Tag Archives: landscape

Camera Settings – Landscape Photography

It is April and spring has arrived at Monument Valley along the Arizona/Utah border. The pastel glow of twilight dyes the valley a cool hue while warm light from a setting Sun catches the wispy overhead clouds. (Bill Ferris)

It is April and spring has arrived at Monument Valley along the Arizona/Utah border. The pastel glow of twilight dyes the valley a cool hue while warm light from a setting Sun catches the wispy overhead clouds. (Bill Ferris)

There have been more than a few days when I’ve wondered if I travel to do photography or if the camera is just an excuse to get outside amidst inspiring landscapes. Actually, there is no wondering about it. It’s the latter. I have a deep, soulful connection to nature. Truth be told, if faced with the choice of spending my remaining years alone in a magnificent wilderness or amongst the beehive of activity in a major city, I might choose the wild.

It should come as no surprise, then, that landscape imaging is my first love in photographry. Since a move from the Midwest to northern Arizona nearly 20 years ago, I’ve been blessed to have ready access to some of the most dramatic and iconic landscapes of the American West. Grand Canyon, Monument Valley,  Arches, Canyonlands – these are nature’s cathedrals. These are the places where I hone my craft and renew a spiritual connection with the world.

This blog continues the series in which I share the camera settings I use for specific genres of photography. Today’s genre is landscapes and these are the settings:

  • Mode: Aperture Priority
  • Aperture:  f/13 to f/22
  • ISO: 100 to 200
  • Image Format: RAW
  • Focus: Back Button or Live View
  • Shutter Release: Timed with a 5-second delay
  • Essential Gear: Tripod
Late day light paints Zoroaster Temple in Grand Canyon a deep amber hue as seen from a campsite along Clear Creek Trail. (Bill Ferris)

Late day light paints Zoroaster Temple in Grand Canyon a deep amber hue as seen from a campsite along Clear Creek Trail. (Bill Ferris)

Great light is the first element of a great landscape. While it is absolutely possible to make a fantastic landscape exposure in midday light, the golden hour times of sunrise and sunset are the most prized. The soft earthy glow adds a dramatic feel and reveals the inner beauty of a place. Weather, is the second key element. Clouds, rain and lightning put passion on display. Snow reveals the essence of a place and hints at possibilities to come.

A common theme connecting the above, is the relatively low light levels one encounters when shooting under such conditions. Unlike other genres (e.g. sports, wildlife and portraiture), short exposures and shallow depths of field are not necessarily desirable when shooting landscapes. More typically, you want great depth of field. Also, since your subject is mostly static, exposure times can be longer without compromising image sharpness.

An f/13 to f/22 aperture will deliver an in-focus, sharp image through the fore-, mid- and backgrounds. (APS-C bodies can achieve the same at f/9 to f/16.) With depth of field being so critical to achieving the desired result, I usually shoot in Aperture Priority mode and dial in an aperture – more accurately, a focal ratio – of f/13. Depending on the lighting and composition, I’ll go as large (in focal ratio) as f/22 or more.

Of course, I always shoot in RAW to allow as much latitude as possible during processing.

White House ruin in Canyon de Chelly National Monument (Chinle, Arizona) (Bill Ferris)

White House ruin in Canyon de Chelly National Monument (Chinle, Arizona) (Bill Ferris)

To maximize image quality and minimize noise, I typically use the base ISO of the camera body. In the case of the Nikon D610, the base ISO is 100. This combination of low light, small aperture and low ISO forces the camera to use relatively slow shutter speeds to make a properly exposed image. When shooting just before sunrise or shortly after sunset, an exposure of 1-second or longer may be needed.

Long exposures demand a solid, stable platform to ensure good sharpness in the resulting image. This makes a tripod essential gear for the landscape photographer. I use a Benro model tripod. It is designed to be lightweight and portable, while still providing good stability. It is not as rock solid as other beefier designs, which means I’m always in need of a sheltered location when doing photography in a strong wind.

A technique I use to minimize vibration, is setting a 5-second delay on the shutter release. This allows any vibration introduced when I push the shutter release to dampen before the exposure begins. I also use either back button focus or contrast detection focus in Live View to help ensure best focus. Contrast detection, while slower, is sometimes a bit more accurate than phase detection. Moving focus control off the shutter release button minimizes the risk of a last second focus change when an exposure is made.

Using these settings, allows me to take full advantage of the spectacular landscapes populating the Desert  Southwest. If you are a landscape enthusiast, I hope you find they help your results, as well.

So, get out there and shoot.

Bill Ferris | April 2015

Wilderness Basics

Clear Creek cuts a path from the North Rim to the Colorado River in Grand Canyon. It is also home to one of the sweetest perennial water flows in the great chasm. Arguably, the signature feature of Clear Creek is the 10-foot waterfall about a mile from the Colorado River. It is a popular day hike destination, both for river parties and for backpackers. This 1-second exposure captures the delicate beauty of the sideways waterfall and invites you to make Clear Creek a destination on your next visit to Grand Canyon National Park. (Bill Ferris)

Clear Creek cuts a path from the North Rim to the Colorado River in Grand Canyon. Arguably, the signature feature of Clear Creek is the sideways 10-foot waterfall about a mile from the river. (Bill Ferris)

Last month, I did my 23rd overnight backpack in Grand Canyon National Park. The first was in 2006, an experience that forged a lifelong connection to the most spectacular of America’s national parks. During the years since, I have hiked nearly 1,160 miles and camped 109 nights below the rim. From Nankoweap to Crazy Jug north of the river and south from the Little Colorado to Bass, I’ve walked through every side canyon that empties into the mighty Colorado.

What motivates these treks is two-fold. First, is the deeply spiritual experience of hiking in Grand Canyon. It is a feeling and place like no other. Second, is the opportunity and challenge of using my camera to capture the magnificence of this natural wonder. This recent trip confirmed my thinking about the equipment and techniques essential to making a successful photograph in a wilderness environment. In short, you need to get back to basics.

Wilderness backpacking is an activity where success or failure rests on your ability to manage resources. The resources include the gear you bring, the food you eat and the water you drink. Successful management of these items rests on your ability to prioritize, to identify those things which are essential, of value or merely trivial.

Water is essential, something you need to consume every day to maintain physical and mental well being. In a desert environment such as Grand Canyon, you had better have it or know with confidence where it can be found. Food is essential. Your pack, clothing, safety gear and first aid kit are essential.

A camera and tripod, while of value, are not essential. Neither are critical to day-to-day survival. Neither is a tool that helps you get from point A to point B. Neither provides shelter from the elements or assistance during an emergency. For most backpackers, these would be considered trivial items. Most people would bring a smart phone as a resource for communication with family and friends, during an emergency. At other times, it can function as a camera. Some hikers would bring a point & shoot – something lightweight that fits nicely in a pocket – or perhaps a small tripod or Gorilla Pod.

The gravelly carpet of the lower narrows yields to the stoney floor of the upper, in this photograph of Vishnu Narrows in Grand Canyon National Park. (Bill Ferris)

The gravelly carpet of the lower narrows yields to the stoney floor of the upper, in this photograph of Vishnu Narrows in Grand Canyon National Park. (Bill Ferris)

As a dedicated landscape photographer, the camera and related equipment – while non-essential – are highly valued by me. Two years ago, I replaced and upgraded several critical pieces of backpacking kit with the goal of reducing weight while maintaining performance. The items included my backpack, shelter, sleeping bag, sleeping pad and water treatment kit. The net result was a reduction of nearly five pounds in my backpacking base weight. (Base weight is the weight of the pack and all non-consumable contents.)

What did I do with those five pounds? Did I walk a bit lighter and quicker down the trail? Of course not. I reassigned it to photographic equipment. Instead of hiking with a crop format camera body, I now bring a full-frame sensor body. I also added a lightweight but full-size travel tripod to my kit. These items added a bit over four pounds to the weight of my pack. They also significantly increased the enjoyment I get from doing photography while backpacking.

Here’s the complete list of photographic gear I brought on a recent eight-day Grand Canyon backpack:

  • Nikon D610 camera body (w/ two spare batteries and two spare 32 GB SD cards)
  • Nikon 16-35mm f/4 wide angle zoom lens (w/ lens cleaning cloth and wipes)
  • Benro A1690T aluminum travel tripod with Benro B0 ball head (w/ backpack straps)
  • Peak Design Capture Camera Clip Pro mounting system
  • Peak Design Slide camera strap

Almost any camera (smartphone, point & shoot, etc.) can make an excellent picture in the full light of day. The equipment I packed allowed me to make excellent photos in any lighting, even at night. The D610 is a top-5 ranked camera body when it comes to the combination of resolution, dynamic range and low light performance. That 24 megapixel Sony sensor is a beast. The 16-35mm zoom lens allows me to capture awe-inspiring wide angle views. An equivalent lens on a crop-frame body would have a focal length in the 10-11mm range. No smart phone or point & shoot comes close to delivering such a wide angle view.

Early on a March morning, the summer Milky Way rises over Grand Canyon National Park. A pristine night sky is a treasure. Standing beneath a starry canopy, one can simultaneously feel insignificant and connected to all things. There is no greater cathedral, no place I feel more at home. (Bill Ferris)

Early on a March morning, the summer Milky Way rises over Grand Canyon National Park. A pristine night sky is a treasure. Standing beneath a starry canopy, one can simultaneously feel insignificant and connected to all things. There is no greater cathedral, no place I feel more at home. (Bill Ferris)

The tripod enabled me to capture quality exposures during the golden hour and at night. Without the tripod, I would have had to shoot with wide open apertures and high ISO’s to keep exposure times reasonable. With the tripod, I could use the base ISO, a small f/13 aperture and capture tack sharp landscapes during twilight. I could also make longer 1-second exposures of a waterfall to give the flowing water that silky smooth quality. Or, I could make 30-second exposures of the night sky at very high ISO to record a stunning image of the Milky Way rising over Grand Canyon.

Equally important, was what I did not bring: no backup body; no second (or third) lens; no filter(s); no speedlight(s); no reflector. Under different circumstances, I would normally have brought all these items. However, in an environment where every ounce and each square inch of space matters, these accessories are non-essentials.

I know a lot of landscape photography enthusiasts will question the decision not to bring even one filter. After all, filters are relatively small and light. Surely, I could have fit a neutral density filter, a graduated ND or a UV filter in my kit? Well, I could have. I also could have used that weight or space for more water, more food, rain gear, another clothing item or some other even more essential item.

The bottom line reality is that much of what filters offer can be achieved in Adobe Lightroom. Shooting in RAW combined with good decision-making about what to photograph and judicious use of exposure compensation allows me to capture original exposures that can be edited in Lightroom to optimize exposure, details and highlights in any area of the final photograph. All this can be accomplished in a few minutes or less. Filters, while definitely of value, are non-essential.

The 24 MP sensor combined with Lightroom’s single button click tools correcting lens distortion and chromatic aberration give me the option of shooting at 35mm in the field, then cropping to 50mm or even 75mm during post-production. In short, image processing offers the option of converting a wide angle image into a photograph captured with a standard focal length lens.

Of course, the real fun during the hike was making images that take advantage of what a true wide angle lens offers. Of the more than 1,000 photographs I took during the eight-day trip, only a handful have been cropped more than about 10% during processing. Ninety percent or more have not been cropped, at all. Some may view shooting with just one lens for a week as limiting. I saw it as both a challenge and an opportunity. The opportunity was to make dramatic wide angle landscapes in a truly stunning natural environment. The challenge was to be creative with my use of the lens throughout the week.

A backpacker steps carefully along a crumbling ridge while late day light paints a Tapeats tower in Grand Canyon National Park. (Bill Ferris)

A backpacker steps carefully along a crumbling ridge while late day light paints a Tapeats tower in Grand Canyon National Park. (Bill Ferris)

In hindsight, it wasn’t a challenge, at all. It was easy. Throughout the week, there was only one time when I missed not having a long telephoto lens in my pack. (We were standing at the edge of the Tonto Plateau looking into Vishnu Canyon and found the remnants of an old miner’s cabin. The ruins were about half-a-mile distant and, while plainly visible through a 10X monocular, were simply beyond the reach of a 35mm lens.) But for that, it was a genuinely enjoyable week of hiking in and making landscapes of Grand Canyon National Park.

You don’t need to spend a week backpacking in a wilderness area to experience the joys of shooting with a minimal kit. You can do it, any time you wish. All it takes is the willingness to leave all but your most basic and necessary gear at home. This weekend, choose one camera, one lens, a tripod, a couple of spare batteries and media cards, and allow yourself to spend an entire day taking and making great photographs with just that essential equipment. Get back to the basics.

Go ahead, get out there and shoot.

Bill Ferris | April 2015

Top Ten Photos of 2014

White House ruin in Canyon de Chelly National Monument (Chinle, Arizona) (Bill Ferris)

White House ruin in Canyon de Chelly National Monument (Chinle, Arizona) (Bill Ferris)

It’s a chill January afternoon in northern Arizona, just perfect for reflecting on the previous year and sharing my favorite photos from 2014 with you. The photos, while representative of my best work, have meaning to me, which is why they made the cut.

WHITE HOUSE – I made this photo during a February 17 trip to Canyon de Chelly National Monument. More than a millennium ago, Ancestral Puebloans lived in this canyon complex in eastern Arizona. Among the structures that remain, is one known simply as, “White House.” It was built in a natural, water-carved opening in the Navajo sandstone cliff face. I include this photo i tribute to Ansel Adams, who made a famous black and white portrait of this ruin. I also like the organic blending of the ancient human structure within the softly curving stone wall of the canyon, the vertical streaks painted by rain and snow melt, and the balance of the ruin site in the lower left corner with the deep Arizona blue sky in the upper right.

It is these qualities that make this one of my favorite photographs of 2014.

Cool winter light paints the softly curving stone surface of inner Antelope Canyon (Bill Ferris)

Cool winter light paints the softly curving stone surface of inner Antelope Canyon (Bill Ferris)

BLUE CURVE – In March of last year, I made a week-long driving tour to do photography in the Four Corners region. I visited sites in Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico during a whirlwind tour. On the second day, I drove from the South Rim of Grand Canyon to Page Arizona and took the photographers tour of Upper Antelope Canyon. There are thousands – if not millions – of photographs of this iconic slot canyon so, I don’t pretend that the above image is anything unique. It is, however, meaningful to me.

If you’ve taken a tour of Antelope Canyon, then you know you are jostling for position with at least a hundred other tourists within the close quarters of this narrow slot canyon. Every image I made on that afternoon was shot handheld. I wanted good depth of field but I also didn’t want to shoot with too high an ISO. This image was shot with the excellent Tamron 24-70mm, f/2.8 Di VC USD zoom at 55mm, f/4.5, ISO 1600, 1/100-second.

I like the subtle raspberry blue hue of the light painting the gently curving stone wall, the warm caramel hues of the midsection and the chocolate tones of the stone in the upper-right. The f/4.5 aperture delivers just enough depth of field to capture the tight grooves of the lines in the stone. The contrast of those sharp grooves with the swooping curves is another quality that appeals, making this a top-ten photo from 2014.

High passing clouds catch the warm glow of a setting sun and wash the inner gorge of Grand Canyon in an earthy hue. A watchful eye may catch Desert View Watchtower as a subtle projection from the edge of the South Rim just right of center in this photograph (Bill Ferris)

High passing clouds catch the warm glow of a setting sun and wash the inner gorge of Grand Canyon in an earthy hue. A watchful eye may catch Desert View Watchtower as a subtle projection from the edge of the South Rim just right of center in this photograph (Bill Ferris)

SEVENTYFIVE MILE SUNSET – The Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, I made an impromptu trip to the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. It’s a 70-minute drive and I love the views from every rim overlook. I also enjoy the challenge of finding original and fresh perspectives to photograph in capturing the mood of the canyon from these popular tourist spots. On this trip, I decided to take a different approach.

Rather than photographing sunset from an established overlook, I decided to do a short day hike, blazing a trail through the Ponderosa Pine forest to the rim at Papago Point. There are no roads, no trails to this spot on the rim. As a result, I’m sure very few photographs of Grand Canyon have been taken from this vantage point. Papago Point offers a clear view up Seventyfive Mile Canyon to the South Rim. Off in the distance, you can see the winding Colorado River and the spectacular Palisades of the Desert.

What I really like about this image is the tiniest of elements – Desert View Watchtower. It is visible as a small projection reaching skyward from the South Rim a bit right of center. The tower is three stories tall and is simply dwarfed by the surrounding landscape. It is this element of scale that conveys the sheer vastness of Grand Canyon and earns this photograph a place among my ten favorite images from last year.

A soft summer glow bathes Mt. Hayden in eastern Grand Canyon in a pastel light. (Bill Ferris)

A soft summer glow bathes Mt. Hayden in eastern Grand Canyon in a pastel light. (Bill Ferris)

MOUNT HAYDEN PASTEL – The first week of July is historically when the summer monsoon kicks off in the Desert Southwest, bringing ten weeks of rain and thunderstorms to the region. The clouds, lightning and rain can add a dramatic element to landscape photos so, I drove up to the North Rim of Grand Canyon for the July 4th holiday weekend hoping to capture the drama with my Nikon D600. Well, I got more than I bargained for.

A typical monsoon day dawns clear and bright, clouds build during the morning, afternoon thunderstorms wash the landscape with rain, rumbles and lightning. By late afternoon, the clouds start breaking up, ushering in a spectacular sunset and clear night skies. On this trip, the clouds and rain were persistent. There was one morning, however, when conditions delivered fine conditions.

I had driven to Point Imperial for a sunrise photo shoot. With rain rhythmically tapping the windshield, I stayed in the comfort of the car longer than usual. Eventually, the rain eased enough to entice me from the vehicle and I walked down to my favorite perch just below the overlook. About an hour after sunrise, the clouds broke enough to allow a clean early morning light to spill into the canyon. This image is a portrait of Mt. Hayden bathed by that wondrous pastel light and is among my ten favorite photos of 2014.

Warm early morning light casts a golden glow on the canyon floor visible through Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park. (Bill Ferris)

Warm early morning light casts a golden glow on the canyon floor visible through Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park. (Bill Ferris)

MESA ARCH GLOW – In late July 2014, my wife, son and I connected in Denver, Colorado to spend a week exploring Rocky Mountain National Park. Alice and Matthew flew in from Niagara Falls, where they’d been enjoying some quality mother-son time. I had driven north from Flagstaff to Denver to check in at the hotel and pick them up at the airport. Since I would be travelling solo, I decided to extend the road trip over four days, to stop at some favorite landscape sites along the way and do some landscape photography.

On the morning of the fourth day, I had planned to shoot sunrise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park. The intense monsoonal weather followed me from northern Arizona into southern Utah. A sunset photo shoot in Arches National Park the day before had not gone as planned. The hoped for golden late day light never materialized on iconic Delicate Arch. While driving out of the park toward the highway, I started having second thoughts about heading north to Canyonlands. The weather to the north looked seriously threatening and, after three days of early mornings and late nights, the idea of a soft bed at a Moab hotel was quite appealing.

However, I resisted temptation and stayed on course. Arriving at the campground just outside Canyonlands, I set up the tent and climbed into my sleeping bag just as rain started to fall. I never did settle into sleep as sporadic showers, thunder and lightning flashes filled the night. The watch alarm went off at 3:30 AM with a light rain pattering  the nylon fabric of the tent. It was all I could do to extrude myself from the sleeping bag. Driving through the darkness into Canyonlands, the clouds seemed to be breaking up a bit. I was actually feeling a bit optimistic as I pulled into Mesa Arch parking area.

With my headlamp illuminating the trail, I made the half-mile trek to Mesa Arch and, as expected, was the first person to arrive. On a normal summer morning, as many as two dozen photographers are jostling for position to capture sunrise at Mesa Arch. On this morning, there were maybe five of us who’d braved the weather. We were rewarded for our tenacity. As the sun rose, the clouds parted just enough to allow some of that magical dawn light to paint the underside of the arch. Even better, mists and high humidity filled the inner canyon and the morning light cut through it like a lighthouse beacon.

While I really like the quality of the captured scene, I chose this image as a tribute to the rewards of dedication. The art and craft of landscape photography demand persistence. You can’t make the picture, if you’re not there when the light emerges to paint the scene.

From left to right: Nik, Nicole, Lucas and Kaidon (Bill Ferris)

Family Portrait (Bill Ferris)

FAMILY PORTRAIT – One of my goals for 2014, was to get out of my photographic comfort zone. I wanted to shoot more sports, and to do more client work. This photograph is included as an example of the rewards that come from taking risks and pushing your skill set to new levels.

A good friend at work had approached me about doing a family portrait shoot with her, her husband and their boys. I eagerly agreed. It was as much a favor to me as to her. She wanted to do the shoot outdoors and to feature fall color as a strong element. That’s what I had in mind, as well. On October 11, we met at the agreed time and location, and then spent the next hour taking group and individual portraits in and amongst aspens.

I thoroughly enjoyed myself and am very pleased with the outcome. This photography captures the true personality of this family, their enjoyment of each other and the outdoors. Of greatest satisfaction to me, is the obvious smile on the young boy’s face. He had fun during the shoot. On what could have been a frustrating day for a little boy who would rather be at home playing with his friends, we all had a great time making this family portrait.

Just looking at it brings back those memories and makes this one of my favorite photographs taken in 2014.

With 12-seconds left in regulation, NAU's Dan Galindo hauls in a Jordan Perry pass to score the game-winning touchdown

With 12-seconds left in regulation, NAU’s Dan Galindo hauls in a Jordan Perry pass to score the game-winning touchdown. (Bill Ferris)

TOUCHDOWN! – This photograph was made on October 25, 2014. I have been a football fan since I played in a Pop Warner league as a young boy. Shooting a football game has been a goal of mine for a couple of years. However, at Northern Arizona University where I work, I am part of the television production team on football game days. Well, another production company was going to be in town to televise NAU’s Homecoming game so, I had the day off. What did I do with that free time? I grabbed my camera and went to the game to try my hand at photographing football.

My knowledge of the game paid huge dividends on this shoot. A strong sense of what was going to happen, next, allowed me to pick and choose locations that were perfectly positioned to capture the action. It was early in the fourth quarter when I identified this spot as where I wanted to be if NAU would have the ball at the end of the game with a chance to win on a last-second score. As good fortune would have it that is exactly how the game played out.

With less than one minute remaining, Northern Arizona took possession deep in their own end of the field. I went immediately to this spot and waited for the magic to happen. Three plays later, I captured this photograph of the game-winning touchdown catch. The Lumberjacks had just defeated the second-ranked team in the country. As excited as I was for the team and fans, I was even more excited for myself. I can’t recall having that much fun working on a personal project. For that reason and the significance of the moment, I’ve included this image among my top ten from 2014.

This Discovery Channel Telescope stands bathed in late day glow and waiting for darkness.

This Discovery Channel Telescope stands bathed in late day glow and waiting for darkness. (Bill Ferris)

DISCOVERY – Four days after shooting the NAU Homecoming football game, I made this portrait of the Lowell Discovery Channel Telescope. I have been a fan of Lowell Observatory since my youth. After all, Pluto was discovered at Lowell. The observatory is also what brought me and my wife from Madison, Wisconsin to Flagstaff in the mid 1990’s. The move happened when she took a position as the fundraising director for Lowell.

On October 29 of last year, I drove out to the Discovery Channel Telescope (DCT) site to shoot a time lapse night sky video sequence for a work project. Shortly after arriving, I made some test exposures in the dome. After the sun had set, I went to work outside and promptly forgot about the early test shots.

In December, the longtime trustee of Lowell Observatory, William Lowell Putnam III, passed away. Mr. Putnam’s death was hard on the staff. Going through my photo archive in search of an appropriate image, I found this photograph from that October 29 shoot. With the dome shutter doors open, a pure white light fills the space and illuminates the massive telescope from behind. This cold piece of technology is brought to life by an angelic glow. It gives a real personality to DCT. I shared the photograph with the observatory and include it, here, in tribute to Mr. Putnam.

A lone juniper tree clings to life on a stony outcrop overlooking Grand Canyon. (Lipan Point, South Rim) (Bill Ferris)

A lone juniper tree clings to life on a stony outcrop overlooking Grand Canyon. (Lipan Point, South Rim) (Bill Ferris)

JUNIPER – On December 7, I made another of my impromptu drives from Flagstaff to the South Rim of Grand Canyon. I wanted to capture the sunset and chose Lipan Point as the location. Lipan Point is one of my favorite overlooks at Grand Canyon. It offers a clear view of the Colorado River. To the east, Desert View and the Watchtower can be seen. Directly across is the North Rim. To the west is Vishnu Temple, Angels Gate and the farther reaches of the canyon.

I was paying close attention to the quality of light while setting up my gear and could tell the sunset light would not be special. Certainly, there are many worse places to enjoy sunset on a December day than Grand Canyon when the light is dishwater grey. The view would still be gorgeous and the environment inspiring. However, there would be no golden light on this evening.

Still, I was there with my camera and determined to come away with something. Looking about, I took notice of this small Juniper tree. It was barely three-feet tall and growing in a shallow depression in the Kaibab limestone. Normally, I use a small aperture for landscape photography to ensure great depth of field where every detail is in focus. This subject seemed better suited to portraiture. So, I set the aperture to f/2.8 to ensure a shallow depth of field. I am very pleased with the result.

The Juniper is in good crisp focus on the left side of the frame. To the right and in the distance, the Colorado River and natural monuments of the inner canyon fill the frame. This scene provides a context clearly identifying where the photograph was made. The slightly opaque late afternoon light spilling into and filling the canyon adds just the right touch to make this one of my ten favorite photographs from last year.

An African Spoonbill preens on a rainy mid-winter day at Disney World Animal Kingdom theme park. (Bill Ferris)

An African Spoonbill preens on a rainy mid-winter day at Disney World Animal Kingdom theme park. (Bill Ferris)

AFRICAN SPOONBILL – This last photograph was made during another family vacation. Over the Christmas holiday, we went to Orlando to visit Disney World. While researching the trip, I planned to take advantage of the opportunity to do some bird photography. On our last day, we visited Animal Kingdom for the morning and early part of the afternoon. It was a grey day with a constant drizzle wetting the northcentral Florida landscape. As we were leaving the park, I stopped at a small enclosed pond where ibis and spoonbills were gathered. Most were just standing, backs to the rain. Others were bathing and a few were preening like this African spoonbill.

I like this photograph for the buttery smooth texture of the bird’s feathers. The bird looks so creamy that you just want to reach out and touch it. It is also in an interesting posture and entirely focused on the task at hand. For these reasons, I included among my top ten photographs of 2014.

For me, 2014 was a year of being open to stepping outside my photographic comfort zone and trying new things. These ten photographs are a product of that effort. So, before 2015 is too far gone, I would encourage you to take stock. Review your photographs from last year and select your favorites. While you’re doing that, think about the photography you want to do, this year. Make an intentional effort to try something new, to step outside your comfort zone. I think you’ll find that effort will be well rewarded.

Now, get out and shoot.

Bill Ferris | January 2015

Dedication

Warm early morning light casts a golden glow on the canyon floor visible through Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Monument. (Bill Ferris)

Warm early morning light casts a golden glow on the canyon floor visible through Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park. (Bill Ferris)

Photography is a democratizing pursuit. How so? Well, it is often said that the camera is not the most critical element of a great photograph. The most critical element is the photographer, the person who makes the image. An eye for composition, an understanding of the role light plays in transforming a nice view into a stunning scene, and a knowledge of how to manipulate a camera’s controls and settings to achieve the envisioned photo are the most important tools a photographer brings to the craft.

The unsung and often ignored quality all great photographers bring to the table is dedication. In a nutshell, dedication can be defined as your willingness to give up something of value in order to achieve something of equal or greater value. The above photograph of Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park illustrates the matter.

July 27, 2014 was hot and muggy in southern Utah. I had begun the day photographing sunrise in Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park in northern Arizona. Afterwards, I enjoyed breakfast at The View Hotel along with a number of guests just beginning their respective days. The drive north along state highways 163 and 191 delivered me to Moab, Utah at lunchtime. Moab is the gateway community to Arches and Canyonlands national parks. After lunch, the balance of my day was devoted to driving into Arches to the Delicate Arch parking area, making the 1.5-mile hike to the arch and waiting for a golden hour that never really materialized.

July happens to be the heart of the summer monsoon in the Southwest US. This seasonal weather patterned is defined by hot, muggy conditions, increasing cloudiness during the day and afternoon thunderstorms. The afternoon clouds were so thick on this day that they blocked the sweet, warm late-day light from painting Delicate Arch. The most dramatic thunderstorm activity was well off to the north. As a result, conditions just didn’t come together to make for a compelling photographic opportunity on this day.

After sunset, I made the return hike to my vehicle and, along the way, considered the available options. The issue occupying my thinking was, how should I spend the next morning? Should I find a place to photograph sunrise or just hit the road? July 28, I needed to drive 5 1/2 hours to Denver, where I would pick up my wife and son at the airport. They were flying in from New York. I was in the midst of the drive up from Flagstaff. After connecting, the three of us were going to spend a week in Estes Park exploring Rocky Mountain National Park.

There were plenty of good reasons to skip the sunrise photo expedition: the monsoon would probably play havoc with the early morning light; I had a long drive ahead and the rest would do me, well; there was almost always a crowd at Mesa Arch competing for the best locations. In the end, there was just one reason to follow through on my plan to photograph sunrise at Mesa Arch: it might be spectacular. That being reason enough, I left Arches National Park and – rather than heading back to Moab to find a hotel – turned north to make the drive to Canyonlands.

The decision grew less wise and more foolish as I drove through the darkening evening hours. Thunderstorm activity increased the further north I drove. Setting up my tent at a campground a few miles outside the entrance to Canyonlands, rain began to fall. I hurried to finish making camp and climbed into my sleeping bag just as the first deluge of the night began. I never slept more than an hour at a stretch, the occasional thunderclaps and constant patter of rain teaming to interrupt any semblance of restful sleep. When my watch alarm went off at 3:30 AM, I gave serious thought to just staying in the tent and getting more sleep.

But sunrise at Mesa Arch might – despite clouds, thunderclaps and rain – be spectacular.

So, I unzipped the sleeping bag and began to pack up. Leaving the campground, I drove through the darkness and into Canyonlands National Park. Through the windshield, it appeared the rain clouds were breaking up. Or was that just wishful thinking? Pulling into the parking lot for Mesa Arch trailhead, mine was the first vehicle on the scene. “Well,” I thought, “If it does clear, at least I’ll have my pick of spots to set up for the shot.”

Clear, it did. My dedication – however wishful or foolish in its origin – was rewarded with a fine sunrise at Mesa Arch. To be sure, this wasn’t the most dramatic of sunrises. Though warm and red, the intensity of the dawn light was muted by lingering clouds. But it was still beautiful. It was worth the worry, the sacrifice and the effort to awaken in darkness, eat a cold breakfast, remain optimistic in the face of bad weather, hike through the mist, choose my spot and to wait in hope that something magical would emerge from this monsoon morning. I could have taken the easy path. I could have driven into Moab, gotten a hotel room and slept in comfort through the night and the sunrise.

If I had, I would have missed sunrise at Mesa Arch. Now, get out there and shoot.

Bill Ferris | December 2014

Shallow

A lone juniper tree clings to life on a stony outcrop overlooking Grand Canyon. (Lipan Point, South Rim) (Bill Ferris)

A lone juniper tree clings to life on a stony outcrop overlooking Grand Canyon. This photograph was made with a Nikon D610, Tamron 24-70 mm, f/2.8 VC lens at 60 mm, f/2.8, ISO 100, 1/800-second. (Lipan Point, South Rim) (Bill Ferris)

Depth of field is as important to photography as lighting and composition. Normally when doing landscape photography, I use focal ratios in the f/9 to f/16 range. Large focal ratios deliver images with great depth of field where objects in the fore-, mid- and background are all in focus. On a recent trip to the South Rim of Grand Canyon, I decided to experiment with using shallow depth of field and the above photograph is the result.

I was at Lipan Point, one of my favorite overlooks on the South Rim. From Lipan Point, you are treated to a fine view of Desert View and Palisades of the Desert to the east, and of Wotans Throne and Angels Gate to the west. I followed a social trail from the parking lot to a stone outcrop offering an unobstructed view of the canyon. Even on days when the light isn’t good for photography, the view from this little perch is still worth the 90-minute drive. In the truest sense of the phrase, the view from this vantage point is awe-inspiring.

The sun was low in the southwest sky and painted the surrounding landscape with a slightly warm hue. A small juniper tree clinging to its perch atop the Kaibab limestone was bathed in a wonderful rim light. As I set up my tripod and Nikon D610 to frame the shot, it occurred to me that this photograph should be a portrait of the tenacious tree.

In portraiture, wide open apertures and the associated small focal ratios produce shallow depths of field. This blurs everything not in the focal plane and helps to create separation between the subject, and anything in the foreground or background.

For the above portrait, I used the Tamron 24-70 mm, f/2.8 VC lens. I chose a composition that would include the distant South Rim, inner canyon temples and buttes, a short section of the Colorado River and the creamy late-day light streaming into Grand Canyon. This context clearly identifies the location of the portrait as being Grand Canyon. blurring the background allows the tiny juniper tree to be the subject of the photograph, the star of the show so to speak.

The tenacity of life in a desert environment is on full display, here. The tree clings to a rocky outcrop, a place where you might think a plant would have no chance of survival. But life is determined and defiant in such places. Water can pool in the small rough divots atop the limestone. And where water collects, life is almost always found.

The next time you head out with your camera, why not try something you don’t normally do? If you usually shoot with long focal lengths, try using a wide angle lens. If you often shoot with wide open apertures, make it a point to use a small aperture. Wherever your comfort zone may be, step outside it and try something new.

Now, get out there and shoot.

Bill Ferris | December 2014

Nikon D750 – Let the Stoning Begin

The Nikon D750 (image used courtesy of Nikon USA)

In photography as in life, it sometimes seems no good piece of kit goes unpunished. In 2012 as the world imaging community prepared to descend upon Cologne, Germany for the biennial imaging fair known as Photokina, the two leading manufacturers of consumer and professional digital cameras introduced major new products. About a week before the fair Nikon introduced the D600. Days later, Canon introduced the EOS 6D. Marketed as entry level full-frame CMOS sensor bodies, the D600 and 6D were intended to attract enthusiasts and crop-frame camera users to make the move into full-frame. The D600 joined Nikon’s flagship D4 and professional D800 and D800e in the FX category of full-frame DSLR bodies. Canon’s flagship 1DX and professional 5DMkIII welcomed the EOS 6D in completing that full-frame lineup.

Fast forward to the present day and, as the 2014 edition of Photokina opens, Canon has not introduced a new full-frame body since 2012. By contrast, Nikon has introduced four new FX (full-frame) DSLR cameras, including the just announced D750. The D750 features an impressive spec sheet:

  • An all-new 24.3 MP CMOS sensor
  • Nikon’s most advanced 51-point auto focus system (incl. group area AF)
  • Nikon’s flagship Expeed 4 image processor
  • Native ISO range of 100 to 12,800 (expandable to ISO 50 and 51,200)
  • Full 1080p/60 HD video (incl. auto aperture/auto ISO smooth adjust)
  • Light but strong carbon fiber and magnesium alloy frame
  • Nikon’s first FX body to feature built-in WiFi
  • The first full-frame DSLR by any manufacturer to sport an articulating rear LCD screen
The Nikon D750 features an articulating rear LCD screen (image used courtesy of Nikon USA)

The Nikon D750 features an articulating rear LCD screen (image used courtesy of Nikon USA)

The response to the D750 on the InterWeb has been immediate and impassioned. Much of the response has been intensely negative. Peruse the popular rumor and fan boy sites, and you will likely see comments such as – Another toy camera from Nikon…It’s disappointing…This is an instant fail IMO…This sucks.

So, why all the venom directed toward a camera that, on paper, makes a strong case for being the best all-around DSLR on the planet? To understand, we need to go back in time to another Photokina summer. In July 2008, Nikon introduced the D700, a professional full-frame DSLR body. It was just the second FX body developed and released by Nikon and was packaged with many of the performance specs of the flagship D3. The D700 featured the same sensor as the D3, a rugged frame, similar controls and layout as the top line pro body and a burst rate that, when paired with Nikon’s battery grip, topped out at an impressive eight frames per second. D3 shooters bought the D700 as their backup body and many pros bought the D700 as their primary body. Adding the rugged crop sensor (DX format) D300 to the mix gave Nikon a trio of professional bodies to meet the needs of dedicated still photographers,

In digital photography, the lifespan of a flagship body generally runs between two and four years. Canon unveiled the EOS 1DX in October 2011. This body replaced the EOS 1DsMkIII (2007) and was a shot across the bow of the long-in-the-tooth Nikon D3. Thus, it was not at all surprising when Nikon announced the all-new 16 MP D4 in January 2012. The D4 replaced the D3 and immediately established itself as a worthy adversary to the 1DX. With the D4’s release, D700 and D300/D300s shooters waited for the next shoe to drop. Which would it be, a replacement for the D700 or the D300?

One month later in February 2012, Nikon announced the D800 and D800e. Previously, Nikon had built a reputation of developing low megapixel (relative to Canon) pro bodies that excelled in low light. With the 36 MP D800 and D800e, Nikon more than doubled the resolution of the Flagship D4. These bodies quickly became favorites of landscape and portrait photographers. However, loyal D700 shooters were left wanting more. While the D700 could make images at an impressive 8 FPS, the D800/D800e barely made 4 FPS. What they wanted was the D4’s sensor, Expeed 3 processor and auto focus system in a D800 body.

An overhead view of the Nikon D750 (image used courtesy of Nikon USA)

By mid-2012, the Web was abuzz with talk of a D700 replacement being announced at the next Photokina. When the D600 emerged as Nikon’s major announcement in Cologne, D700 fans were not pleased. Despite its 24 MP (two-times the D700’s resolution) CMOS sensor, superior low light performance and 1080p video recording capability, the D600 was missing several key features in the eyes of D700 loyalists.

  • No professional build quality. The D600 offered weather resistance but didn’t have the D800’s rugged full magnesium alloy frame.
  • No 51-point auto focus system. The D600 inherited the D7000’s 39-point AF system.
  • Not a pro layout. The controls and menus were designed to be familiar to D90 and D7000 shooters.
  • No 1/8000-second shutter speed. The D600 peaked at 1/4000-second.
  • No 1/250-second flash sync speed. The D600 peaked at 1/200-second.
  • No 8 frame per second burst rate. the D600 peaked at 6 frames per second.

What D700 owners had asked for was a D4 imaging system in a D800 body. What the D600 offered was basically an FX version of the consumer D7000. What was Nikon thinking? Well, they may have been focused on costs and customer retention. In business, one of the keys to maximizing profit is to reduce operational costs. The rugged, pro-build quality of the D4 and D800 bodies were more expensive to produce than the consumer quality D7000. While a hypothetical D700 replacement would need to be manufactured in Japan at greater expense and narrower margin, the D600 could be manufactured in Thailand at lower cost and a higher profit margin.

Another factor Nikon must have considered was the migration of point & shoot photographers to smart phones. The rise of the smart phone had given the general public a take everywhere camera with immediate access to Facebook and Twitter where they could share photos with family and friends. Point & shoot camera sales were in free fall in 2012 and Nikon must have been concerned this trend would eventually hit the crop sensor market. Rather than invest in a format they considered to have a questionable future, Nikon chose to entice enthusiast and crop sensor photographers to upgrade to full frame. The D600 was priced at 1/2 to 1/3 the cost of Nikon’s professional FX bodies yet delivered comparable image quality. Yes, the D4 was better in low light and, yes, the D800 delivered higher resolution, but the D600 was no slouch. It offered comparable performance at a consumer price…or so it seemed.

Soon after D600 bodies started shipping. Reports surfaced on the web of oil and dust particle build up on the camera’s CMOS sensor. One D600 owner produced a time lapse video showing an accumulation of debris and oil that would choke a horse. Nikon had a problem. Their gift offering to enthusiast photographers was turning out to be a Trojan horse. However, Nikon refused to acknowledge what the reports and evidence clearly indicated – the D600 shutter mechanism had a problem. Nikon’s failure to immediately address the problem would allow it to grow into a major public relations disaster that deeply tarnished the company’s reputation as a manufacturer of quality imaging products.

In February 2013, Nikon finally issued a service advisory on the D600. The advisory offered guidance on the correct procedure to use when removing the natural accumulation of dust from a sensor. In essence, Nikon was dismissing the reports as normal dust accumulation. Meanwhile, D600 owners continued to report problems with their cameras and the impact on sales was immediate. When the camera was first introduced in September 2012, a launch price of $2,097 had been set. By November, Nikon was offering instant $100 rebates on their new body. By Christmas, customers were offered a free 24-85mm lens with the purchase of a D600. In January 2013, grey market distributors were pricing the D600 at $1,686. In May, a factory refurbished D600 was priced at $1,560. The camera’s value was in rapid decline and its reputation as a product that had been rushed to market too soon was forever sealed.

In October 2013 – only a year after the first D600 bodies shipped – Nikon introduced the D610. It was announced as a minor upgrade to the D600 but everyone knew it was an attempt to bring and end to the dust and oil disaster. The move backfired. If anything, Nikon’s decision to reissue the D600 with a new shutter mechanism was seen as tacit admission that the dust and oil problems were real. In February 2014, Nikon issued a service advisory to D600 owners offering a free inspection, cleaning and shutter assembly replacement, regardless of the warranty status of their cameras. In March, China ordered Nikon to stop selling the D600. This was followed soon after by a third service advisory that mentioned the option of, on a case-by-case basis, replacing defective D600s with D610s. In August, Nikon reached a settlement in a class action lawsuit with D600 owners. As part of the settlement, litigants were offered new D610s in exchange for their D600s.

To date, Nikon has yet to publicly acknowledge and take responsibility for delivering a camera with a poorly designed shutter mechanism that allows the accumulation of dust, debris and oil on the sensor.

A view of the Nikon D750 interior reflex mirror system (image used courtesy of Nikon USA)

To fully appreciate the damage the D600 dust and oil debacle has done to Nikon’s reputation, consider that DxO Mark tested the D600 soon after its initial release and ranked it as the third-best digital camera sensor on the market. This should have been a time of celebration, with Nikon reaping the rewards of having delivered an outstanding entry level full-frame DSLR camera. Instead, they spent a year in denial and are still in damage control. Even the D610, which by all accounts does not suffer from the dust and oil issue of the D600, has not been able to distance itself from that long, dark shadow.

Which brings us back to the just-announced Nikon D750. In early August when Nikon Rumors announced Nikon’s plan to introduce a new full-frame body at Photokina, the early reports described it as an action camera. Then, came the rumor that the new DSLR would be called the D750. This generated an immediate buzz as people made the obvious connection to the dream of a long-awaited successor to the D700. The online comments quickly focused on the wants of D700 owners: professional build quality, fast and accurate auto focus and a lightning quick burst rate. A D4s sensor in a D810 body is what D700 owners had come to expect.

That is not the D750.

Nikon markets their DSLR cameras in three categories: Entry-level, Enthusiast and Professional. The D750 is Nikon’s top Enthusiast level DSLR camera. Nikon does not market the D750 as a professional camera body. It is not the D4s sensor in a D810 body. Neither is it, as the many critics have claimed, a souped up D610 sensor in a D610 body. And this, friends, is where the D750 story gets interesting. One could fairly describe this camera as a cross over. It borrows features from all digital camera categories.

The D750’s outward appearance is almost identical to the D610. Beneath that enthusiast level surface, lies a completely new animal. The frame is a magnesium alloy, carbon fiber blend resulting in a rugged, weather resistant and relatively lightweight body. The layout of the interior components is completely new for Nikon. This internal redesign created space for fully-integrated WiFi while substantially reducing the size and weight of the camera body. WiFi is pretty standard stuff in consumer bodies. Small size and low weight are definitive qualities of mirrorless cameras. Rugged build and weather resistance are qualities that define professional DSLR bodies.

A side view of the Nikon D750 showing the articulating rear LCD screen (image used courtesy of Nikon USA)

The Expeed 4 processor and 51-point AF system are taken straight from Nikon’s flagship D4s and professional D810. Other features borrowed from Nikon’s professional lineup include full 1080p/60 HD video, auto aperture and auto ISO during video recording, and an industry-leading focus detection range of -3 to +19 EV. The articulated rear LCD is another feature taken from their consumer line of camera bodies. Performance characteristics shared with the enthusiast level D610 include a 1/4000-second maximum shutter speed and a 1/200-second flash sync speed.

In the D750, Nikon has delivered a camera designed and intended to appeal to a broad audience. In so doing, they’ve made a camera that – while incorporating features from several genres – is impossible to peg into any one category. The 24 MP sensor is among the best available…but it’s not the D810’s 36 MP sensor. The 6.5 frame per second burst rate is among the fastest in the market…but it’s not as fast as the 1DX or the D4s. (or the D700) The 1080p/60 HD video recording capability is very good…but it’s not 4K. The build quality is rugged and weather resistant…but it’s not weather proof. It’s impressive feature set is packed into a small, lightweight body…but it’s not mirrorless small.

In a nutshell, the D750 seems to be a Jack of all trades and a master of none. There is, perhaps, one exception. Could the D750 be the master do-it-all camera?

If you enjoy shooting sports, the AF system and burst rate will more than get the job done. In the professional full-frame DSLR category, only the Canon 1DX and Nikon D4/D4s have faster burst rates. If you enjoy portraiture and landscapes, the 24 MP sensor will deliver gorgeous, detailed images. Only Nikon’s D8XX lineup offers higher resolution. On paper, no DSLR does a better job of achieving focus in low light and the high ISO performance of the D750 is among the best in the market. If you enjoy shooting video, the D750 allows production in full HD with stereo audio. The dedicated video professional may be better served by the Panasonic Lumix GH4 or the Sony A7s. However, the D750 offers video functionality that is more than adequate for the enthusiast.

In short, the Nikon D750 looks for all the world like one of the best – arguably the best – choice as the camera that can do it all. If you are a professional photographer looking for a second body, wouldn’t it be nice to replace your current backup with something that is a little smaller and lighter? Something with outstanding resolution and low light performance? A camera with industry-leading auto focus? A camera you can use to capture quality video and sound? A backup body that does all this at a price point below $2,500? If you are an aspiring professional looking for one body that can take on any assignment (or an enthusiast seeking the same) does the D750 look like the perfect all-around performer? This is a camera body that, on paper, appears capable of shooting anything: editorial, sports, wedding, landscape, portraiture, wildlife, street, video…you name it.

Is the new Nikon D750 the best all-around DSLR camera in the world?

Bill Ferris | September 2014

Reflections

The warm morning light of a midsummer day illuminates Hallett Peak's reflection off the mirrored surface of Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. (Bill Ferris)

The warm morning light of a midsummer day illuminates Hallett Peak’s reflection off the mirrored surface of Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. (Bill Ferris)

The reflected image is a common compositional element in photography. When effectively employed, it adds something special to an image. In macro photography, this technique is often used to reveal the surrounding world as reflected in a single dew drop. In portraiture, the image of your subject reflected against rain-streaked glass adds drama. A reflection in a landscape photograph can make an image more compelling to the eye.

What is is about a reflection that draws our attention? Well for one, a reflection presents the world in a new and different way. In the above photograph, Hallett Peak is seen reflecting off the glassy surface of Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. The reflection turns everything upside down, delivering an unusual perspective on a twelve thousand foot mountain. A reflection can imbue a scene with a strong element of symmetry. If you block the lower half of the above image, the upper half is irregular in form, hue and texture. In short it is not symmetrical and that is very common in nature. Rarely does nature produce a straight line, a perfectly round circle or a perfectly balanced scene. So, when we find such a thing, it tends to get our attention.

A reflection draws our attention to the seam where the reflected and direct views join. In this image, the seam coincides with the junction between the pine forest and the water’s edge. Typically, this would not be a leading line or a particularly strong element in the composition. The mountain would be the dominant element. However, as the brain seeks to understand this oddly symmetrical pattern, it naturally seeks and identifies that transitional area of the image. Finding the seam or fold allows the brain to determine that the unnaturally symmetrical form is not a singular artificial construct. It is simply a reflection of an otherwise normally irregular landscape scene.

The first light of day paints the Continental Divide as seen from the shore of Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. (Bill Ferris)

The first light of day paints the Continental Divide as seen from the shore of Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. (Bill Ferris)

Finally, a reflection plays on the inherently voyeuristic nature of visual perception. The act of looking at something establishes a clear distinction between you, the observer, and the subject, that which is observed. On the morning I made the above photo, I hiked about 3/4-mile along a trail to the east side of Sprague Lake. During that walk, I was in nature. I was within and part of the place. However, the act of setting up my camera and observing the scene as a subject to be photographed established a distinction or separation between me and the natural setting. That act transformed me into an outside observer.

A person can observe someone or something either directly or indirectly. The act of observing indirectly is inherently voyeuristic. Some element of the observation was unintended. This can result from observing in secret without the subject’s knowledge or permission. It can also result from an observation that reveals some unintended quality of the subject. The reflected image is not natural. It is not how the subject normally appears to others. It is a bit like jogging down the sidewalk on your morning run and having your neighbor walk out the front door in his bathrobe. It’s 6:00 AM and he figured the rest of world would be asleep as he went out to fetch the morning paper. Surprise, surprise.

So to summarize, a reflection skews our perspective, presenting the subject in a way we are not used to seeing. A reflection triggers the human brain’s natural tendency to recognize symmetry and patterns, and to analyze such appearances to determine if they are natural or artificial. A reflection can also trigger feelings of being a voyeur. Because we see the subject in an unusual or unexpected manner, there is a sense of being privy to something that is either uninvited or unintended.

Of course, it is quite natural to respond in unexpected ways to these visual, mental and emotional stimuli. You might be momentarily confused, even questioning the authenticity of the scene. There may even be an emotional response. Seeing something again for the first time can produce strong feelings. Whatever the response, it is the very fact that seeing something in reflection can be a catalyst for intense thoughts or feelings that makes it such a powerful element of composition. As artists, we photographers feel joy when others take pleasure in our work. We may feel pain when others are critical. But the greatest sadness comes when others simply dismiss our photographs as not worthy of notice.

Now, get out there and shoot.

Bill Ferris | September 2014

Bucket List – Monument Valley

A winter sun kisses the horizon between East Mitten (middle) and Merrick Butte at Sunrise (Bill Ferris)

A winter sun kisses the horizon between East Mitten (middle) and Merrick Butte at Sunrise (Bill Ferris)

There are few places in the American West that call to a landscape photographer as clearly and compellingly as Monument Valley. Straddling the Arizona and Utah borders in the Four Corners region, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park is home to an inspiring and iconic collection of buttes and natural landforms. For many, the significant time and effort required to get to Monument Valley can be a deterrent to making the trip but that effort is often rewarded with awe-inspiring views.

Anyone who has seen a John Ford western film knows this landscape. Ford, the Hollywood legend whose films defined the American Western for generations, used this remote area of the Desert Southwest as a location for numerous productions, including Stagecoach (1939), Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and The Searchers (1956). Timeless leading man John Wayne starred in many of Ford’s films, including the four just mentioned.

Before John Ford, Westerns had churned out by the dozens as film serials and held in low regard by film critics. Through Ford and his classic films, the Western rose to international acclaim as a genre that reflected American values of rugged individualism, and a willingness to risk everything in the pursuit of one’s dream or in defense of honor. Monument Valley came to be synonymous with the genre and to symbolize those cherished values. Today, more than 40 years after Ford’s passing, this place retains its status as the one location that, more than any other, signifies the mythology of the American West.

On a recent visit to Monument Valley, I had the opportunity to photograph the park from several locations. I arrived on a summer morning just before lunch. After paying the $20 entrance fee, I parked at the View Hotel and enjoyed the lunch buffet at the hotel restaurant. After lunch, I stepped out onto the tiered observation deck along the east side of the hotel. This platform offers an expansive view into Monument Valley, including the now famous arrangement of The Mittens and Merrick Butte.

Two half-buried boulders near the View Hotel can, with careful positioning of your camera, be used to obscure the dusty dirt road visitors and guides use to tour Monument Valley.

Two half-buried boulders near the View Hotel can, with careful positioning of your camera, be used to obscure the dusty dirt road visitors and guides use to tour Monument Valley. (Moto X photo by Bill Ferris)

The one drawback of The View’s observation deck is the visibility of the main dirt road visitors and tour guides use to explore the park. The road, vehicle traffic and associated dust will be prominently placed in any wide angle photograph taken from the deck. There is a spot just north of the paved deck where a pair of half-buried boulders can be used to good advantage. Visitors stand on or lean against the boulders for “we were here” shots. They can also be used as foreground elements in wide angle shots that hide the dirt road in a landscape composition.

The aforementioned dirt road is something of a double-edged sword, in my opinion. While it adds to the charm of the experience, the road’s poor condition is a practical liability. The posted maximum speed limit is 15 MPH, which is challenging to maintain over the steep half-mile descent from the east rim into the valley. Ruts, exposed rocks and sandy areas make navigation of the road a bit challenging. Drivers often weave from side to side in search of the least bumpy route.

For those who continue beyond John Ford Point, the road is posted as one-way. I encountered several vehicles traveling against the flow on this loop and had chalked it up to a tourist mentality of enjoying the view while ignoring the traffic signs. However, approaching the spur road to Artists Point, several vehicles had inexplicably pulled over to the side of the road and stopped. I did the same and walked up the road to find out what was going on. A vehicle was having a difficult time negotiating the uphill climb through loose, sandy terrain. After several failed attempts, the driver gave up, backed down the hill, made a Y-turn and began the long trek back the way he’d come…against traffic flow.

My trusty AWD Pontiac Vibe made short work of the hill. While high ground clearance is not (currently) needed to drive the Monument Valley road, a vehicle with AWD or 4WD might come in handy on some sections of road. The quality of light during my midday drive through Monument Valley was predictably poor. The high overhead sun and overcast skies painted the buttes and formations with a flat, harsh brush. The heat and generally poor placement of roadside viewpoints contributed to my decision to stay in the air conditioned comfort of my vehicle as much as possible.

Throughout the two-hour drive, I kept thinking about a sign I’d seen which indicated that the road was open only from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM. While those are normal business hours, they exclude the optimum times to view the magnificent stone structures of Monument Valley. The best times of day to experience a scenic masterpiece are around sunrise and sunset. Those times of day are when the quality of light is reliably at its best. To deny visitors access to the park when the light is most likely to have that magical quality made no sense to me. I was really stewing on this issue when I drove through the roadway entrance gate on my way out of the valley at 3 o’clock.

The View Campground at Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park features campsites with million dollar views.

The View Campground at Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park features campsites with million dollar views. (Moto X photo by Bill Ferris)

It was time to find a place to make camp for the night. On my last visit to Monument Valley in March 2014, I had stayed at a worthless excuse for a campground located about a mile down the road from the park entrance station. It was little more than a series of picnic tables surrounded by bare ground. I had pitched my tent there for a few hours sleep on a cold late-winter night and, in a pinch, could do the same on this trip. However, The View Campground (closed during the winter) is located at the entrance gate to the valley. So, I stopped by the campground office to check on site availability. A few minutes later, I was out in the sand dunes choosing a campsite. I went with the first open site I found, which happened to offer a spectacular view of The Mittens and Merrick Butte.

Returning to the campground office to let the attendant know which site I had selected, I asked about the road hours sign I had seen. “Can I go into the valley at sunset and sunrise to do photography.” The attendant confidently reassured me that the gate remains open throughout the night. If I wanted to go into the valley to do photography, that would be fine. With a campsite secured and my concern eased over after hours park access, I drove over to the View Hotel restaurant for an early dinner. The hostess seated my at a two-top with a window view of the valley. While enjoying my sandwich, I watched as the harsh midday light gradually softened and warmed in response to the sun’s race toward the western horizon. There weren’t many clouds to add a sense of drama to the sky but at least the light was improving.

About two hours before sunset, I drove a short distance down the valley road to the first large pullout I could find. After parking the Vibe and strapping on my photo pack, I walked across the road and followed a well-worn social trail over the flat, sun baked surface. I wanted to find an elevated vantage point offering a clear view of The Mittens and Merrick Butte. From a location east of the dirt road, I should be free to compose wide angle shots without having to contend with a dirt road cutting across the frame. A short hike delivered me to the perfect venue. Soon, I was setting up for the evening.

The golden light of a setting summer sun bathes The Mittens and Merrick Butte in Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. (Bill Ferris)

The golden light of a setting summer sun bathes The Mittens and Merrick Butte in Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. (Bill Ferris)

The location I chose was an elevated shelf with a clear view of the most recognized collection of buttes in Monument Valley: West Mitten, East Mitten and Merrick Butte. As the day drew to a close, I experimented with composition and exposure, eventually making a fine image of The Mittens and Merrick Butte. The soft, warm quality of the light gave the entire scene – foreground desert, buttes, sky and clouds an inviting summery quality. It wasn’t the only keeper of the evening but is my favorite exposure from the session.

At 3 o’clock the following morning, my watch alarm went off and I begrudgingly awoke to start the day. This reluctance didn’t last long as the thought of a sunrise in Monument Valley peaked my enthusiasm for the predawn expedition. I decided to save time by leaving my tent set up. More than likely, I would be back before most of the other campers were even awake. I made the walk to the restroom where I was treated to a most wonderful surprise. The bathrooms at The View Campground have complimentary showers…with hot water.

The shower left me feeling refreshed and energized for the day. It was about 3:45 AM when I rolled out of the campground parking lot in the Vibe, making the short drive to the same pullout I had used the previous afternoon. With my headlamp shining at full brightness, I had little problem finding the overlook in the July morning darkness. By 4:25 AM, I was making test exposures and at 4:40 AM, the horizon was showing enough color to nicely frame the landscape in silhouette. Low, thick clouds negated the obligatory starbust shot of the sun’s initial peak over the horizon. As soon as the deep, rich colors behind the buttes started to fade, I made the decision to move to another location.

A summer day dawning fills Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park with a golden glow as seen from Artists Point. (Bill Ferris)

A summer day dawning fills Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park with a golden glow as seen from Artists Point. (Bill Ferris)

The previous afternoon, I had surveyed Artists Point as a possible sunrise location. Nearby rock formations block a clear view to the east where the sun rises but the vista does offer a fine view of the major formations to the west. If the early morning light were of the right quality, some fine landscapes and panoramas would be on the table. I raced the Vibe down the dirt road, taking a shortcut against the posted traffic flow to cut a solid 20-30 minutes off the drive time.

Within minutes of my arrival at Artists Point, I was setup and checking compositional options. Eventually, I settled on working East Mitten, Merrick Butte and the flat, open desert to the right (east). It wasn’t spectacular light but there was a warm, soft quality to it that produced several pleasing frames, including the one above. After a half-hour, the last of the golden hour light yielded to a duller, somewhat lifeless glow and I began packing up my gear. It was just then that several vehicles arrived at Artists Point, all filled with visitors and cameras hoping to make a memorable photograph.

The spectacular landscape of Monument Valley really deserves more time than I had available to give. After Artists Point, I drove back to the campground, packed my tent and went over to the hotel for breakfast. Afterwards, I would hit the road for a sunset date with Arches National Park in Utah. The meal allowed time to reflect on the previous 18 hours. This was my third trip to Monument Valley. I had come for one sunset and sunrise cycle, and had successfully captured several keeper photographs. Having focused on making images of the more popular vistas, I was already thinking about my next visit and the opportunity to explore the less frequented scenes found within this iconic symbol of the American West.

Hey, you should get out and shoot.

Bill Ferris | August 2014

Derivative

Wotans Throne stands bathed in sunrise's golden glow as seen from Cape Royal on a July morning in Grand Canyon National Park. (Bill Ferris)

Wotans Throne stands bathed in sunrise’s golden glow as seen from Cape Royal on a July morning in Grand Canyon National Park. (Bill Ferris)

Years ago, my sister-in-law gave me a copy of Stephen Trimble’s, Lasting Light ~125 Years of Grand Canyon Photography, for Christmas. This coffee table art book tells the story of Grand Canyon photography from the late 1800’s to the present day. It is filled with stunning images by great landscape photographers. Ansel Adams, David Muench and Jack Dykinga are just three of the artists featured. The book is well worn from years of loving use. I’ve read and re-read every chapter, scrutinized each photo, and still review the images before heading out to shoot landscapes. In fact, when I’m at Grand Canyon to make landscapes, I’ll often visit then nearest gift store to browse a display copy of Trimble’s book. Flipping through the images, I am looking for inspiration and guidance.

I’m not ashamed to say I’ve attempted to reproduce several of my favorite images in Lasting Light. If I’m being honest with myself and with you, I must acknowledge that the act of reproducing a previous work is, to some extent, derivative. To quote from Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, it is “something that comes from something else.” To call an artist’s work, derivative, is generally considered a criticism. At best, it suggests an absence of originality.  At worst, it suggests a plagiaristic quality . While the act of reproduction can be derivative, it also has the potential to be creative. If something new comes from the act, that work can accurately be described as inspired and original.

With this article, I want to explore the arguably fine line separating the inspired from the derivative. I’ll start by asking the obvious question: why reproduce another photographer’s image? To understand my motivation, it is worth pointing out that I reproduce only those images I consider to be great photographs. Making an homage to a past classic is an accepted and time honored practice in many circles. If one paints in the style of Monet, one is called an impressionist. If one incorporates a musical phrase reminiscent of Miles Davis, one is called a jazz musician. The writer whose work is inspired by Allen Ginsberg is called a Beat poet. The quality all these examples share, is that the inspired work contributes something new to the art form.

Panorama of Grand Canyon with Butte in Foreground. Photo taken by Ansel Adams and used courtesy of the National Archives

This tradition extends to photography, as well. If you look on page 32 of Lasting Light, you’ll see Ansel Adams’ iconic photograph of Wotans Throne taken from Cape Royal on the North Rim of Grand Canyon. On page 54, is Dick Dietrich’s image of the same subject. Dietrich is widely considered among the great landscape photographers of the 20th Century. His image was taken from nearly the same location as Adams’ and with almost identical framing. However, Ansel Adams made his photograph during morning light while Dietrich made his at sunset. Dietrich’s decision to shoot at a different time of day and his use of color film stock produced a photo capturing a very different personality of this iconic scene. In making these choices, Dietrich produced an original interpretation. His image was inspired.

What this illustrates, is that the real issue is not that photographers sometimes reproduce elements of prior great works. There is no debate, here. It happens and with greater frequency than some would care to admit. The real issue is this: in taking inspiration from past work, is the resulting photograph essentially a reproduction or does it contribute something new. Is the photograph derivative or inspired?

Finding the answer to this question is not as simple as one might think. A photographer may start by mimicking a master’s work. Over time, however, the nature of creativity often conspires to lead the photographer in new directions. In other words, the act of reproducing a prior great work may be where artistry begins. But this is not where the artistic process ends. To understand this process, let’s consider the act of reproduction within the context of my growth as a photographer.

Key to what makes a photograph great are the choices of time of day, perspective and composition made by the photographer. The act of reproducing a great photograph deepens my understanding of the effect lighting, location and framing have on the resulting image. Two of the biggest mistakes made by casual photographers are arriving when everybody else arrives and standing where everybody else stands. Sunsets are awesome but everybody is up at that time of day. An overlook railing identifies where good views – and photographs – can be had but everybody stands at the rail.  Climbing over the rail to set up a tripod at the edge of an abyss in predawn darkness is where you begin to separate the merely derivative from the inspired.

The Golden Hour light of sunset pours into Clear Creek as seen from Cape Royal on the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park (Bill Ferris)

The Golden Hour light of sunset pours into Clear Creek as seen from Cape Royal on the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park (Bill Ferris)

On a recent photo excursion, I spent four days and three nights at the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. I had a goal of reproducing the images Adams had made of from Cape Royal of Wotans Throne and from Point Imperial of Mt Hayden (Lasting Light, page 33). Each evening, I arrived at Cape Royal two hours before sunset to select an optimum spot from which to capture the magic of the late day light working the landscape. Each morning, I awoke at 3:00 AM to leave camp and drive to a chosen overlook in time to catch the first glow of predawn twilight.

On three consecutive days, I drove to Cape Royal for sunset. I would walk to the overlook, climb over the rail, walk to the edge of the Kaibab limestone platform and make a five-foot downclimb to a shelf offering an unobstructed view of the scene. Each night, monsoon rain clouds blocked the golden glow from kissing the landscape. I could have been so frustrated by the weather that I simply packed my gear and returned to camp. Rather than giving up, I worked with the available light and experimented with composition in an effort to make good images.

Mt. Hayden basks in early morning light as seen from Point Imperial on the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. (Bill Ferris)

Mt. Hayden basks in early morning light as seen from Point Imperial on the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. (Bill Ferris)

The first two mornings I went to Point Imperial to photograph sunrise. The clouds were less dense at this time of day, which allowed nature’s light to paint the landscape. Reproducing Adams iconic image of Mt. Hayden was on my To Do list. With that shot made, I was then free to explore the scene for other images. The reproduction was something of an aperitif, a drink to stimulate my creative palette. You see, the act of reproducing a great photograph is, for me, a first step in the process. It’s almost as though I need to get that image out of my system. With that image made, I am free to let my creative eye wander and seek its own frame.

Having experienced the dingy gray of seasonal rains at Cape Royal, I returned there on the last morning in search of magic hour light. Nature cooperated and sunrise’s deep golden glow elicited rich red hues in the stone layers of Wotans Throne. I made my homage to Adams’ image and, with that task out of the way, there was room for my compositional eye to step forward and assert control over the balance of the shoot.

Of course, there was no guarantee my choice of location, selection of framing or determination of the decisive moment would produce an image as good – let alone any better – than the iconic image inspiring my effort. At the very least, however, the resulting images would be original. Yes, they were inspired by another photographer’s prior work. But my images reflect my interpretation of the scene. They are mine. Nature’s light never paints the same landscape, twice.

Now, get out there and shoot.

Bill Ferris | July 2014

Bucket List – Grand Canyon

A late summer afternoon glow fills Grand Canyon as seen from Yaki Point on the South Rim. Cedar Ridge and O'Neill Butte bask in the light in the foreground. (Bill Ferris)

A late summer afternoon glow fills Grand Canyon as seen from Yaki Point on the South Rim. Cedar Ridge and O’Neill Butte bask in the light in the foreground. (Bill Ferris)

The summer travel season is in full swing and, over the next three months, photographers from around the world will descend upon Grand Canyon National Park. They will arrive by car, bus and train. They will number in the hundreds of thousands and all will have the same goal: to make a once-in-a-lifetime photograph.

With annual visitation of nearly 5 million people, Grand Canyon is among the most photographed natural landscapes in the world. While 4 million of those visitors will come from the United States, travelers from around the world make Grand Canyon their vacation destination of choice. 200,000 Brits, nearly the same number of Canadians, 100,000 Japanese, another 100,000 Germans and 50,000 Dutch will be among those visiting the South or North rim of the canyon.

So, what can you do to maximize your chances of capturing that bucket list photo? First and foremost, chase the light. Great light makes for great photographs. A view of Grand Canyon can be awe inspiring at any time of day. But sunrise and sunset are the times when the quality of light is almost guaranteed to be amazing. These “golden hour” times, offer the best and most reliable opportunities to capture great images. Sunrise has the added advantage of being so early in the day – you’ll need to wake up no later than 5:00 AM to catch a 5:30 AM sunrise – that you’ll be competing with relatively small crowds for position to make your bucket list photo.

Second, pay attention to the weather. Grand Canyon is located entirely within the state of Arizona in the American Southwest. Since record keeping began, June is the sunniest and driest month of the year in this part of North America. With July comes the summer monsoon, the annual rainy season for this arid high desert environment. A typical monsoon day will dawn clear and dry. However, humidity and clouds build throughout the day. By late afternoon, thunderstorms dot the horizon throughout the park. Some of the greatest landscape photos feature dramatic weather and its impact on the immediate environment. If you are visiting Grand Canyon in July or August, leave your late afternoon schedule flexible so you can take advantage of clouds, lightning and rain to capture a dramatic landscape photo.

Evening twilight and a cobalt blue sky frame Desert View Watchtower on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park (Bill Ferris)

Evening twilight and a cobalt blue sky frame Desert View Watchtower on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park (Bill Ferris)

Third, include a strong foreground element in your photos. Whether the gnarled trunk of a Juniper tree, a blooming cactus or desert plant, or the imposing profile of an inner canyon butte, a strong foreground element gives your photo a subject. It anchors the image and draws the gaze. At Grand Canyon, there are great views to be had from every overlook on both rims. Since the South Rim gets the lion’s share of visitation, those are the overlooks people flock to for their photo ops. Hopi Point is often recommended as “the best” overlook from which take in a sunset. However, I would recommend you explore a variety of overlooks during the day in search of that perfect place from which to photograph sunset or sunrise.

My favorite South Rim overlooks include Desert View, Lipan Point, Yaki Point and Mather Point. Desert View and Lipan Point are exceptional for both sunrise and sunset. The Desert View Watchtower offers a great compositional element. These overlooks also offer the best views of the Colorado River from the South Rim. Yaki Point and Mather Point are also nice sunrise vistas. However, sunsets offer the most dramatic light for photography from these overlooks. Mather Point is conveniently located near the park visitor center. Yaki Point, though technically accessible only by shuttle bus, can be accessed on foot. If you park your vehicle at the picnic area just down the road from the Yaki Point drive entrance, you can follow social trails through the forest to get to the overlooks.

As sunset's golden light washes over Grand Canyon, a summer monsoon rumbles across the great chasm as seen from Cape Royal on the North Rim. (Bill Ferris)

As sunset’s golden light washes over Grand Canyon, a summer monsoon rumbles across the great chasm as seen from Cape Royal on the North Rim. (Bill Ferris)

My personal favorite overlook for photography of late afternoon thunderstorms rolling through Grand Canyon National Park, is Cape Royal. Located on the North Rim, Cape Royal offers an astounding view of flat-topped Wotans Throne. The gently curving ridge of Kaibab Limestone connecting the North Rim to Wotans Throne introduces a natural leading line that guides your eye directly to the subject of the photograph. As sunset approaches on a July afternoon, thunderstorms bathe the inner canyon in a brilliant warm glow. The quality of light combined with dramatic weather and  the imposing landscape creates an almost alien scene for the camera. Being a North Rim overlook, photos taken at Cape Royal have the advantage of standing out from the crowd of images made along the South Rim.

To summarize, chasing the golden hour light of sunrise or sunset, taking advantage of a dramatic mid-summer thunderstorm and adding a strong foreground element to your composition are three key things you can do to make a bucket list photo during your visit to Grand Canyon National Park.

In the meantime, get out there and shoot!

Bill Ferris | June 2014