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Behind the Image: Khumbu Fog

Khumbu Fog

When the editor of ISO500px first approached me to write a few articles for the blog the first request was for a behind-the-scenes account of my image Khumbu Night Fog.  D.L. thought the story of how this shot of the Nepal Himalaya was created would be an interesting read.  Sounded great, BUT the image is actually derived from a slide scan.  How could this in any way be relevant in today’s digital age. I was assured it would be both relevant and interesting. With so much that has changed in the photography world with the advent of digital technologies I thought I’d break this post in two sections: the first covers the behind-the-scenes of creating the image; the second delves into similarities and/ or differences between how I approached shooting film vs. digital.

The Shot:

Nepal’s Khumbu region is known world wide as the home of Mount Everest, also known as Chomolungma to the Sherpa people who populate the Khumbu’s high altitude valleys and pastures. Each spring and fall thousands of trekkers spend two or more weeks trekking slowly toward the upper reaches of the Khumbu valley, acclimatizing slowly to increasingly higher altitudes. Most set their sights on Everest’s base camp or the famous viewpoint of Kala Pattar.  In 2003 my wife and I joined this seasonal pilgrimage.  At that time I shot, like a majority of photographers, solely film and slides. I did bring along my first digital point and shoot, a 3.2 megapixel Canon A6000, but the low resolution made it more appropriate for on-the-go, everyday documentation of the trek rather than creating images to last a lifetime. For those images, including Khumbu Fog, I used a Nikon N80 loaded with Fuji slide film. As this was my second trip through the Khumbu I had mental tick list of images I wanted to capture. Near the top of the list was capturing golden, pre-sunset sunrays striking Everest and its neighbors, Nuptse and Lhotse.

Kala Pattar is a “small” 18,541 ft hill rising 1500 feet above Gorak Shep, the last outpost of teahouses positioned at the far end of the Khumbu valley.  Go any farther and you’ll be in Tibet.  From its rocky, prayer flag strewn summit, Kala Pattar offers commanding views of one of the planet’s classic mountain vistas — the Everest group rising above the great sweep of the Khumbu glacier.  My wife and I decided to make the trip up for sunset when I knew the direct rays of the setting sun would illuminate the summit regions of several of the Himalaya’s most famous peaks: Everest, Nuptse, and Ama Dablam.  The plan went off without a hitch and I came away with the shots I’d been after.  Before packing the gear up I took one last long look down the Khumbu valley and noticed the daily encroachment of fog drifting up valley.  The soft post sunset colors sweeping over the scene were too much to pass over.  I unpacked my gear and fired off a few more frames.  While shooting film I always metered scenes much more thoroughly than I do currently. This usually entailed following one of Galen Rowell’s old maxims of “expose for your most important highlight”.  For the scene before me this meant using center-weighted and spot metering to determine the relative brightness values of the mountains/ fog and sky. I didn’t mind if the rocky moraine in the lower portion of the frame was silhouetted as long as all of my highlights were in check.  As I was working with post sunset light the contrast of exposure values was well within the exposure latitude of slides, so no additional filters were required.  I released the shutter, packed my gear up, then started the long descent back to Gorak Shep through an amazing, cold Himalayan twilight.  

Post-Processing

Yes, post processing.  Post processing of film and slide scans was gaining traction among photographers even before the onslaught of affordable digital camera bodies flooded the market. Galen Rowell, before his untimely death in a plane crash in 2002, had written several articles related to the potential benefits and pitfalls of the looming digital revolution. In his words “Digital is the major difference between the clean reproductions in magazines of the nineties and the murky ones of the not-so-distant past.”  (Digital Decisions, Galen Rowell, Outdoor Photographer, April 1998).  Galen even experimented with blending more than one exposure to bring back detail in an overexposed moon, although he ruminated over public perception and whether ethical lines would be breached.  Although he appreciated how Photoshop could help produce a final result more closely in tune with what the eye can see, he felt the general public, ironically, would find it too unbelievable and, perhaps, no longer consider it a photograph.  Pro photographers were already digitally enhancing images in a multitude of ways and, if it had taken another five years for consumer priced DSLRs to become readily available, there is little doubt digitizing and then processing film and slides would have become a normal part of many photographer’s workflow. Cleaning up dust spots, adjusting white balance, contrast, sharpening, dodging/ burning, etc. are all helpful tools to employ when working with a slide scan.  The ability of Photoshop to enhance scanned slides merely took many darkroom tools an allowed them to be applied to color images, although today modern Photoshop techniques have advanced well beyond that point. The result of all of this is the continued debate over where the line exists between a photograph and digital art.  This debate is nauseating in its omnipresence, but nonetheless remains an important discussion for the photography world to openly hash out.  

So, after having the slide scanned at a local photo lab I imported it into Photoshop where I ran it through a series of very common adjustments. First job was to clean up any dust, scratches, or other unwanted artifacts using the healing and clone tools — tedious.  The color of the scan was cooler than the slide so next I adjusted the color balance to bring back more of the warm tones, especially in the sky. I then used localized selections and luminosity masks to accentuate color, increase exposure on the mountain faces, and bring exposure differentials even closer. Finally, I de-speckeled the sky portion of the image, sharpened the edges, and called it finished.  That’s it. 

Lessons from the analog age

Every once in a while I get asked if there are any habits or relics of knowledge I still employ which I learned while shooting film. The simple answer is no. I no longer spend time center or spot metering a scene to determine proper exposure. Checking histogram provides immediate feedback so I can adjust settings quickly, eliminating the need to bracket and much of the exposure guesswork. I no longer spend long minutes trying to decide if pushing the shutter release would be a good use of money. Because money is no longer an issue I don’t play as safe as I once did. Digital allows me to push creativity to another level. If a particular composition doesn’t work, no huge loss.  Digital allows me to push harder, freeing me to shoot compositions which have a long shot at working, but if they do, might just be magical.  I can react to the environment around me without the slow down of technical and financial choices. This in turn places me more deeply in the creative process.  

The advancements in digital technology and techniques have essentially buried much of my approach and thinking from film-days.  The lone holdover is the continued appreciation of a more deliberate, contemplative approach rather than arriving on a location then spraying and praying.  Shooting without first sensing and seeing what it is I want to shoot almost never produces results which satisfy. I still find myself going through a subconscious vetting process when determining whether to pull the camera out or not.  This often means initially walking around the location without a camera in hand, absorbing any bits of visual information which might be useful to incorporate when putting an image together.  If I do have my camera out I usually notice myself focusing more on what the camera is showing rather than sensing what the scene can be about. There’s a lot to this process and this post isn’t the best forum to go deeper, so I’ll leave it at that.

I know I’m not the only landscape photographer to witness the change from analog to digital.  If you have as well, feel free to share your thoughts on the subject.

Khumbu Fog (slide scan)

Khumbu Fog (final version)

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An Insider’s Tips for Shooting Waterfalls

Falls-Cr-1024

“Inner Sanctum” Falls Creek Falls, Washington

The month of May is upon us and this means springtime waterfall shooting is in its prime.  Photographing creeks and waterfalls is one of the more enjoyable aspects of nature and landscape photography.  If the sky is lined with a nice layer of reflective clouds, as it so often is here in the Pacific Northwest, then it’s possible to spend the entire day shooting falls and creeks.  Working a scene, experimenting, and dialing in compositions take on a meditative pace, a welcome respite from the hurried pressure I sometimes feel while shooting sunrise or sunset. I refer to shooting waterfalls and creeks on cloudy days as “the low hanging fruit” of nature photography.  Place yourself and your camera in front of any beautiful waterfall during prime spring conditions and you are bound to come home with a worthy image.  However, this certainly doesn’t mean capturing creek and waterfalls is just a matter of showing up and releasing the shutter. There are several challenging factors the uninitiated find themselves unexpectedly contending with. Here in the Pacific Northwest creeks and waterfalls swell with spring runoff, fed by melting mountain snow and heavy downpours which frequent the area.  You can probably imagine the effects of this large volume of water plummeting several dozen or even hundreds of feet over a waterfall. The weight and force of this downward pressure creates a billowing wind-driven cloud of fine mist which possesses an uncanny ability to find the front of your lens. The onslaught can be relentless and aggravating for the ill prepared.  I’ve taught and spoken with enough visiting photographers to realize many underestimate and are surprised by the challenges of shooting in these conditions. So I’ve compiled a few tricks and considerations I’ve amassed from the past eight years of the Columbia River Gorge waterfalls each spring.

