Color of Light

All three of these photos suck but I’m using them not for their content but for other reasons. First, most of the images I make pretty much suck, so these are a good “case in point.” The top one I thought was going to be gangbusters, but the sky just wasn’t working for me. The middle image was about motion but I just didn’t get enough, and the final image was made in an attempt to time someone out on the rock, someone who was using a strobe. I was trying to time it with a long exposure to get their flash going off, which I did in other frames but missed entirely on this one. Oh well, life is evil and we all turn to dust. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s keep moving.

These images are here because of the color of the light.

But before we talk color of light I want you forget a few things.
Your education, your photography studies, your camera, your lens, your laptop, your software, your filter sets, your camera bag, your gadgets and gizmos, your pixel depth, your megapixels, your fluoride elements, your aperture, your shutter speed, your tripod, your camera tape, your hard drive, your calibration device, your thunderbolt plug, your monitor, your iPad, your iPhone, your blog, your Facebook page, your agent, your rep, your website, your career and for sh%$ sake please forget about “being a photographer” and “doing what you are supposed to do.” Okay, I’ll give you a few minutes to prepare.


You need to forget all those things because they just don’t matter unless you are in the right light.
Light. Let me say it again, “light.”

People ask me all kinds of strange photography questions, which is one reason why I love having a blog. Photography, at least to me, is a somewhat strange pursuit. You point a light tight box at something in an effort to preserve it or share it or put some HDR thing on it to make it look like something you puked up after eating too much fried food at the fair. We make photography seem complicated but it really isn’t, not at all. We’ve built an industry around it for some reason, and this further increases the complexity, but the actual photography part stays painfully simple. For me it can all be summed up in three things. Light, timing and composition, and those are in a very specific order. LIGHT, timing and composition.

These images were all made in basically the same spot. Yes, I was moving around and they are from different angles and distances but it is the same slab of rock and the same enormous hole. These images were also made, I’m guessing, within roughly the same hour. Yes light changes that fast and so does the COLOR OF THE LIGHT and here lies the point of this post. I get a lot of questions about gear, which in the long run really doesn’t mean much. Gear is romantic. The top forty photography sites, in terms of traffic, are all gear and technology related. A significant portion of the workshops I see being offered today are all gear related. I think the idea of things like light and timing and composition are REALLY getting overlooked these days. But, again, the reality is if you are not using the right light then you really aren’t being the photographer you could be, and it surely doesn’t matter what device you have in your hand. The vast majority of the time, when I’m in the field working, my entire agenda is dictated by the light. Seriously, I can’t stress it any more than that. The light dictates where I go, when I go and how long I’m there. I don’t work in high noon light unless something has gone wrong or I have no choice or unless something truly dramatic is happening and I HAVE to make pictures right then and there. I’ll sit in my car for eight hours in 110 degree heat….waiting for the light to get right. There is no other way. My shooting is like a cage fight, months of training, months of hype and then three rounds of all out effort. Sometimes I get knocked out and other times I do some damage. I’m a 50/50 fighter at best, even with the light working for me.

Near my house in California is a protected waterway that birds really dig. Where there are birds there are birding photographers, and this place is no exception. They have camouflage trucks. They wear camouflage clothes. They all have Canon 600mm lenses….wrapped in camouflage. They have tripods…wrapped in camouflage. And….they all go out to shoot at HIGH NOON. I’ve never understood this. Standing in the blazing sun and cooking down the buffer on their 1DS Mark III’s. Don’t they look at good birding photography? Don’t they know that early morning and early evening give you not only direction of light but also COLOR OF LIGHT? These guys are like quantum physics, yes I know they exist but I have no understanding of them.

These Grand Canyon images illustrate color of light. Going in reverse order, the bottom image was shot first and just LOOK at how blue that light is. The middle image is moments before sunrise and the light is shifting, a middle ground of warm edges, white center light and a soul that is still blue. And the third image, the top one, is shortly after sunrise and yellow/red is now the statement being made. Within minutes in the desert environment the light will be gone, and when I say gone I mean virtually unusable. When I worked in Arizona it was the 8:30 AM to 5:30 PM rule of might as well go take a nap during these hours.

I see a fair number of portfolios and the photographer will begin showing me work made in horrible light. They will begin telling me about the equipment used, their philosophy and their desire to get a show or book. All I see is imagery made by someone with zero understand of light.

So, next time you venture out on a photo expedition take one last look at that clock. Go earlier, go later, look for clouds, look for rain or anything else that will add color or drama to the light. Good luck.


Arizona’s Grand Canyon with only half sun above the horizon

I spend a fair amount of time around today’s photography industry. I travel to the trade shows, most of them, and I keep up on what is new, what is phasing out and what is rumored to be on the way. I also go to many openings, gatherings and lectures, encompassing a wide range of people and topics.

The further we go into this modern electronic game of photography, I’m always amazed at how much I hear about technology, both on the front end with digital capture devices, or cameras to normal people, and the back end, meaning workflow solutions, or software and computer stuff to normal people.

But what I rarely hear anything about is actual photography, the actual basics of making imagery. I guess that this information just isn’t flashy enough for the modern crowd, or the younger generation who have spent very little time learning photographic basics and have spent far more time on equipment, software, branding, websites and marketing. In some ways I can see the thought behind this. The business of professional photography is really in trouble, a reality that seems to get lost on many people, so creating a brand, marketing the brand, and trying to survive are important steps in being a photographer.

However, I also see the insanity in approaching the business in this direction. You can market and brand all you want, but in the end if you don’t understand the basics of photography you won’t produce a recognizable and unique product. My evidence of this is all around us, look at most publicly viewable imagery.

I recently went to a trade show and walked the entire floor, looking and listening to every speaker I could find. Without exception, every featured speaker spoke about what new piece of equipment had taken them to a level they could have never reached with last year’s version. Now I know this is bunk, and they know this is bunk, but many of those in attendance don’t, and that is one reason why we have the issues we have today.

Yes, you can buy the latest widget, and the latest software to go with it, but if you don’t have a basic understanding of light, timing and composition, it won’t matter what you have in your hand unless you are only trying to provide generic content……….

Well, a lot of people today are only trying to provide generic content, but for the REST of us, basic photography is what we must understand.

Backlit bliss in Sicily. Wings. White wings. Frontlit it doesn’t work people.

I would LOVE to go to a trade show and hear the truth from the speakers. I would love to hear the backstory of the work they are showing, or their real work, where they got up before sunrise or waited for the last feeble, fire-red rays of the day. But for some reason, this isn’t what sells today.

But for me, this is where it all begins and ends. Light. This post is simply about light.

Take megapixels, capture rate, color space, file format, lens magnification, file converters, actions, tweaks, the clone tool, layer masks, workflow, tagging, rating and watermarks and just toss them out the window. Take your machine with forty buttons and just put it on the floor and walk outside. Now look up. Look right. Look left.

Find the light. Be the light Danny. (If you don’t know this reference I can’t ever talk to you again.)

I’m AMAZED at the number of photo students who have never done this. AMAZED.

I’ve seen students work images on a laptop like a shuttle captain under pressure of a hull breach. Images shot at 12 noon on a cloudless day. I’ve seen portrait photographers, on the beach at sunset, in the most beautiful light you can imagine, shooting every single frame with direct, on-camera flash.

I just want to say, “Stop, please, let’s go back to the beginning.”

Up at 3am, drive two hours, on the floor waiting for this image. Light comes through like this for five minutes each day. Could have shot at noon and got JUNK

Figuring out and exploring light is one of the most entertaining aspects of photography, at least in my opinion. You know that feeling you get when you think you left your wallet or cell phone on the counter at the airport? THAT is how I feel when I’m out and the light is great and I’m not shooting. I feel freaked out because I know how important light is to the bulk of what I do as a photographer.

Patented “Rainbow Dream Life” filter from my “Too Good to Be True” filter set available for $29.99 at selective sites and roadside park dispensaries.

And when you are in the right place, at the right time, in the right light, there is no better feeling.

Light makes everything AFTER the photograph easier, like making prints. When the light is great, and you expose that piece of paper, it just comes up in the developer like it was meant to be. It seems that most of my best prints, and somewhat easiest prints, were done in great light.

Look, we all know that sometimes we can’t control the light. When you can’t you just do what you can do and live with the results. But many times we CAN control when we work, and that, for me, is critical.

And let’s not think we need vacation sunsets to have great light. Great light can be flat, diffused, dark, etc, It is the quality of light we are looking for.

Early and late light give us what?

Come on? What?

Color and direction. But flat light can also give us great things.

What it takes is practice seeing and being able to recognize what light we need or want to make the pictures we want.

So, the next time you are thinking upgrading your Zupperflex 5000 Doppler SLR, and the software that goes with it, just remember in one year you will probably have to upgrade again. But neither basic photography knowledge, nor light, needs an upgrade. Learn it once, use it forever.

The Grand Canyon

A few months ago, perhaps a year by now, I was able to visit Arizona’s Grand Canyon for the first time. I’d lived in Arizona before but never made the short trip north to see this massive hole.

But alas, I finally had specific reasons for going, and going we did. I had plans for my images, or at least what I thought were plans. It always seems like the best intentions end up being remodeled shortly after getting to “the field,” and my Grand Canyon snaps were no exception.

I had my trusty Hasselblad, and Tri-x, and really wanted to concentrate on making those images. For me, there was no real reason to go to the Grand Canyon and shoot beautiful scenic images. Why? Well, that is not what I do, and frankly, I’ve just seen far too many of these photographs.

I think places like the Grand Canyon are impossible to capture on a still image, or motion video. NOTHING compares to being there, standing with your toes over the edge, wondering just how awful your afternoon would feel if you happened to slip.

So for me, all I do is do my style images, regardless of where I am, or what the subject matter is, and this is what I attempted at the big hole.


Luckily for me, the Grand Canyon sees a lot of visitors, and many of these visitors explode on the canyon in a sea of color and synthetic fabrics. There are staggering statistics about how many people drive into the park, never leave their car, then drive away. And, there are other statistics about how many people spend less than two hours in the park. I get it, and I don’t get it. I know for a lot of people, people who grow up in the city, that being off the pavement is an alarming feeling. They are never without television, fast food and their trusty cell phone, and you can see a lot of these folks in the park. I applaud them for venturing out. But, there are also a lot of people who do get out of the car and out into the park. They hike, trek, wander, amble and mass in the “view spots” waiting for just the right moment.

