrill seekers to take a strange and deadly psychic trip. Temperatures soar to heights that can kill in minutes and claim the lives of unwary tourists.
Is it strange to find that alluring?
I grew up in the high deserts of Utah. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I found my way into the low, hot deserts of Arizona. Now, I’ve lived in them for more than half my life. Even though the high deserts of Utah will always call to me, the deserts of Arizona have become my second home.
Here’s a very old photograph of mine. I think it’s held up surprisingly well even though my skill as a photographer and my personal style have changed a lot since this image was shot. I think part of that is that it represents how harsh this second home of mine can be and why that is a beautiful thing.
A print of this photo was purchased by the company I work for and hangs in our office. It’s a popular topic of conversation. I’ll bet you’d find it to be the same if you ordered a print here for your home or office.
I planted the camera tripod legs in the red clay carefully to avoid disturbing the bones that littered the ground around me.
This portion of the Middle Portal features the ruin of a storage cellar surrounded by a jumble of bleached cattle bones. In the west, a lot of old settler’s cabins become sheltering places for cows as the land is fenced and cattle are confined to fields where people once lived.
It’s too bad really. The cows do tremendous damage to the old buildings. I’m sure the ranchers don’t feel particularly nostalgic about the old abandoned settlements but it seems a lack of respect to just let them fill up with cow manure and old bones. Old-time ranchers are usually more interested in scratching out what little money they can make from these arid ranges than they are in history.
I would like to explore the below-ground portion of the old cellar ruin. I wonder if antique sundries, old food tins and bottled preserves are still on shelves down there. I wouldn’t touch anything — that would be bad karma (take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints) — but it would be fascinating to see what might still be down there.
A quick examination of the entry way makes it seem impossible. The entry, at least, has collapsed. If I could get in there, it would be architecturally unstable. It would also likely be spider and snake infested which might be worse than worrying about the roof coming down.
Another time perhaps. Or not.
This photograph would look really cool hanging over your sofa. You can order it here if you like.
In “Exploring the Middle Portal Part 1” I described how the strange spiritualist “Home of Truth” cult settled this deserted part of Southern Utah from New Jersey early in the 1900s. That post talks about the Middle Portal and some of the strange goings-on of the cult. Check out that post below…
In any event, when we reached the Middle Portal late in the afternoon, a storm was moving in. Such storms are uncommon in Southern Utah at that time of the year (before the Southwest’s “Monsoon Season” sets in) so it was a suitably eerie atmosphere for a visit to a ghost town.
This building has tremendous character. It contains the remains of a large common room that would serve for meetings or communal meals, what appears to be a kitchen and several smaller rooms that were probably sleeping quarters. The Middle Portal, from what I have been able to learn, was where the bulk of the cultists lived and worked (as farmers) so I believe this was the main dormitory building.
You can see in the background the remains of an old windmill. According to what I read, the cult had great difficulty growing enough food for themselves at the settlement because of the lack of water.
At one point, they were able to drill a well and buy a windmill which they used to fill a cistern. You can see the remains of the windmill in the photo. I didn’t see any sign of a cistern, however. The purchase of the windmill and the building of the cistern were a major financial strain on the cult. In spite of having more water, the cult declined rapidly after this time.
Photographically, it was great that I had the storm moving in. I think the scene would have been much less interesting without the clouds in the sky. I used a tripod, a slow shutterspeed and ISO 100 shooting in manual mode. I also used a circular polarized filter.
That’s pretty much my standard setup for landscape images (in this case I used my 24-105 mm telephoto lens but I use the same setup with my wide angle lens and with my long telephoto).
To make sure I get the sharpest image possible for landscapes, I set my camera to use mirror lockup with the shutter release timer set (at 2 seconds). When you do this, pressing the shutter locks up the prism mirror used for the manual viewfinder. Then, after two seconds the shutter trips.
This gives time for any vibration caused by the pivoting of the mirror (which must happen for every photograph on a DSLR) to die away before the shutter trips. Thus, the camera is as still as possible. This is a big help in making landscape images sharp because I always shoot at the lowest possible ISO (to minimize noise) which implies long shutter times. Any movement–no matter how slight–would cause blurring.
There are abandoned towns, farms and mines all over the Southwest. They are fascinating to explore but I always think of the people that created them. They put so much work and effort into these places, only to have them be abandoned and slowly fade back into the desert. So many dreams that failed after so much effort.
If you love this photograph and would like to order a print, you’ll find it in my photo store. Click here.
Landscape photography is a great way to learn things about places you wouldn’t otherwise learn. Often, when I photograph a place and then return home, I’ll see something in a photo that makes me curious and encourages me to do some homework.
When I was a kid, I wandered all over Southern Utah (as I still do whenever I have the chance). On one of those wanderings many years ago I saw Church Rock on the highway between Moab and Monticello for the first time.
The rock is picturesque on it’s own but I noticed from the first time I saw it that someone had gone to a great deal of trouble and expense to begin cutting an entryway into the stone. If you look at the base of the rock in the picture you’ll see the small black rectangle at the base.
I was always curious about that hole. I couldn’t imagine that the rock itself would hold a significant amount of any valuable mineral that could interest a miner. Perhaps someone was creating a home for themselves (like the Hole in the Rock home nearby). In any event, prior to the internet, it remained a mystery.
When I took this picture of Church Rock a few years ago I remembered the mystery of the doorway. I realized that with the internet I might be able to find some answers. I did some searching on line and found out that the site was once the home of a strange cult called the “Home of Truth”.
