From a recent 4042n jaunt to one of my favorite stomping grounds: North Park, Colorado. North Park is still old Colorado and I like that very much. Recent rains and early spring conditions (March 26) made for muddy travel but no catastrophies were had.
You’ll notice most of these images weren’t made with the F6. This may seem conspicuous to some, given the title of this web site. Last year I was fortunate enough to reacquire a beautiful F4s, my previous one sold shortly after buying the F6 in 2008. Though it was a fine camera, mine had become pretty beat up and I knew I’d add a nicer copy back to the line up some day. That day came last September and I’ve enjoyed working with it right beside the F6 ever since.
There are a few small usability issues to acclimate yourself to when switching back and forth between the cameras. The main one is the lack of Main/Sub Command Dial on the F4s requires the lens to have an aperture ring (non-G lenses) for full compatibility. You can still shoot G lenses on the F4s in Program and Shutter Priority mode, but I prefer Manual or Aperture Priority so I have to think twice about what lens I’ll put on the F4s and what will go on the F6. There are others, but I happily adjust as I bounce back and forth between these excellent tools.
I think most would agree that at the end of the day it really doesn’t matter what camera you’re using. Whatever brings you joy and peace to work with and has the technical competence to execute your creative vision.
Chapter 2: San Luis, Colorado to Santa Fe, New Mexico
One of my great joys in life is driving; to simply wander and explore with a camera; and once in a while to answer that perennial question – what’s down this road, or around the next bend? The drive from San Luis, Colorado to Taos, New Mexico has to be one of the most beautiful drives. Ever. When we lived in Santa Fe returning to Colorado was always a highly anticipated event – largely for the road trip. Sure, you can hop on I-25 and be door-to-door a few minutes faster, but that’s rarely the point.
159 south out of San Luis turns into 522 as you cross the New Mexico state line. The route is dotted with piñon pines – like beard stubble on a giant face – framing broad, sweeping vistas. Active skies hover weightlessly above distant mountain ranges toned by years of erosion and gnarled, stunted flora on this flat stretch of road passing through the southern region of the San Luis Valley. To the East the Spanish Peaks rise abruptly from the valley floor. To the west lies distant Kit Carson National Forest, home of Abiquiu and Georgia Okeeffe’s Ghost Ranch. The beauty of the area is understated during afternoon’s high angle light hours. Not quite desert – not quite mountains – the land can come across as harsh, unforgiving terrain void of life.
Towards the edges of the day, however, a softness emerges completely altering the same landscape in etherial beauty; the tones of distant ranges shifting from undifferentiated grays to subtle ochres, siennas, cadmiums, cobalts and indigos – and skies with supernatural color beyond comprehension. Dirt roads vanish into oblivion, pointing at no obvious destination save a clump of trees on the distant valley floor. A service road to a watering station for cattle? A driveway small children need to walk a half-hour to catch a bus on? One day – with a full tank of gas and plenty of film – I’ll discover where these roads lead. But today’s not that day. As is often the case when we hit this part of the drive it’s mid/late in the afternoon and the light isn’t so great – but only a photographer would complain about it. To pass through this land in the mornings and evenings is well worth the effort.
In your rear view mirror you’ll see the impressive Sangre de Cristo range towering on the northern horizon, anchored by the ominous and deadly Blanca Peak, one of the most notorious “Fourteeners” in Colorado. For those who don’t know, Colorado is home to all 53 peaks in the Rocky Mountain chain – from Canada to Mexico – that rise above fourteen thousand feet in elevation. Near Fort Garland, Colorado the Sangre de Cristos hook to the east slightly then continue south into northern New Mexico where they melt back into the surrounding hillsides and rolling arroyos above the town of Santa Fe.
From a photographer’s point of view the land presents virtually endless compositions – but can be tricky for the landscape photographer to actually frame something up. Often times there’s little more than a horizon and sky to work with. Occasionally you’ll have something of foreground interest; an unusual roadside shelter, an old tractor abandoned along the road, a derelict mobile home trailer parked in a field, or towers of neatly stacked, freshly baled hay. For shots like this – where there’s less of an immediate object to focus on and the image relies more on faithful representation of subtle detail – I’ll switch to a fine-grain, high resolution film like Ektar, (or Velvia/Provia when I was shooting more chrome films).
The town of Questa, New Mexico is the next “major” town along the route. One of Questa’s claims to fame is its honey production. Long about the time we hit Questa, we’re hungry. Last summer we decided to uphold our tradition of avoiding chain restaurants and dining instead at locally owned establishments. This led us to WildCat’s Den in Questa. I’ll be honest… at first I was a little skeptical about bringing my family into this sketchy looking establishment, with bars on the windows. The WildCat Den sounded like something other than what it turned out to be – pure and simply, home of one of the best burgers in northern New Mexico.
We burgered up, chatted with the cooks and headed out. If you ever find yourself wandering through Questa hungry, make sure you hit the WildCat’s Den. Don’t be fooled by the bars on the windows – they’re to keep the burgers in – not the people out.
South of Questa, the only signs of life are the small, mountain enclaves of Arroyo Hondo, San Cristobal and El Prado. At night this drive can be harrowing, evidenced by the abundance of one of my ongoing fascinations – roadside memorials – dotting the route. Unfortunately in New Mexico you see a lot of them. On the way out of Questa we passed this especially poignant one I couldn’t help but stop at.
A big draw in Taos is the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. At 650 feet above the river below it’s spectacular – and easily accessible – spanning the Rio Grande Gorge just a few miles west Taos on Highway 64. Unfortunately its accessibility has become an issue for those wishing to use the bridge to end their lives. Jumpers off the Rio Grande Gorge bridge number 115 in the last 20 years. When we were there last August another person had recently jumped to their death. Emergency vehicles blocked access to the side of the bridge thus thankfully preventing the view to the body below. The knowledge it had just been discovered moments before we arrived temporarily erased the light-hearted spirit being on vacation inspires.
That’s quite enough talk about roadside memorials and people jumping to their death. Fortunately on this trip no such events preceded our arrival. Instead we were met by these guys (below image). I’ll take them over the other any day of the week. There were several different groupings of big horns along the east side of the canyon. The rams huddled together along the rim while the mommas with their kids dotted the cliffs below.
The F6 was the obvious choice for these images of Big Horns because of its VR capability. Afternoon light was beginning to dwindle and though they were relatively close on the canyon rim – 200mm closed the gap. Pushing Ektar one stop to ISO200 set the 70-200VR up for success with a comfortable working combo of ƒ5 at 1/400. The 70-200mm VR is a great lens but experience has taught me to not expect greatness for shots like this at ƒ2.8. No time for a tripod – everything was hand held. The F4s stayed in the car for this outing, not wanting to fumble with additional gear while changing film. He would have his chance to shine later.
By the time we arrived in Taos we were ready for a longer break. Less populated and more mountainous than Santa Fe, Taos is a town of notoriety and size, standing unique in the regions’s art community. The hearty traveler could spend a lifetime exploring Taos and surrounding area. You never know what you’ll find winding through town on back alleys rather than being stuck in traffic on the main road. This old, turquoise Jeep pick up truck appears to be blessed living out its remaining days as a planter in someone’s front yard.
The Taos art community is world renown, spanning generations with heavy hitters like Georgia O’Keeffe, Frederic Remington, John Sloan, Marsden Hartley, E. Martin Hennings and Walter Ufer. Today, famous artists such as Charles Collins and so many others line the plaza with unique, inspiring art. Something about being around art makes you want to create art with the camera. For me that’s what our trips to New Mexico are all about – and the fun was only just beginning.
“Lincolns Union” is a “Master Mind” sculpture created by Charles Collins – a bonafied “Master” from Taos, New Mexico (2014). The sculpture is composed of three, individual pieces that stand on their own, representing the Union solider, the Confederate solider and “the woman who held the flame of hope for both.” When reconfigured they form a unique, new shape resembling Lincoln’s face.
I could go on and on about Taos – but we’d never get to the next destination: Santa Fe. Coming up next, the Art Epicenter of the United States, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Thanks for sticking with me this far. The real fun is about to begin.
In each blog post I attempt to roll in an application to the F6. The F6 is, after all, the reason for this site – and why so many people come here: to read about it. For this series of posts in the spirit of “try something new… you might like it,” I’m going to try something a little different: I’m going to add the Nikon F4s into the mix.
SANTA FE – If heading to the art epicenter of the country with two, vintage Nikon film camers isn’t on every photographer’s bucket list – you need to re-write your bucket list. I’m fortunate to live within an easy day’s drive – and have the benefit of history and knowledge of such a place. This provides new depth and opportunity with each visit. On our latest sojourn to “The City Different” of course I shot the F6, but this was the first outing with my newly acquired F4s – a birthday gift from my lovely bride. When we lived in Santa Fe in the late 90’s the F4s was my primary camera. I sold it shortly after buying my D3s in 2010 but knew I’d reacquire one some day. This new F4s shipped straight from Japan (no US preceding the serial number) and is in absolutely gorgeous condition – like it had never been used. So to return to my old stomping ground with two vintage, Nikon film bodies was a wonderful opportunity to make some unique images on film (I realize I’m stretching a bit, describing the F6 as a “vintage camera” when in reality it’s only 10 years old).
I’ll get this out of the way right now: comparing the Nikon F6 to the Nikon F4s would be a little like (and I say this will all due respect to both era’s engineering/design) comparing – say – a 1956 Chevy Nomad Wagon with a 2014 Chevy Tahoe. There really is no comparison between the two flagship cameras from two different eras of engineering and design. Both are spectacular for their time. Let’s leave it at that. But… I suppose if you want to think of this next series of posts as a real-world usability exercise; what it’s like to actually shoot the two cameras side by side – you’ll get an idea if whether adding the F4s to your bag is a good move. I’m sure tickled to have one again and absolutely love working with it. Its role isn’t to replace the F6, but instead provide an additional, excellent way of recording images on film – using the same system (*see below).
The overall approach was to shoot the F4s for general purpose, hand-held work with higher speed films (ISO400 and up) because I didn’t envision shooting it with a tripod for a few reasons: one is the camera doesn’t have an L-bracket as the F6 does. My primary tripod uses a Kirk ball head, which requires a Kirk-mount for each camera. The F4s is old enough that I don’t expect to easily find an L-bracket. Besides, the ergonomics of the camera are so elegant; smooth, sculpted and contoured in all the right places (an absolute joy to hold) – that to slap an awkward piece of aluminum onto such a beautiful form for the occasional appointment with the tripod was just something I couldn’t muster the gumption to do. I do have a generic Kirk mounting plate that screws into the tripod socket if need be. *Also – regrettably – the F4 system doesn’t use the same MC-30, 10-pin cable release as the F6, so it means either adding a MC-12/12A to the bag – or – just using an old-fashioned, screw-in style cable release in the threaded port near the bottom, left rear of the camera. So if I had to use the F4s on a tripod I could – but elected to keep it hand held for this trip. The F6 was also for general shooting, and anything requiring a tripod – for the above reasons – in reverse.
Film for the trip was varied – relying mostly on a C-41 solution. Following up on a recent post about pushing Ektar 2 Stops, I added ample Ektar, intending to push to ISO200 (instead of its native ISO100) for the additional speed as well as saturation and contrast bump (see chapter 2 post to follow). Following up on another post – about over exposing Portra, as per usual I had an adequate stash of both Portra 160 and Portra 400 – two emulsions that have become my “go-to’s.” I am primarily a color photographer – but having two bodies – also threw in enough Delta 400 and a few rolls of Rollei ATP to satisfy the occasional black n’ white craving (one destination was Georgia O’Keefe’s old stomping grounds, Ghost Ranch and the Abiquiu area). I had my D3s in the bag too, just in case I ran out of film – so was pretty much ready for anything.
Our first stop was the small town of San Luis, located virtually on the Colorado-New Mexico border in the picturesque but lonely San Luis valley. San Luis is the oldest town in Colorado and with a population of 629 people (2010 Census) it’s also the most populated town of Costilla County. We travel through San Luis because it gets us off I-25 at Walsenburg (Colorado) and after summiting LaVeta Pass and entering the San Luis Valley – begins the most scenic and beautiful part of the drive South.
The Sangre de Cristo Catholic Church sits atop a butte above town and is one of the main attractions of the area. The church was established in 1992 and about then I remember returning from my first trip to Taos – and climbing amongst the sanctuary’s construction. At the time I thought it was an ancient church in ruin. Turns out it was a new church being built. Who knew. I wish now I had images from that trip 22 years ago. In 22 years I wonder what I’ll wish I had images of from now?
During my earlier stint shooting the F4s I primarily shot the 35-70/2,8 (non-D) pump zoom. It’s a fine lens and I still have and shoot with it. Today, however, I also have the opportunity to mount a wider variety of lenses on the body and enjoy previously unexperienced creativity with the camera. But as anyone with multiple lenses and bodies can attest, if you try to carry around too much gear things get heavy and cumbersome. Disciplining one’s self to one body and one lens for an outing is a great exercise. For San Luis the F4s was paired with the Nikkor 17-35/2,8D and performed beautifully. Especially with the 17-35 mounted – and no strap – the F4s isn’t a light camera. But the smooth, rubberized grip covering contours placed in just the right spots made it quite comfortable in hand while walking around for an hour plus.
Exposure note: most of these images of the church are effectively 2 stops over exposed by the F4’s (Matrix) meter. The roll of Portra 400 was (intentionally) over exposed by one stop at ISO200, and I added another stop of exposure compensation using the F4’s exposure compensation dial while exposing the frames containing sky. I was a little worried they’d blow – but not even close when looking at the negative; it’s healthy and strong all around. I was especially pleased with the level of detail in the sculpture shots. The cast bronze was dark to begin with and it would have been easy to bury the nuance in shadow. Portra did a beautiful job of holding tone in the sky while recording detail in the dark bronze. A chrome film would have effectively produced a silhouette of the sculpture. Portra continues to impress me – especially when provided ample light to work with. Alas, you can’t control the light – and don’t always have the availability to wait around for things to get good. We had an active sky with high clouds knocking down bright, high-altitude sun enough to diffuse harsh shadows. But – it was mid-day, so we made the best of what was given and moved on. When light isn’t ideal I tend to focus more on composition, subject matter – objects – and story telling – rather than broad-sweeping, scenic beauty. Oh how I’d love to be on this hillside at sun-up. I can only imagine the color in skies passing over the San Luis Valley during these times. For now at least, this will have to do.
Note: I’ve heard others discuss dislike of short, “just passing through” trips while out shooting. I couldn’t disagree more. Photography – especially film photography – is about the long game. Treating these short trips as scouting opportunities – sometimes making copious notes on subjects, ideas, and times of day and position of the sun relative to the season – pays dividends in the long run. In the future, when you have opportunity to revisit the same destination for longer, you now have a starting point.
Besides, for me photography is about exploration. When I have a camera in hand I move slower, look more intently, interact more directly with people and places, and overall the experience is richer and deeper because of that. Even if it’s for just an hour – make the best of that time. Take notes. Keep a log book in the car and note time of year and day. Pay attention to vegetation. You’ll learn something about the land, and be better informed the next time you pass through.