 

KimWipes are your best friend:

Forget about traditional lens cloths. Leave them in your bag.  KimWipes are hands down the best way to quickly and effectively clear water droplets, spray, and condensation from the front of your lens. When I first tried them I was in complete awe of their water absorbent ability.  I usually grab a handful and use them as wad instead of individually, wiping frequently between exposures.  Between wipes be sure to place them in a dry dirt free pocket between wipes. One thing you can use a large lens cloth for is to drape over the front of you lens after wiping with Kimwipes. This will shield against spray for a few seconds to allow extra condensation/fog to evaporate before shooting your next frame. Kimwipes are cheap and easy to purchase online. Two boxes containing 560 total wipes cost me less than $10 dollars and are still going strong two years later.

Shoot multiple frames in intense spray situation:

If spray is bad, and you find yourself unable to come away with one completely drop free exposure, don’t worry.  Just shoot several frames, wiping the lens clean between each exposure.  Replacing a drop on an image is easily done in post-processing by blending in a clean section from one of the extra exposures you shot.  A few frames is usually all it takes to ensure come away with a drop free image.

IMG_5001Put your ball head’s degree markings to good use:

When the spray is insane, and wiping the lens free of droplets under an unrelenting barrage of spray doesn’t provide a nano-second of relief, take note of the EXACT degree marking on your ball head, then swivel the ball head away from the direction of spray. You can now safely wipe it clean. After wiping drape a lens cloth over the lens front and rotate it back to the original degree marking. Spray usually comes in waves and there is usually a lull at some point. Be patient and be ready to fire the frame off quickly. You will want to have manually prefocused before rotating to wipe.

Experiment with shutter speeds:

 Spending a few minutes fine tuning your shutter speed is a little appreciated aspect of creek shooting. After I decide upon a composition I fire off a few test frames at various shutter speeds (usually between ⅛ and 1.5 seconds) to come upon the setting which renders water texture in the most appealing way. My personal taste is for moving water to retain texture and detail rather than the veiled uniformity longer exposures produce.  If the light is low, don’t be afraid to increase your ISO to increase your shutter speed to get the effect you want.  After finding the optimum shutter speed I recommend shooting a long series of a dozen or more exposures.  You will notice a dramatic difference in patterns and textures from one frame to the next. There’s always one exposure which holds more impact than all the others. Here’s a gif of unprocessed exposures I captured on a recent trip to Spirit Falls in Washington State:

Spirit-gif

Spirit Falls reveals its personality across a dozen or so successive exposures.

Think “Get the water texture I want, then freeze foliage”

Forests are naturally dark shooting environments and often longer shutter speeds are called for. After getting your water the way you want, search for moving foliage by zooming in to roughly 50% and scanning all the vegetation for anything which blurred. If your foliage is not static, take one last exposure at either a higher ISO setting or with a slightly larger aperture setting, if you can maintain an adequate depth of field.

A seasonal waterfall is framed by sweep of  Lady Ferns. Columbia River Gorge, Oregon

“Embracing the Light”
Columbia River Gorge, Oregon

Check your histogram for hotspots in whitewater

It’s surprising just how quickly the highlights in water can begin to clip. Make a habit of checking your histogram religiously, paying particular attention to the blue channel.  Again, you may want to dial back the exposure to ensure everything’s in check. Highlights can be recovered in post, but only to a certain degree and at the risk of losing texture. I find peace of mind in making sure everything’s in check before leaving a composition.

Hydrotopia 900

“Hydrotopia” Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Washington

So, there you have it!  There are many other techniques out there which I’ve experimented with over the years, but this list comprises the core of my inner thinking whenever I’m out shooting creeks and waterfalls.  Hope you get out there and put them to good use!

Do you have your own killer tip?  Feel free to share in the comments below.

The Power of Mentor Images

A brilliant sunset explodes over a mountain meadow in the Oregon Cascades. Mount Jefferson Wildernes

Mount Jefferson Wilderness, Oregon

Over the past few months I’ve been attending an author’s lecture series as part of my professional development as a licensed educator.  The course has been fascinating in that much of the advice the authors give for developing their craft overlaps with my own musings and experiences on developing as a photographer.  This overlap is often a source of inspiration.  This month’s featured author shared some great words of advice for aspiring writers (and teachers of aspiring writers).  His advice: read as many good books as you can get your hands on.  Sounds obvious, right?  But, what the author made clear was merely reading a bookshelf full of good books is only a first step.  The true value in reading these benchmarks of literature lies in learning to see from the author’s perspective, analyzing the technical and creative choices they made during the creative process.  A well-written book is meticulous and deliberate.  There is reason behind every sentence, every period, and behind how every chapter begins and ends.  As photographers we don’t have the luxury to exert such extreme control over our art, we are forever constrained by working with a concrete world, yet the advice to dive deep into the creative decision making process of admired photographers is absolutely golden.  Studying mentor images can be a valuable exercise regardless of experience level.

Before you hop online and wade into the photographic weeds, there are some ways to approach this process which may lead to better outcomes. First, It’s important to choose photographers, not photographs.  Stay away from 500px or Flickr, or Facebook, or Google+, or any other photo sharing website which overwhelms with an eclectic bombardment of images and personality.  Instead make a short list of old masters, well respected modern photographers, and lesser known photographers whose work repeatedly speaks to you.  Visit their websites and get comfortable.

View a series of their images, not just a single photograph.  Spend time contemplating an entire gallery’s worth of images as you try to uncover the mindset of the photographer.  Linger over each image for a minute or two as you ask questions and formulate answers. Consider the season the image was made. What was the weather?  What conditions or mood was the photographer after?  How did the photographer use the frame?  Why were compositional elements arranged the way they are?  Why were they included in the first place?  Why was this particular camera level chosen?  How would lowering it or raising have changed the image?  How about left or right?  How were lines, shapes, size relations, and tonal values used in composing the scene? How does this arrangement move the eye around the frame?   What is the quality of light and how does it benefit the shot?   What if the image was taken a little later or earlier, what effect would that have?  How was focal length selected?  Why did the photographer choose a longer focal length?  To isolate?  To compress?  To create an intimate or abstract image?  How was a wide angle lens used to create a more dynamic, near/ far composition?  Are there any similarities or differences in approach between images?  If the photographer shared camera settings you can go deeper into the technical side of things, considering how a particular combination of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO was used to the photographer’s advantage.  How did the combination effect the feeling of motion, or lack of motion?  Were sacrifices made, and if so, why?   Another exercise is to picture  yourself out in the field preparing to capture this scene.  Visualize physically getting your tripod out, mounting your camera, carefully choosing the perspective, and then making the exposure.  Finally, visit  your own images and ask a similar line of questions.  This may make you want to drag a few images into the trash bin, but it’ll pay dividends down the road!

Give it a try.  You’ll most likely discover that photographs, much like well written books, have a creative history to share.  Information unearthed by studying them can lead to a deeper understanding of why and how successful images work.  There’s one additional benefit to spending time with mentor image– it plays a role in developing shooter’s intuition, a powerful force to harness while shooting in the field.  That’s definitely a topic for another day…

Columbia River Gorge: Spring Review

Summer is here! Before diving head-long into long days high in the mountains, alpine flowers, and, hopefully, incredible light show it’s always good to take a quick look back on the past shooting season. Being an Oregon based landscape photographer, springtime means easy living– flower fields in the eastern Columbia River Gorge fill with balsamroot and lupine, the epic green lushness takes hold in the central Gorge, and the long days afford plenty of time to get out and capture all of this beauty. There is no better place to celebrate the spring explosion than the Columbia River Gorge. So here are a few of my images from the past two months:

Fond Farewell
Nikon D800e
16-35mm @16mm
Three exposure blend for increased Depth of Field and dynamic range:
2 exposures for flowers: f/11, 1/160 second, ISO 1250
1 exposure for sky and hills: f/11, 1/640, ISO 1250

Early May brings an explosion of life to the eastern flower fields of the Columbia River Gorge. No time of year excites me more to get out and photograph local Portland locations than this brief window of peak blooms. This year the Pacific Northwest experienced a weirdly mild and dry late winter & early spring, resulting in balsam root and lupine poking up much earlier than normal. Because of this early bloom, photographer friends who had booked tickets from out of state had to cancel trips or find alternative locations to shoot. This particular image was shot on April 26th. Most years the flowers are still reaching toward peak on that date, but it was clear to me they were on their way out. The constant winds had thrashed them around, mangling their petals, the sun had done its best to dry them out, and even a late frost had taken it’s toll. In short, not many of the blossom heads were very attractive to shoot. I was lucky enough to find this nice little patch seemingly in good healthy. As the setting sun dove for the horizon I knew this would be my last shoot out here this year. I was already looking forward to next year!

Shooting these eastern Gorge flowers fields can induce a good deal of paranoia, even outright fear. Ticks are a fact of life while walking through and crouching low to find comps. In five days of shooting out there I brushed off no fewer then twenty of the little suckers! Fortunately, none managed to embed themselves. I normally spend a night or two sleeping in my car to catch a sunset/ sunrise combo. It’s all I can do to suppress the neurotic thoughts and mental images of tiny weightless vermin slowly crawling their way up my body scanning for a prime spot to burrow in and slurp blood. Two years ago one dug so far into the small of my back a doctor had to core it out with a scalpel….unpleasant.

Blazin's 1024Flower Sanctuary
Nikon D800e
16-35mm at 16mm
Three shot blend for depth of field and dynamic range:
Two exposures for increased depth of field over flower field, f/11, 1/15th second, ISO 400
Third for the kky @ f/11, 1/24th second, ISO 100

One momentary benefit of this year’s warm, sunny, early spring was many photographers were slow to realize just how fast the famous flower fields of Rowena were coming into condition. On this morning (April 14th) I expected to find the usual dozen or more vehicles parked in the parking area, but instead I was stunned to discover I had the place completely to myself. It was my own personal flower sanctuary. Alone, light winds, pure color, and coyotes yipping at the rising light –few moments over the past year have felt as special as this one. This level of solitude at Rowena is not typical. If you haven’t photographed there yet but plan on doing so, be forewarned, the early bird definitely gets the worm, in this case, the best flower patches. If your tripod legs aren’t planted on firm ground well before sunrise on peak weekends there is a good chance most of the best ones will be occupied. This wasn’t the case just a few years ago, a trend pointing to just how quickly the sheer number of people taking up photography has grown in recent years. I actually don’t mind the hordes that much– it’s Rowena, it peaks for only a couple of weeks each spring, I expect the main area to be overflowing, especially on weekends. On the upside, among the crowd are bound to be familiar faces of friends I haven’t seen for a while, or those whose work I enjoy but haven’t had the chance to meet yet.

 

 

Sweet Creek
Nikon D800e
16-35mm @ 16
2 exposures to maximize depth of field, water motion, and image sharpness: f/8, 0.5 & 2.5 seconds, ISO 800 & 200

Once the flowers are past prime attention turns to the wet heart of the Columbia River Gorge. The Gorge is a nearly sea level passage through the Cascade Mountains and encompasses a unique inland ecosystem characterized by high rainfall totals falling at low elevations. The result is one of the lushest, most vegetation dense spots in the Pacific Northwest. On warm windless afternoons right after a rainfall the place absolutely glows with otherworldly green. It is truly hard to believe just how lush and vibrant the place can be unless you’ve seen it for yourself. The Gorge is most famous for giant waterfalls spilling over basalt cliffs, making for the lower 48’s great waterfall mecca. Over the past couple of years, though, I’ve been drawn to lesser visited location just off-trail. You can literally walk a a creek a hundred yards from a trail and find many phenomenal yet “undiscovered” scenes to capture. Case in point is the shot above. No trail leads directly to this section of creek, but it’s within an easy 15 minute walk of a well known trail. Possibilities seem endless there…

