The odometer ticks up and my hands are tight on the wheel. NPR is filling my idle mind with the steady, patient cadence that only seems to appeal to people of a certain age and sensibility. There are three NPR stations available on the satellite radio, I switch from one to the other, until I find a story that I like. Short story after short story fills the time as the geography slowly changes from the dense, tangled forest of western Washington to the dusty sagebrush of the eastern part of the state. Huge mountains with jagged peaks loom over my little blue Jetta as I snake my way further along the dark gray roads, the bright yellow line separating the direction of traffic. With my mind pleasantly pliable from the pot, thoughts of varying weight appear and recede through my consciousness. I’m concentrating on the road, my eyes scanning the margins for abandoned buildings, a favorite subject for my photography. Being on the road has always had the effect of defragmenting my mental hard drive, untying knots of confusion and frustration. This is how I get away.
Leaving the city is the least calming part of any road trip, but it’s not unpleasant. Fighting the traffic, stopping at the red lights, dealing with the multitude of people. While annoying, it’s actually the counterpoint to the time, just a few hours later, when there is nothing but the sound of nature. Nothing but the wind, the river, the birds. So I embrace the traffic, the stoplights, the pace. It is the other side of the coin. I make my way out of town like an Apollo capsule exiting the atmosphere, shedding layers of friction and heat until the only thing left is peace and quiet.
I am a city person. I feel comfortable in and around large urban areas. I thrive on the sounds, smells, tastes, and aggravations of city life. If I have anything to say about it, my family will keep moving to larger and larger cities until, I suppose, we end up in some monstrous tower in the middle of Kuala Lampur or something. That being said, I feel a deep connection to small towns and rural areas. There is something about the actual, physical dynamic of the small town that I find endlessly fascinating. They are all pretty much laid out the same way, with a main road, usually a state highway or other regional artery, flanked by a clean, efficient grid system. Commercial zoning along the main drag, homes ordered neatly on the outside of the grid. These small towns almost all have a large store, a large school, and several small businesses, as well as municipal buildings and things like that. It’s the random combinations of these elements that gives each small town its unique personality. The pace of a small town is slow compared to city life, but very fast compared the slow, measured speed of farming, the most common industry. So regardless of how small, each town has its own sort of metropolitan vibe. It is the center of the local culture, however it is defined. Many towns have a Wal Mart, or a McDonalds or other national stores. From my experience, these places do not detract from the soul of a small town, the opposite seems to be true as the McDonalds and the Wal Mart have evolved their own country feel. Ironically, as much as I love small towns, I don’t feel like I belong in them. I am distinctly uncomfortable in these places. I am perfectly aware that this problem is entirely in my head, I have only ever met really nice people in small towns. But the fact is that I am different from at least 99% of the locals, and I can’t help but feel completely exposed and conspicuous. I know how aware I am when I run into someone from the country in downtown Seattle, so I am sure I am being noticed in a place like tiny Twisp, Washington. With my German car, big glasses, and vague-yet-clear ethnic brownness, I notice people looking at me. A smile and a friendly nod is what offer, and it is always returned. When I tell folks that I drive around country roads taking pictures of the beauty, they all are surprised that I see the same beauty they do. They assume city people thinks it’s boring, and they are right. Most people don’t see the beauty of rural areas until someone like me posts 3000 shots of it on 500px.com. People are content and drive by the corn or wheat, unaware.
Back to highway 20. Between the small mountain towns you can catch glimpses of the silvery blue streams between the dense trees. Free stone streams run down the mountains from glaciers high above. These streams are teeming with fish, but dealing with the treacherous rocks and steep grade makes them less than ideal for fishing. Speeds are generally lower on the mountain roads, but more dangerous. Impatient people dart in an out of traffic, determined to see as little of the beautiful landscape as possible, putting everyone else at risk in the process. I do not speed and I do not cross the yellow line, not even to pass. I am what the speeders hate. Occasionally the winding, curvy mountain roads open up to a wide valley or basin. Picturesque farms and orchards dot the landscape. At the right time of the day, these scenes are as marvelous as any postcard. In these open areas small, rushing mountain streams change to calmer meadow streams. Perfect for fishing. It has been said that fly fishing is a great way to scrub your brain. I agree 100%. Concentrating on good casting, making a perfect drift, choosing the the correct fly and landing the fish, plus the sound of the river is a very effective way to balance yourself. There is peace in fly fishing. These basins and valleys are my favorite part of mountain geography.
Heading east out along highway 20 you begin to leave the mountains behind. The grasses and pine trees give way to scrub brush and sandy soil, the air is much dryer. It is the first place along the highway where the horizon isn’t as close as the next mountain pass. The vistas are spectacular, with enormous lakes and vast rangeland. During the week you can drive for 30 minutes without seeing another soul, passing through sleepy towns like a breeze. From the main road you can zig zag through the adjacent country roads. I find these side roads to be rich with photographic opportunities. In my days I have traveled literally thousands of miles along the dusty country roads of Colorado and Washington, capturing the scenes of depressing decay and inspiring beauty (sometimes in the same photo). Sometimes I will turn off the car and just listen to the sound of the wind in the grass and the birds over head and I think about the noise of the city.
And so the highway continues east, mile after mile of farmland. Small town after small town, each mile further opening my mind and recharging my senses. I generally spend 12 hours driving, finally finding a place to stay at the last minute. From Seattle and following highway 20, a 12 hour drive will put you in Spokane. Getting a cheap motel room, a few 16 oz PBR’s and a hamburger from Zip’s and a little local TV puts the lid on the day. I get up in the morning and head west towards home, listening to NPR and taking photos, getting my mind ready to re-enter the atmosphere.
When it’s rainy and dark in Seattle, it is nice to work through my photo library and re-edit old shots, or discover great shots that somehow made it past first inspection.
Time and distance has put a new perspective on my collection of shots from the Plains of Colorado. As I page through the files, I am experiencing alternating waves of nostalgia and mild home sickness. Although remembering how cold the Denver winters can be quickly quells that homesickness. You can keep your numb fingertips, I will take the rain.
Anyway, I have been using Nik Silver Efex Pro to breathe new life into some of my older photos. Combined with Nik Color Efex Pro, I am able to generate some great shots that show the beauty of the plains.
I spent a gloomy, rainy, Saturday afternoon taking photos at the old Northern State Hospital ranch near Sedro-Woolley, Washington. There are several abandoned buildings dotting the huge plot of land. The gray tone of the day was perfect for the creepy vibe of the old structures, and the steady rain added to the overall unsettling nature of the experience. I was the only one around, the sound of the rain and the camera shutter was very calming. For the first time in months I was able to hear myself breathe. I wandered the structures, fascinated by how tones and textures change once rain is introduced into a scene. I have been to this location several times, but this was the first time it felt as raw and disturbing as I imagined it could be. The rain added depth and contrast that is usually lost on gray days.
I miss the plains. I miss the deserted dusty roads, the huge skies, the small boring towns. I miss watching the crops get larger as spring slides into summer, and then watching them get collected by large, impressive machines in the fall. I miss watching the spring storms boil and rage across the prairie. I miss the hot, clear summer days, and I miss watching the first storms of winter spit their first snowflakes. I miss the smell of fertilizer and the sound of the grass being blown by the winds that flow freely across the landscape. I miss all of it.
I don’t know my new home like my old home yet, and it’s hard for me to find serenity among the huge trees and moss.
A popular uprising against a proposed highway through Seattle’s Arboretum in 1969 provides some of the most unique examples of abandonment in the city. Unused roads and ramps that come to an abrupt end crisscross the marshland on the north end of the Arboretum. Locals refer to them as the ghost ramps or ramps to nowhere.
The proposed highway would have provided another route to the 1-90/I-5 interchange, thereby easing traffic around the University of Washington. The plan to build the R. H. Thomson Expressway was rejected by by voters in 1972 amid concerns it would destroy large parts of the Arboretum, one of Seattle’s most beautiful parks. Part of the construction of HWY520 in 1962 included ramps and interchanges to the proposed new highway (still in the planning stages), but were ultimately abandoned after the project was permanently scrapped in 1972. What remains are the rarest of all urban ruins, an unfinished municipal project.
Being in the area is like being surrounded by quiet, gray monoliths. The curved off ramps twist and turn, changing elevation and sweeping across the landscape. The spaces under the bridges have been taken over by vagrants and vandals, booze and beer bottles litter the ground. Grass and weeds invade the lower levels of the concrete pylons, blurring the line between the advance of nature and man’s hand.
This is my favorite piece of art, The Blue Room by Picasso.
For me, it captures that wonderful point in time each evening where the remains of the day are barely clinging to the the textures and shapes of our surroundings. This is the moment in time that seems the most filled with the depth and emotion. The light is simultaneously intense and subtle, poignant yet elusive, shadows have weight and highlights are just brighter versions of the shadows. Ordinary objects reveal their deep, soulful existence ordinarily obscured by the starkness of daylight or the emptiness of the dark. It is my perfect time of day.
The nice thing about that special blue time, is that it happens every day regardless of time of year or weather. You just have to notice it. This was my blue time tonight, the last of the light falling into the garage.
I am obviously no Picasso. The point isn’t necessarily the subject matter, but the richness of the moment. I’m going to use this image as my raw shot of the day, a photo challenge issued by TheChrista.
I admire the Florida-based photographer called Christa Watson, she has a fantastic eye and her people pictures express a certain truth that has always seemed to elude me. Her recent blog post encourages photographers to kick out the crutch of editing by trying to capture a great scene with only the camera. It seemed right up my alley considering I have been caught in this sort of over edited haze, and I am anxious to shake it. This challenge seems like the perfect opportunity to address the problem.
I approached the challenge pragmatically, the scene I had in my head was a simple shot from my garage. North light pours in over stone steps, across a weathered green door, onto an old ladder. The scene is only 10 feet from my desk so it met the convenience/laziness requirements as well as the interesting lighting requirement. I wanted no editing whatsoever. I set the ISO to 400 to reduce the noise while still being able to shoot handheld. I opened the aperture of the 12mm Sigma to 7.1, enough to accomplish a deep DOF without reducing the shutter speed (1/40th) to a point where I couldn’t control it.
Here is the shot:
Now, it’s not bad. Jen likes it. I wanted to capture the softness of the light with the texture of the wall, enhanced by the subtle green door. After looking at the shot for several minutes, I came to the realization that while it has a certain tone, it needs more attention. The cement wall texture was not clear enough, the details in the dark parts of the ladder were lost in the shadows, and the colors were flat. The more I tried not to think about it, the more the thought that the shot needed editing kept creeping into my mind. While grilling tonights chicken I kept thinking how a nice 4×5 crop and a little added contrast would go a long way to capturing the tone of the image, and a targeted increase in the saturation/white balance adjustment in the door would make things pop a bit more.
The fact of the matter is, for me at least, is that the editing is at least as important as the capture when it comes to expressing the feeling behind a photo.
Here is the edited version:
I like it better. But I think that it’s entirely in my head. For years I have loved photos that people have been indifferent to, and I have been embarrassed by shots that people ended up loving. I still have no idea how to purposely target an emotional response from someone, I generally let my heart do the work and people seem to respond.
I loved this challenge because it reminded me that creating a photo is sometimes more than having tech skills and being at the right place at the right time. For me, editing is part of the meditation of photography, a chance to get personal with the pixels.
The image above is an example of how to use minimal equipment to achieve natural tone to a complex image.
I needed to be able to show the three separate elements (living, dining, kitchen) in one shot while highlighting the space and the layout . The challenges in this composition include bright natural light from the dining area and an almost fully shadowed area in the hallway behind the fireplace. There are also three levels of overhead incandescent cans and lamps PLUS dark floors.
Each shot is different, each photographer is different, and equipment differs. The best advice I can give on composition is to try several different angles and see what works best. For this shot, in addition to the details I mentioned earlier, I needed to be able to place a slave flash in to the frame without being able to see it. More on that in the Lighting Details section.
Here is the equipment:
Nikon D300, Sigma 12-24mm, Two SB-800 Speedlights, Tripod, and small tripod for slave.