What was very interesting to me was the number of folks from other countries. Being me, I took to interviewing these people in regards to their experiences in America and about what the Grand Canyon really meant to them. I was surprised to find how important this place was to these folks, and in many cases, visiting the Grand Canyon was the number one reason for coming to the States. It was the United Nations of visitors. I told most of these people there were plans to fill in the great canyon and pave over the river. Just kidding.


This place has to be photographed as much as any location in the world. If you are looking for the hordes of amateur snappers, look no further. They are en mass and the only thing you really hear at sunrise is “whirl, click, whirl, click, whirl, click,” and then if you listen very carefully you can hear all the snappers pressing the buttons on the back of their cameras, chimping the Grand Canyon as if for some strange reason something would change in between the eight hundred images they made. But their gear makes great foregrounds. Thanks amigos.


Yes I’m interested in the hole, but I’m far more interested in the humanity that visits the hole, and the “culture” that our great park people have created for all those visiting. I mean look at the gift shop/supply center. When I see a place like this I just cringe and try to speak Polish or Spanish or Berber to make it appear as if I’m not from the culture that would actually design, build and release a look like this on unsuspecting tourists. World, I apologize. I did unload my eight-gauge pump shotgun into that elk.


You spend enough time on the park tours, with family, and at some point your world comes crashing down. It’s never pretty. People just stop, drop and flop. Dads. Moms. Uncles. There is no immunity, especially when you are trying to “do the park,” in four hours. But thanks for trying, makes good snaps. Park service humanitarians circle the park with smelling salts, buckets of frigid water and electrical clamps.


I always wonder what happens with all these tiny digital photographs. The statistics tell me that NOTHING happens with them. They are never archived, never printed and are never around after about eight months after being taken. It’s too bad. For me, photography has always been about recording and archiving history, so this new technique puzzles me. But at sunrise and sunsets the foreground is FILLED with tiny, glowing screens.


I never thought of wearing a suit to the canyon rim, but I think I like it. Keep it casual and you blend in, but wear a fur collar or speedo and your instantly as interesting as the view itself. Kudos my traveling brother.


As you can imagine, I’ve got a lot of images of people from behind, staring into the abyss, or at the sky, or at each other, or at nothing, or at the back of their camera. Well, after all, it is fairly difficult to get in front of people when they are standing at the edge of a thousand foot cliff. Deal with it people.
But, some of these images I really like. I can stare at this image forever, wondering what the back story is. Is this their first trip? How did they get here? How long are they here? Do people stare at them? Do they care?


Oh ya, shadow play. I’m not immune to it. I embrace it. Like a reflection in a car window. Yep, I’ll take that too. “Ah sir, I’ll have an order of cliche with a side of trendy.” If you look closely you can just see the fast food billboards on the horizon. Just to the left of the waterpark.


I end with this picture because I know this guy. I don’t actually know this guy, but I think we all “know this guy.” Yep, he was doing the same thing in the lunch line in elementary school. He was doing the same thing on field trips in high school, and as an “adult” he continues this trend.
I love it. We all WANT to do it, but yet he is the only one to actually do it. Listen up kids, this is the guy to follow. He will take you to the edge, maybe over a tiny bit. Someone did slip, fall and die when were there there. Really sad right? Well, not as sad as the fact we heard it was a small child who fell, and then the father tried to save them and he ended up falling too. I can’t imagine.

On a side note. All these images were made with a 25-year-old Olympus OM4-Ti, which is an old school, 35mm camera, which hasn’t been produced for years. The lens was a 35mm, f/2 I believe. I bought this camera on a whim, don’t have it anymore, but loved it while I had it. The lens, which was also very old, came apart, so I ended up selling the body. It was so small, and quiet, and nobody paid any attention to me. They probably thought, “Hey, who is the loser with the old film camera?” as they ran back to their RV’s to plug in, download, edit, edit, edit, archive, upload and podcast, blog, email, Twitter and Facebook every single image (5000 +) they shot during the sunrise, instantly sapping all power from their pictures.
Me, I went to the cafeteria and watched Europeans try to figure out the food the park service has crafted from the devil’s shopping list. I’ve never seen anything like it. “Do you have any vegetables?” they would ask, as the cafeteria worker would say, “No, but we do have macaroni and cheese,” as if this was in the same ball park. Pizza, hotdogs, soda, chips, candy, overcooked pasta with ketchup as sauce and a plethora of other evil concoctions greeted the ravenous crowds!! How about some empty calories for your hike???? I actually really enjoyed this part of the park, I really did. Next time, I’m bringing my camp stove. I’ll have to leave my backup to the backup to the backup hard drive, but I think I can risk it.

The Grand Canyon is a grand place, it really is, and the culture that surrounds it, or lack there of, is equally interesting. I took this place for granted, but not anymore. I’ve got a new found appreciation.