 

This Is the NW 1024 2

Fern Explosion
Nikon D800e
16-35mm at 24mm
f/16, 2.5 seconds, ISO 200

As many photographers have found out, one of the most difficult shots to pull off is a forest scene. Organizing the chaos into a cohesive frame is a task which challenges even the most experienced shooters. I truly enjoy shooting the creeks and falls in the Columbia River Gorge, but I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to images purposefully devoid of water. Water scenes naturally contain visual elements which are easy to work with while composing: S-curve stream beds, bright water which draws the eye through the frame, and elegant lines of falling water. With these elements absent the forest becomes an unruly beast, difficult to arrange in a way which captures the viewer’s eye. I don’t pretend to have one single image in my portfolio which does the Northwest forests true justice. The image above is my best frame from about 6 hours of attempting to find something that works over the course of several outings this spring. The challenge and chase is the allure. When something clicks, even in a small way, the satisfaction I soak up from the experience easily exceeds that of capturing yet another image of yet another waterfall. It’s what keeps me going back.

Clik Elite ProBody Sport Review

Mount Hood, Oregon

2ndSpring in the Pacific Northwest arrived fast and furiously this year. Abnormally long stretches of clear skies and temps in the 70’s and 80’s has led to an early explosion of color: think carpets of wildflowers and crazy amounts of green. Hands down, spring is my favorite time of the year to head into the Columbia River Gorge, my local backyard photo location. Also perfectly timed is the opportunity to review the Clik Elite ProBody Sport w/ computer sleeve. So after over a month of chasing light, trudging creeks, sliding on snow, and avoiding ticks and poison oak, I finally have put the Pro Body through the motions enough to write down a few thoughts.

Camera CompartmentThe ProBody Sport is a great choice for day trips into the field when all the extra weight and gear of extended trips isn’t necessary. Clik Elite got the size right, allowing for a Pro-sized body, several lenses, and plenty of room for non-photo gear, all combined in a go-light package. The first thing that struck me was how well the bag carries, even fully loaded it was super comfortable, swayed little when moving quickly, and gives plenty of support. This level of comfort shouldn’t surprise me given the performance of my Contrejour 35, which has quickly become my workhorse pack. The ProBody Sport easily accommodates my Nikon D800e w/ 16-35mm lens attached (photo), leaving ample room in the camera compartment for a 50mm prime and a host of accessories I want at the ready — cable release, several lens clothes, a lens brush, etc. With a little rearranging I could have also carried a medium sized lens. Camera access is quick and easy via the well designed horseshoe shaped double zipper. On the inside of this zipper flap are two memory cards pockets, as well as a zipper where I shove extra batteries. Clik’s attention to detail is evident in the addition of a red strip on the card pockets which lets you instantly distinguish between a used card and one which is ready to slide into the camera (photo). 3rd Above the camera compartment is another sizable zipper compartment perfect for non-photo gear such as jackets, snacks, guidebook, headlamp, etc. Two other smaller zippered pockets proved handy for keys/ wallet/ phone/ gloves. A mesh side pocket can be used to either carry a tripod (secured with an elastic cord attached near the top of the bag), or a water bottle. The whole package can be protected from the elements via the attached rainfly which stores well on the bottom of the bag. The bottom line is I had no problem finding enough storage space for all the camera and outdoor gear I need for a day out shooting, no matter if I was out in the sun, rain, or snow.

Clik Elite has also added a computer sleeve to the Pro Body Sport making it a great choice for road tripping when uploading/ editing images in the field or staying connected to the outside world, is essential. I brought the ProBody Sport on a recent trip to the east coast and I greatly appreciated its compact size and easy access to my laptop. The pack fit easily in the overhead airplane storage bins. The computer sleeve is sandwiched between the well padded back and main compartments, providing peace of mind that my valuable technology is safe from knocks and jolts. On trips when my laptop wasn’t needed, the computer sleeve as a secondary storage pocket.