EXIF: RAW, ISO640, 22mm(equiv), f7.1 @ 1/50th
I choose a relatively high ISO in order to maximize the Speedlight’s cone, while also keeping lower flash levels to avoid harsh shadows (I apply noise reduction and minor sharpening in Lightroom). If I need to make adjustments, I will open the aperture if it’s too dark, and increase the shutter speed if it’s too bright. The idea is to keep both adjustment as even as possible, going too far in either direction will provide undesirable results.
The first exposure I make is a plain shot at the meter setting with an aperture of f9. This will give me a starting point. My goal is to adjust the shutter speed until the incandescent lights (maybe a lamp or can) in the frame are at the point where they are barely about to be blown out. From that point you can begin to add light (and place the slave) until you have the results you want.
The first exposure for this shot happens to be right on the money (thank you very much), the artificial lights are bright but not blown out. I can now proceed to add my own light.
Camera: pop up the on-camera flash. This will trigger the slaves. You will need to go to the camera flash settings and set the on-camera flash to fire at the minimum level. This will be enough to trigger the slaves but not cast shadows in the shot.
Slaves: To turn the SB-800 into an adjustable slave, hold the SEL button for a few seconds until the menu pops up. Navigate to the flash settings, and press SEL to select. Choose SU-4 from the menu. Press SEL to save, then hold SEL until the menu disappears. The display will now say REMOTE , you may need to press the MODE key to enter manual mode. Now you will be able to adjust the light in increments as necessary.
Slave 1: Hand held. I use this unit to light the foreground of the shot. Usually at a bright setting (1/4) straight up with the diffuser on. The good thing about having this flash hand held is that you can move it around easily if you need to mitigate a shadow or something. There is definitely an art to doing this, and it is really fun to find what contortion works for a certain space. I set the camera timer for a few seconds, and that’s plenty of time to get into the best position.
Slave 2. On a tripod. I use a cheap pan head tripod, fully collapsed its about a foot tall and expands to about 4ft.
For this shot, I held Slave 1 three feet to the right and behind the camera with a flash level of 1/4, straight up with diffuser. Slave 2 was two feet tall behind the slim wall near the kitchen with a flash level of 1/64, straight up with no diffuser. It took me a few shots to fine tune the lighting and placement, but it’s easy to make adjustments.
Generally, the slave needs to be in the line of site of the main flash, although I regularly place the slave around corners or in different rooms with fantastic results.
The effect is very nice, all of the elements are lit evenly and naturally. Now, there is a shadow thrown from the slave by the dining room chandelier, anyone seeing it would not know that it was an artificial light, it looks very much like sunlight reflected off the table. By moving the light slightly, I could have thrown that shadow somewhere else without affecting the tone, it’s depends on what you like to see.
This shot took me five minutes to compose, setup, and shoot. With a compact setup and a good plan, you can cover a large house in just a few hours.
The relocation from Denver to Seattle is complete. My father-in-law and I were the advance team for the big move. We arrived in Ballard 8 days before my wife and daughter so we could set up the house and make the transition as smooth as possible, and I am pleased to say it was a success. By the time they arrived, a vast majority of the work was done, leaving a few details that needed the full family input.
By Sunday, January 10, I had enough accomplished around the house to go shooting. It was my first chance to explore the area outside of the Seattle, and I was quite excited. I headed north and west along the coast to the towns of Marysville, Laconner, and Bellingham. Bellingham is a very large city and is worthy of many trips, but the shots I was able to get on this trip were a great start. In Laconner, I found a beautifully weathered warehouse on the waterfront just a few yards from the main tourist drag. It was falling down, but there were still plenty of stuff being stored inside. The exterior walls were covered in blue/green moss, adding great texture to the scene.
In the days up the arrival of my family, I took an hour or two in the afternoon to get some shots of the very impressive Seattle skyline. Since the sun goes down about 4pm this far north in the winter, golden hour comes very early. Golden hour around here, of course, is more like gray hour. But the light is still very good, and great shots can be had. I imagine there will be a time where I will find shooting the Space Needle sort of boring, but for now it’s fantastic. I have never had such an interesting element to work with on such a large scale. I found a great location at Kerry Park in the Queen Anne neighborhood, as well as some great perspective shots from the beach at Alki.
In addition to the big move, the great new locations, and all of that stuff, I have launched the new Curb Appeal Photo site. I am looking forward to building great relationships with the business community in our hew home.