The cult was founded by Marie Ogden, a charismatic spiritualist. Ogden lead her followers from Newark, New Jersey to this empty part of the Utah desert to found a Utopian spiritualist community. The community had as many as 100 members at its peak who gave all their assets to the community and were expected to work (mostly by farming) to support it.
The cult eventually fell apart when an attempt by Ogden to raise a member from the dead failed. The event cast doubts on the spiritual power of the leader and also lead to problems with the local authorities. After that, the remains of the cult fell on hard times.
The story is that the cult had intended Church Rock to eventually become their Cathedral. Only the 16 by 24 foot opening was ever completed. If it had come to be, the supposed Cathedral would have been impressive.
Unfortunately, the story that the rock was to be used by the cult is apocryphal. The opening was created by a local rancher to store salt and feed for his cattle.
However, reading about the cult lead me in a new direction. The cult actually built three settlements in the area which they named the Inner, Outer and Middle Portals. The Inner Portal was where Marie Ogden, her daughter and her closest followers lived. According to Ogden, the Inner Portal was the exact center of the Earth’s Axis and only those who lived there would survive the coming calamities of the Last Days.
The Outer Portal was made up of a communal house and dormitory while the Middle Portal, the largest, had numerous buildings, dormitories, storage units and would have been the home to the cult’s chapel, had it ever been completed.
Today, it turns out that the Outer Portal is completely gone. The Inner Portal, over looking the valley from a few miles away was occupied as late as the 1970s. Although most of the buildings of the Inner Portal still exist, the site is fenced and marked “No Tresspassing”.
The Middle Portal is in the valley just to the west of Highway 191 and to the south of Highway 211. Highway 211 is the route to the entrance of Canyonlands Needles district.
In any event, the Middle Portal was accessible. So, on our last trip to Canyonlands this spring we drove out to the site and explored the ruins of the Middle Portal.
In upcoming posts I’ll show some of the photos I took exploring the Middle Portal. Stay tuned.
BTW: should you want to order a print of Church Rock, you will find it in my on-line store here.
Here’s a quick tip for you…turn around.
Several years ago I was shooting a landscape image with a nice sunset. I was fully fixated on the sunset because, as I’ve mentioned before, the light changes very fast at that time of day and you need to keep shooting until it’s over because you can’t predict what’s going to happen moment-by-moment.
However, at some point I dropped something and when I turned around to pick it up I noticed that the scene behind me was much more impressive than the scene I had been shooting.
Ever since that day, I remember to tell myself, “turn around”.
When I was shooting the Green River Overlook (see “Shooting in Canyonlands Part 2”) I had my tripod set up and my lens and camera very carefully adjusted for the scene I was shooting. However, I did remember to look around and, although it was not behind me, I did notice that I could shoot this beautiful version of the overlook picture if I moved my tripod and turned my camera.
So I did, and I’m happy that I did, even though it was a pain to get the original shot set back up after I took this one. Although I don’t personally think this image is quite as spectacular as the other one, I do think it has a beauty of it’s own.
So once again, remember to turn around.
Here’s an image from my Canyonlands trip that I consider to be portfolio quality work. It’s from the Islands in the Sky area of Canyonlands overlooking the Green River.
I had actually shot this same overlook two years ago when I was last at Canyonlands but the conditions where terrible that day (lots of wind blown dust and haze in the air). So when I went back this time, I was hoping for a better opportunity.
I had learned a couple lessons from my previous visit that I applied this time. First, I would shoot as the sun was setting but not yet set because the sun, as it sank in the sky, would shine on the tops of ridges in the valley while leaving lower areas in shadow. That would emphasize the terrain, adding depth and color. Second, it would be good to add some foreground interest into the composition.
So I went early, giving my self at least two hours before I expected the time to be right and scouted out the location I wanted. I found this spot that had an old gnarled juniper tree providing just the kind of foreground interest I was looking for.
There were also rock walls and a stone ledge to help frame the composition.
It’s a good thing I arrived early because after I had set up, another photographer came by who had obviously intended to shoot at that same exact location. He hung around for a while hemming and hawing but finally realized I wasn’t going anywhere and moved on.
Anyway, I shot a bracketed exposure (-2, -1, 0, +1, +2) every few minutes for almost two hours. Each one was just a little different but when I got them home and looked at them, this particular exposure just popped in a way none of the others did.
When it comes to shooting landscapes at dusk, you need to take a bunch of exposures because the light changes very fast and has unpredictable effects on the image. If you don’t shoot a number of exposures you will likely miss out on the perfect image.
You can order a print of the image here (without watermarks):
I also very much like the black and white version of this image which you can find here:
I almost always shoot ISO 100 to keep the noise and grain very low which is especially important in low light images like this. In this case I wanted good depth of field to bring out the waves and the shore line but still keep the sun in sharp focus. That meant I had to use the smallest aperture I could at ISO 100 while still keeping a fairly fast shutter speed because I was hand holding.
I ended up selecting an aperture of f16) and a shutter speed of 1/80 s. When I framed up the shot I wanted, the focal length was 107 mm leaving me with a shutter speed that was a bit too low for the focal length (you may recall that your shutter speed should be at least 1 over the focal length of your lens in order to get a sharp image — in this case I should have used at least 1/125 s but then I couldn’t get as small an aperture as I wanted).
However, I have Image Stabilization on the lens I was using. It really helps in some situations. So I very carefully held the camera as steady as I could and tripped the shutter.
I only got one shot at it because as soon as I had made the capture, the color faded. As it turned out, one capture was enough. I got the amazing colors I wanted with nice sharpness and a deep focus.
People love this photo. I have it hanging up in my studio and it always gets comments. If you’d like a print for your home, you can order it here: