2019 - The Year in Review - December 16, 2019

It’s only December 16th and I’m going to get a jump on this. I’ve had a really hard time with writing, lately. The thoughts are there but they’re hard to grasp.. to put into words. Right now seems to be one of the rare times they feel accessible, so I’m going to seize the opportunity.

I’m going to break this post down into sections: State of Mind, Favorite Images and the Stories Behind Them, Gains, and Goals Moving Forward.

STATE OF MIND

I am not waiting for the year to ‘end’. There’s no value in that for me. The days come and go no matter the way we keep track of them. I don’t view a new year as a ‘fresh start’. The struggles and triumphs of life exist on either end of a new calendar year. Every single day we have an opportunity to ‘start fresh’, to better ourselves, to let go of our sorrows, and to embrace the good things that come our way. And that’s all easier said than done. Yet that opportunity is still there whether we take it or not. *note to self

I ALWAYS try to stay as positive and hopeful as possible, and the people closest to me can attest to that.. I hope. Maybe not. Maybe I haven’t been as good at that as I have been in the past. At the very least, despite the things I stress about and get overwhelmed by, I try to remain hopeful that “this, too, shall pass”. But I stress a lot about misfortunes, both my own and of the world, and I forget to find the things for which I should be grateful… and there are MANY. I’m my own worst enemy.

It’s important for me to be aware of the things that I can do better. But I need to stop letting them control me. I need to stop avoiding things because they feel so overwhelming. I need to START on SOMETHING. Anything. You can start a trek by taking a step, running, jumping, or at the very least just standing up, if that’s what it takes to get you to move forward.

I did a post like this in 2017 but I didn’t do one last year. I started to, but I just couldn’t get the words out. So I waited. Then waited more. The words never came and here we are. It’s the end of 2019 and I have a lot to be grateful for. I’ll just keep this to photography.

The past two years have been a pretty pivotal time for my creative vision. I gave in to many of the realizations that I had in 2017 (read: Old Shoes) and just ran with them. This has given birth to MANY ideas for me, which is one of the things that I let overwhelm me. I have an excessive amount of concepts, themes, and muses that I have been exploring with my camera, many of them taking me further and further into abstract and simplistic interpretations of nature. This is exciting for me. My creativity is triggered by things in nature like it has never been before. The result of all of this exploring is starting to show up in my portfolio. My shooting style/approach has completely transformed and I’m the most satisfied that I have ever been with my work. I feel more in tune with the world around me when I’m photographing and that is what this is all about for me. It’s about exploring the things that elevate my soul through my camera, developing an intimate relationship with that subject, that moment in time, or that play of light that I’m witnessing. Sometimes I get a photograph from the experience. Most times I do not. But what’s left in both cases is that personal relationship that I built and an enriched life because of it.

More of that, please.


Favorite Photographs from 2019 and the Thoughts Behind Them

    intimate, abstract, sand, dune, death valley, national park, california, photo

    Aeolian

    Taken: February 23, 2019 • Released: August 13, 2019

    500mm • ISO 64 • f/11 • 1/25

    This is my favorite dune image I’ve taken. Before I had ever photographed dunes, I had a draw to them. It seemed like a photographic playground with compositions presenting themselves left and right. I underestimated how challenging they can be to shoot, particularly the Mesquite Dunes in Death Valley. With Mesquite Dunes being smaller and the light falloff being much sharper, they can easily create a mess of tones and lines that feel busy and haphazard. Finding a composition that I enjoy most often happens in the softer light before sunrise/after sunset and at focal lengths of 300-500mm. The more simple forms can be isolated in this focal range. This image didn’t immediately jump out to me when I took it. That overwhelming feeling in the dunes sometimes overpowers that for me. I’ve found that just shooting with intuition over thought in the dunes works best for me, and that’s how this image was born.

    The extreme focal length of this shot at 500mm, the deep focal plane of the dunes, the waning light, and the fact that it’s often windy means that stopping down for extended depth-of-field is a rare chance. Thus, this image was focus stacked for depth-of-field. The raw file was already pretty neutral so I kept with the high key feel of it and let the shadows do most of the visual heavy lifting for the structure of the composition. The texture of the dunes provided the supporting role, and a very subtle warm and cool contrast finished off the main direction of the processing. I spent a decent amount of time very carefully cloning out a couple of distracting disruptions on the surface of the sand.


    oregon, moss, trees, forest, branch, branches, tillamook, photo

    Taller Than the Trees

    Taken: January 25, 2019 • Released: March 16, 2019

    340mm • ISO 64 • f/16 • 1/20

    This image is a special one to me. I have ALWAYS been entranced by backlit moss (well.. backlit ANYTHING). From the moment I first arrived in Oregon, my visions of the PNW forests have been defined by the moss. Even before I was into photography the way that I am now, I was drawn to the glowing moss on my many drives through the coast range and on the many hikes that I had taken. It’s just something that CALLED to me like a few things in nature do. It’s always been something that I explored with my camera, but I was never able to capture the essence of how it felt to me. This photo does that.

    My girlfriend Erin and I had taken a day trip to the coast and for some reason we always head back before sunset. I think it’s because we’d rather experience the evening light amongst trees and rivers instead of the ocean. We drove one of our favorite roads back to Portland and as we rounded the many bends in the road, the sun would shine through the valley and light up the forest with strong backlight. We pulled over many times during the hour to explore some scenes, but as soon as I saw this one that spark just HIT. I shot many iterations of it, some with natural glow and some without and when I decided which to process I went with no glow because I wanted the backlight on the branches to not be distracted from. I chose this composition because it showcased the sheer number of trunks being backlit and also gave me a feeling of the sheltering forest with the canopy looming overhead.

    The processing was pretty straightforward. Just balancing out the contrast to allow the light to be FELT while not resulting in solid black shadows. I had to pay mind to specific hot spots on the moss to make sure they weren’t clipped and it was a delicate dance of mid-tone and dark contrast that I had to dial in. I did a slight amount of warping to give that center tree a little bit of an angle so that it wasn’t sticking straight up, and I did a small amount of rebalancing the visual weight of the photo so that it didn’t feel too left heavy.


    water, sunlight, pebbles, abstract, abiqua, oregon, photo

    Stained Glass

    Taken: April 18, 2019 • Released: April 22, 2019

    300mm • ISO 100 • f/5.6 • 1/400

    This is one of the very few photos that has gotten released within a couple of days of taking it. I have a pretty big obsession with photographing water, and particularly with how direct light interacts with the water. One this day I was at a location with a gorgeous waterfall. One of my favorite waterfalls, actually. Yet I spent the majority of my time photographing this small side stream where the sunlight was being refracted onto the stream bed. I composed with this arrangement of rocks because it felt like the most orderly part of the stream bed. The ripples in the water were moving in parallel with the lay of the stone and it was just a matter of the right shutter speed at the right time. I’m sitting on most of my water texture and abstract work, but this one I just wanted it to be out there living and breathing in my portfolio.

    The processing was straightforward on this one as well. Just some minor tweaks with luminosity, contrast, saturation, and color was all it needed.


    alder, tree, forest, hoh, olympic national park, washington, photo

    Nonconformist

    Taken: January 15, 2019 • Released: April 13, 2019

    500mm • ISO 100 • f/11 • 1/8

    Erin and I spent a lot of time in Olympic National Park last year. It was just far enough away to feel different and exciting, yet close enough to make the trip frequently. Most times we had solitude, especially during the winter months. Our destination wasn’t reachable on this trip due to a combination of the government shutdown and some storm damage resulting from an earlier storm which closed the road. We made do and explored the area along the Hoh River which is where this shot was taken. I had just acquired my 200-500mm lens and was eager to try it out. The rivers in Olympic National Park are flanked by dense groves of alder, which you see here. Those textures drew us in and we spent a lot of time photographing along the river, as river edges usually provide an unobstructed view of the forest edge, offering up plenty of individual trees to explore, and in this case, a dense stand of alders. I have a lot of shots of this section at varying focal lengths and arrangements of trunks, mostly straight and repetitive in nature which is what initially drew me to the scene… that texture where if you look at it quickly enough it almost feels abstract, like a microscopic view of a fabric. But this one lone tree that is different from all the rest broke that monotony of texture, bringing the scene back to more of a reality in the way I viewed it. With the midday light, white trunks, and exposing to the right, I loved the high key feeling of this photo and kept it that way, being careful to keep it neutral in color so that it was more about the texture than anything else. This is one that I LOVE viewing large because there’s just so much detail in all of that texture, and that’s one of my favorite draws to this photo.

    The processing was straightforward. I just wanted to maintain that high key feel while also providing a touch of color at the bottom to help anchor the image. Some subtle tweaks of mid-tone contrast, a fair amount of cloning of distractions, subtle color balancing, and some shifting of the visual weight was all that went into this one. I do find it humorous that this is my one photo from The Hoh area, an area known for lush greens and hanging moss. That, as well as the lone crooked tree play into the title of the image for me.


    pronghorn, utah, winter, snow, storm, photo

    Two and Three

    Taken: February 17, 2019 • Released: September 4, 2019

    300mm • ISO 200 • f/11 • 1/320

    This is the one ‘wildlife’ shot that I have in my portfolio. As my friend Alex and I were driving through the remote Utah backcountry in whiteout conditions, we came upon this herd of pronghorn traveling through the brush. We slowed down and from the passenger seat, I fired off a couple of shots of the herd moving along. I really liked how desolate it felt out there in those frigid whiteout conditions, however there was this herd that was thriving. I never thought about ‘a shot’ when I took these photos. I just found the herd interesting and the shots were nonchalant in the way I went about them. But every time I scrolled past them in my catalogue they called out to me. Particularly this one where it was the two pronghorn amongst the snow covered brush in the center of the frame with a backdrop of white. But what really makes this shot for me are the three heads poking up on the right hand side, easily overlooked, and the snow streaking across the animals which is really only visible in higher resolution. It was my hope that the two in the middle were a male and female and the three on the right were all male.. spying on the couple, but that just wasn’t the case. :-)

    Due to the whiteout conditions, the raw files from these photos look so incredibly overexposed with being exposed to the right. Of course, when shooting I kept my eye on the light meter and histogram ensuring they weren’t, but it’s almost comical how bright they are. Another high-key approach here to keep with the feeling of the conditions… white white white, more white, and a little brown. This is probably my least processed image this year. Minor raw adjustments, cloning of distractions, and a touch of contrast. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t spend a week tweaking this photo, though. So it goes.


    high desert, foliage, winter, light, morning, eastern sierra, california, photo

    Early Bright

    Taken: February 26, 2019 • Released: September 15, 2019

    340mm • ISO 160 • f/8 • 1/250

    This is a scene that I had photographed a couple of times across different trips. I was either unhappy with the previous compositions or there was something technical about the file that I didn’t like. I was determined to get it all right on this outing and this is one of the few photos this year that I had intent on capturing. What drew me to the scene were the different colors of the grasses and the backlit trees that stand out against the hill behind which is still in shade. It’s such a treat to watch how the light transforms this area within minutes and it astounds me to think that is all caused by the spinning of the globe. It’s such a massive idea to comprehend and it’s distilled down into simply watching the early light rake across a scene. The diagonal lines in the bottom of the frame and the different colors and tones of the grasses lead the eye back to the trees, and altogether it just feels so cohesive with a pleasing color palette.

    Capturing this shot can be tough. The eastern sierra can be windy and thus, if you want to freeze the grasses blowing in the wind, you need a quick shutter speed. To get that fast shutter speed you either need to boost your ISO or, if you want a higher quality file, you need to open your aperture to let more light in, thus reducing your depth-of-field. Combine that with a long focal length/focal plane and the result is focus stacking if you want everything to be sharp. And that’s what I did.

    Putting the shot together was an undertaking. I still kept with a brighter and less saturated feel to the image. I have been moving more and more away from saturation and leaving my images with more of a natural feel and less of a ‘shock and awe’ feel. So the processing of the tones and colors was simple enough as long as I kept those colors and the saturation in check. The hard part was focus stacking the grasses. I can be obsessive about detail and I painstakingly blended the focused areas in this image as well as did a decent amount of cloning in the lower right hand corner of the image, as there were some distractions down there. To get it all to feel natural with no repeating patterns was quite a challenge, but this image was worth it to me. I’m VERY happy with the final product and with all of the fine detail, the backlight, and the colors it looks amazing in print. It’s currently one of my favorite images in my portfolio. I'm glad I finally got the image that I wanted in February of 2019 because when I visited in November, the grasses had changed and no longer had the flow that I love in this image.


    cottonwood, tree, utah, winter, snow, photo

    Cottonwood Snow

    Taken: February 17, 2019 • Released: May 25, 2019

    140mm • ISO 64 • f/11 • 1/30

    This image was taken on the same day as Two and Three and the canyon where I photographed this tree was our destination as we passed that pronghorn herd. By now the whiteout conditions had brought heavier snow. The canyon was full of extremely photogenic cottonwoods and with the conditions blocking out the canyon walls, it was prime for isolated tree portraits. This one in particular caught my eye and I made sure that we stopped by to spend some time with it after having seen it earlier on the drive. The air was still and the snow was falling heavily. I played around with shutter speeds to either freeze the snowflakes or to capture their motion with different textures. This photo is all about the details and the texture for me which is something that gets lost unless you see it printed larger or decide to spend some time viewing it. The texture of the streaking snow mimics the texture of the bark and combined with the fine detail of the branches and a few leftover leaves that are still hanging on from autumn makes this one of my favorite tree portraits in my portfolio.

    Yet another higher key approach in the processing. I approached it by double processing the raw file so that I could control the tree and ‘sky’ separately. I kept the tree a little warmer and the background cooler both to create the warm/cool contrast but also to give it that frigid feel that the day had. I paid a lot of attention to the detail in this photo with specific sharpening and texture work done to the tree to help the texture of the snow stand out. Some minor adjustments to contrast and some burning and dodging to balance out the luminosity of the branches was also done so that no branch drew attention more than the others. The majority of this work is very subtle, but it all adds up to my finished photo which I’m really happy with.


    abstract, fungal, pattern, oregon, grape, leaf, coccomyces dentatus, photo

    Mosaic Decay

    Taken: December 18, 2017 • Released: November 6, 2019

    105mm • ISO 100 • f/57 • 30.0

    Another of my favorite images in my portfolio at the moment. Erin and I had come upon these leaves while photographing a forest. We saw one next to the trail and as we looked deeper into the brush we found plenty more. This is an Oregon Grape leaf colonized by the fungus coccomyces dentatus (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coccomyces_dentatus). In all of my time spent in the forest I had never seen this before and it was fascinating to see. The more we looked the more we found. But since Oregon Grape leaves are so small, I needed a couple of things to make this photo. For one, I had no macro lens to photograph this with. So I collected a few of them and brought them home, promptly ordering a macro lens for this shot specifically. Since these leaves are not flat, I also had to stop down to an extreme point or focus stack the image… both of which I did. With wanting to fill my frame I had to be at minimum focus distance, thus creating shadow on the leaf, so I needed a light source which I got in the form carefully placed lights being diffused through a light box. I then composed, focus stacked meticulously, recomposed, and did it all again a dozen or so times with different leaves, and to be honest, that tightly controlled and meticulous style of shooting isn’t something that I like. It causes me to feel detached from what I’m photographing and goes against the way that I LOVE to photograph. Yet… my initial excitement over finding these leaves prevailed and I’m glad that I was able to capture it in a way that still elicits that for me.

    Despite my meticulous focus stacking, I decided to go with a single shot on this one. Even at f/57 the lack of diffraction of my macros lens was pretty impressive and the comp was better than any of the focus stacked frames. Most of the processing took the form of color work and getting the yellowish whites, tannish yellows, and brownish oranges to be a little more appealing in color. Some minor contrast work and cloning of distractions to finish it off.


    snow, mountain, cathedral, grand teton, national park, wyoming, photo

    Winter Cathedral

    Taken: February 7, 2019 • Released: February 19, 2019

    450mm • ISO 100 • f/11 • 1/640

    I don’t have many images of mountains in my portfolio. I haven’t traveled to many mountainous areas and the local mountain just doesn’t appeal to me in a photographic way. But visiting Grand Teton National Park in the winter has always been one of the things that I wanted to do. I was there for a period of time in 2007, but I wasn’t photographing back then they way that I am now. I had my little digital point and shoot and took photos of nature, but not in the expressive way that I strive for today. I was excited to go back in the midst of winter. I’ve always loved that area.

    This shot was taken on my first morning there. It’s a simple portrait of the Cathedral Group of the Grand Teton Range and the way the clouds flew from the top of the peak and the morning light lit up the face really made this shot for me. I took several iterations of this formation, but there wasn’t a lot of leeway in compositional variety of just the peaks. And that was fine with me as the light and the added atmosphere was what helped portray the grandeur of these peaks. 

    Processing-wise I took a different approach. This image looked great in black and white but it was missing something for me. I missed the coolness of the image. In a weird decision, I took the black and white copy and a cooler copy, and blended them together by adjusting the opacity opacity of the blue layer. That left me with a muted grayish blue which still gave me a sense of that coolness without being an obvious blue and still being a super pleasing color to me. The muted color still helps the light stand out the way it did in the black and white version as well.


    maple, tree, autumn, abstract, oregon, photo

    Wind Washed

    Taken: October 15, 2019 • Released: October 21, 2019

    200mm • ISO 64 • f/5.6 • 1/20 (x10)

    This is one of those ideas I’ve been playing around with lately. Taken on a very windy day at Silver Falls State Park, instead of using a fast shutter speed to freeze the leaves, I embraced the conditions and played around with ways to portray it. This was taken late morning so it was a little bright out. For this shot I wanted to slow the shutter speed down to capture the movement, but I also wanted a shallow depth-of-field so that the foliage and tree trunks in the background were soft. I opened up my aperture to 5.6 but that caused me to have a faster shutter speed. To get a solid single shot of movement at this point I would have needed to put a neutral density filter on. I hate dealing with filters so I played with a different technique that I use for water motion (it’s much more applicable to water movement than it is moving foliage) where I use multiple exposure mode and have them averaged and stacked into a single frame in-camera. This photo consists of ten 1/20s images all layered together in camera. This resulted in the feeling of movement but since the base shutter speed was so short at 1/20 there is still some detail in the shot.

    I took some cloning liberties in processing. I wanted this to be an abstract of leaf movement. There were some branches in the frame that took away from the leaves and overall feel of the photo and that also gave it structure that I didn’t want. I carefully cloned those out. I also wanted to go for more of a brighter pastel feel over the deep colors that we associate with fall so I did a lot of color work to brighten it up and move it in that direction. In higher resolution you can see a couple of spiderwebs amongst all of the branches.


    GAINS

    Looking at my goals from 2017, I’m happy to see that I made some progress. Some of those are included here.

    • I’m really happy with the work I put out this year. It still seems a little scattered in terms of subject matter and processing directions, but I’m starting to just accept that as just how I do things and not be bothered by it so much. The exception of that is The Winter in the West Collection. That feels pretty cohesive to me.
    • The Winter in the West Collection. This was a great trip with one of my best friends. We had a great time, saw some beautiful things, and I really feel that the whole trip and collection was a defining point in my creativity. Many of those shots would hold rank in my favorite ten images overall, though that’s an ever revolving list. I get such a great feeling when I look at that collection. For me, it was a big undertaking for a collection that size. My creative process is pretty long and obsessive. I spend a very long time staring at the images and making minor tweaks over the course of days. When I finish a photo I want it to be dialed in exactly how I want it to be with no compromises and nothing in the photo that jumps out to me as uneven, distracting, or uncomfortable. There are only a couple of images in there that I have any unease about but most of them are exactly where I want them to be and I feel comfortable with them.
    • As I stated above, I feel creatively invigorated. I think this has to do with a lot of things: constantly exploring my motivations, giving in to the things that elevate my soul or catch my eye, experimenting/stepping outside of my comfort zone, embracing harsh/challenging scenarios and trying to harness them, but a lot of it just comes down to my mindset about the way and things I photograph.
    • I've been releasing many more photos per year which has been one of my goals. in 2017 I released 12 images for the whole year. In 2018 it was 44. In 2019 I released 43 images, and that doesn't include my water abstract exploration photos that I have processed.

    GOALS GOING FORWARD

    • All that time that I take to process images? I need to work on that.
    • I need to stop letting myself get overwhelmed by big projects. I just need to start somewhere. Anywhere.
    • Break some compositional habits that I have. I tend to frame many images the same way which feels static to me. I want see in more dynamic ways when it comes to composition.
    • Carrying over a goal from 2017 in which I wanted to write more. My brain has been in a fog and writing has been tough.
    • Carrying over a goal from 2017 in being more outgoing. Social media has really been a turn-off and I’ve been avoiding participating in forums.
    • I want to do some speaking events. Speaking scares the hell out of me but I have been invited to do a small presentation in 2020 of which I accepted the opportunity. I have also reached out about other opportunities and I look forward to seeing if those play out.
    • Start processing images for the book that I want to put together. Right now that project feels so overwhelming that I just don’t start it.
    • Be better at holding myself accountable.
    • Get out more.
    • Stop being so reclusive.
    • Stop letting my stresses consume me.

    All in all I’m very happy with where I’m heading. I have an overwhelming number of images that I want to process and ideas that I want to explore. I’m excited for my photographic future and I hope that I can keep moving in a direction where my images come from my heart and where they become more and more expressive.

    Here's to the future.

    Posted in Musings.