One last great feature Clik Elite added was a hydration bladder pouch for those long days moving in nature. Clik has wisely designed some insurance in the form of an escape slot at the bottom of the hydration pouch to allow excess water to pour away harmlessly in case of catastrophic bladder failure. The hose smartly clips onto the sternum strap fastex for quick access.

In short, if you’re looking for a rugged, smartly designed camera bag (which doesn’t scream “I’m a camera bag!”) for go-light trips into the field the Clik Elite ProBody Sport is a strong contender.

DSC_6119

More info? Sold? Visit the ClikElite Store:

http://www.clikelitestore.com/product_p/ce738bk.htm

Shifting Passions

Sunrise from Col Camp, Alpamayo

Everyone’s path toward a life-photographic is different.  For nature and landscape photographers a deep connection to the outside world is an oft repeated commonality.  My journey is no different.  As a freshman in college I discovered mountains and the role they’ve played in my personal development has been immense.  It’s beyond my ability to imagine where life may have directed me without their intervening guidance.

For the better part of two decades mountains dominated many of my waking thoughts.  I literally dreamed about climbing mountains, visiting distant mountain ranges, or moving through unique mountain cultures almost every single day.  While most college friends spent spring breaks on warm beaches, a few close friends and I elected to drive overnight to New England to climb in the severe high country weather of New Hampshire & Maine.  Summers were spent rolling cross-country on road trips to the Rockies or Pacific Northwest.  My down time was spent pouring over maps detailing the mind boggling altitudes of giant Andean and Himalayan peaks, and hours reading tales of exploits in the world’s great ranges.   The mountain world held immense mystery for me, a place at once inviting and sinister, yet also where Earth held her most mind-blowing beauty.  I wanted to experience these realms first hand.  Just how debilitating are the effects of high altitudes?   How would I handle storms, intense cold, and unavoidable fear?  This personal curiosity made me ambitious.  Without consciously being aware, my mountain obsession provided grounding for my life, gave it direction, and placed me on a course of personal discovery and adventure for which I’ll forever be grateful.  Time spent in the high mountains will forever be some of the most magical of my life.

I grew up in Maryland— not a mountain-mecca by any stretch.  So during college a lot of talk centered around moving “out West”.  But even I surprised myself when I made good on this boast, loaded up my trusty Dodge Colt sedan (Don’t laugh!  The car was a front wheel drive mountain beast!), and made one last long drive cross country to establish a new home in the Pacific Northwest, an area overloaded with amazing geographic features– high volcanoes, rainforests, wilderness coasts, and a vast high desert.  Throw in great coffee, great beer, and great music, and the region swiftly applied a vice-like grip on my imagination.

Venturing into the Cascade mountains was a high priority those first years.  Washington and Oregon’s mountains contain the lower 48’s greatest abundance of glaciated summits.   For me, glaciated peaks held the opportunity for authentic mountain experiences, similar to what I’d expect to encounter in Asia or South America.  Tucked somewhere in the back of my mind was an unspoken desire to one day take skills and experiences acquired on Northwest peaks and apply them to the larger ranges of the world.  Each trip into the hills led me through incredibly beautiful sub-alpine and alpine scenery.  Each passing journey deepened my appreciation for the quieter aspects of the natural world and ignited a subtle shift in my motivation for going to high places.  The simple act of  walking through alpine meadows exploding with summer flowers or passing quiet time up high with marmots and cold winds quickly acquired the same soul satisfying quality as standing on any summit.  It wasn’t long before I concluded my desire to climb held little in common with the extreme, adrena-junkie, take it to the limit, b.s. portrayed by popular culture and media.  I went to the mountains to confirm and expand my notion of beauty, not to establish or reinforce ego.  I realized moving through the high mountains was merely an excuse to visit realms of extraordinary beauty.

By now you’re probably asking what all of this has to do with photography.  Well, faithfully stowed away in my backpack on all of these trips was a camera.  The first thing I’d do after each trip was drop my film off at the local lab to be processed.  Images brought home became treasured reminders of each adventure.  The vast majority of images merely recorded trip events in a very linear, non-emotional manner.  But just as my reasons for visiting mountains shifted, so did my approach to documenting my personal adventures.  No longer were blow-by blow snap shot accounts sufficient.  I wanted to hold in my hands a representative piece of the adventure and beauty I witnessed and felt.  My friends and I shared many instances of gape-mouthed beauty, but merely pointing a camera at it and releasing the shutter never produced satisfactory results.  These images felt removed and unconnected from my mental memory of the moment.  Naturally I became more curious to discover methods which would allow me to better capture the feeling of being present and engaged in the natural world.  So, before boarding a plane for three months of trekking in the Nepal Himalaya, I purchased a few good lenses and plowed through Galen Rowell’s classic book Mountain Light. Armed with basic technical knowldege and a few mantras a la Rowell, the images I brought home were a giant leap over previous attempts at capturing the outdoor world.  After that there was no turning back.  Half of the excitement of planning each subsequent trip was the anticipation of images that might come home with me.

Sunrise from Huayna Potosi, Bolivia

Over the next several years my thirst for new places led me to travel to Asia on three occasions and spend a year in South America climbing, trekking, and working.  I was fortunate enough to move through those places and ranges which had long captivated my imagination:  the Himalaya, Tibet, Patagonia, Kailash, and Peru’s Cordillera Blanca.  Throughout these travels the impulse to trek or climb started to share equal billing with the desire to capture those experiences and adventures on film.  Once back in the States my interest in photography exploded.  I still head to the mountains to screw my head back on straight, but the vast majority of my outdoor ventures relate directly to the pursuit of bringing new and exciting images.   Now I seek out low-lying creeks and lakes, not ridge-lines or summits.  A good hike no longer is measured by how many vertical feet gained, but in how well the shoot went.

This past summer I spent more than five weeks in the mountains of the western U.S., and for the first time in almost 20 years the urge to stand on top of any of those peaks barely registered in my consciousness.  I no longer stared at craggy mountains and attempted to pick out a route to the top.  Instead my mind almost always considered it in regards to how to best photograph it.  What direction and time does the sun set or rise?  What else can be included to make the image as strong as possible?  What is the weather supposed to do over the next few days?  In stark contrast from climbing days, I find myself wishing for clouds and inclement weather patterns to take hold.  Blue-bird days have become a thing to be cursed, not relished.   My entire approach to engaging with mountain environments has shifted, and along with it a large part of my identity.

Over the past couple of years a shift has occurred.  A rarely venture high onto a mountain.  I honestly miss it.  I miss the camaraderie, the sound of the alarm going off at 1 am, the flapping of the tent fly, the squeak and crunch of crampons on hard snow, the otherworldly beauty of sunrise from a high mountain slope.  Perhaps what I miss the most is the profound sense  of health and well being that hits after a big climb and lasts for days after.  So, last summer as my family and I rolled across the Oregon desert after a two week stint in the Tetons, I finally had to acknowledge and accept the fact that one passion in life had been eclipsed by another.  It’s true this “retirement” from climbing had much to do with the birth of my son.  However, I’m familiar enough with my inner motivations to know that if something wasn’t replacing this mountain-sized void, I’d still be lining up partners and plotting more climbs, just on a reduced scale.  So in stepped the world of photography…

It’s hard to talk about my personal life.  Talking about myself doesn’t come naturally and makes me feel a bit uncomfortable.  I’ve always thought that disclosing events and thoughts close to my heart acts to dimish and cheapen them.  This post was truly not meant to be some sort of brag-fest.  I hold no illusions of ever being some hard-man mountaineer.  Countless thousands (most of my partners) have climbed harder or higher and have way more feathers protruding from their respective caps.  The purpose of this post was merely to share my reflections on a profound shift in passions, a means of answering the question, “How did I get here?”  It’s a journey not unlike that many photographers who discovered the art through their love of life spent outdoors.