Next stop will be Taos, but we’ll save that for the next post. Thanks for reading this far and check back in a week or so
I’m excited to announce a new project – well, less “new” in terms of topic – but more “new” in terms of focused effort. The project is called Terra Firma, and I suppose like so many of my other “projects,” I’ve really been working on this one for a long time.
Terra Firma is a landscape collection on johnbcrane.com (please click here to sit back and enjoy the slide show). I suppose I’ve been working on this project for 20 years or so – but only now feel like I have something tangible to say. Terra firma is a Latin phrase meaning “solid earth” (from terra, meaning “earth”, and firma, meaning “solid”). The phrase refers to the dry land mass on the earth’s surface and is used to differentiate from the sea or air. Considering a reference many of us may already be familiar with, here’s how Terra Firma was first born: “And God said, ‘Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so.God called the dry land Earth,[d] and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.” (Genesis 1:9-10 ESV). The distinction here is that the land was created to separate the heavens from the depths.
Like many landscape photographers I’ve had a passion for the outdoors for many years. Since the first time setting foot in Colorado in 1977 as a high school student I’ve never left the wilderness. Physically perhaps – but mentally, emotionally and spiritually – no. When I returned home to Illinois after our first backpacking trip to Highlands Camp in the Indian Peaks Wilderness I moped around the house for weeks. All I could think about was how to get back, as fast as possible. I’d tasted wilderness – true, honest to goodness wilderness – and was spoiled for anything else from that point forward.
Years later, in May of 1980 when Mount St. Helens erupted in the Cascade Mountains I had joined REI, received my first Jansport backpack and ice ax and was turning sofa cushions over in the house looking for enough money for plane fare to Seattle. As fate would have it I never made it out to photograph the mountain exploding – which is why I’m still alive today.
I devoured books by Robert Service, Barry Lopez (Arctic Dreams, Of Wolves and Men), Peter Matthiesson (The Snow Leopard, Men’s Lives), Farley Mowatt (Never Cry Wolf), Edward Abbey (Desert Solitaire, The Monkey Wrench Gang) John Muir and John McPhee (Coming into the Country, The Control of Nature, Basin and Range), and developed a particular fascination with the Rocky Mountains, the Cascade Mountains, and the Pacific Northwest. I followed the classic, black and white photographers and while I appreciated the art form, decided I was more interested in color photography.
A particular fascination with Alaska developed and upon graduation from Colorado State with Bachelor of Fine Art, my dog Max and I caught a ride to Seattle, then caught the Alaska Marine Highway to Alaska’s Southeast for my first true foray into the wild where I lived and worked the salmon for the summer, wandering the Alaska’s inside passage between shifts.
That summer was filled with far too much to attempt to summarize here. Suffice it to say, that trip to Alaska took the beginnings of a fascination with wild places and emblazoned into my very being a thirst for which there is no quenching. Here so many years later I can see and hear and feel almost everything from that trip; the pull to return to Alaska is incessant – like gravity.
Today, a body of work has formed. While I enjoy flipping through images and the memories they trigger – I’ve come to believe it’s somewhat of a responsibility to share these images. The world has changed dramatically over those same years since 1977. Wild places continue to be eaten away by industry and development, and people today simply don’t understand – can’t comprehend – what has been lost. I’ve done my best to not be the pessimist; attempt to find the remaining open lands, wild places – and prove to myself that there’s still a lot of land out there, nothing to worry about. Lately, though – it’s getting more difficult to do this. Again – wanting to be a positive voice in the conversation – the approach I can take is to show the beauty of the land. My hope is these images will inspire a whole new generation of explorers, wanderers, travelers, seekers and dreamers to get out there and see this land we’re so blessed to live in.
Comprised of color images from around the United States – many of which were made within our spectacular National Parks System – Terra Firma attempts to focus on the land. A seemingly endless variety of landscapes lie within Terra Firma. Topographic features from slot canyons to grand canyons. From ant hills to foothills. Front mountain ranges to still, quiet valleys and everything in between. Not all images have been made in our beautiful National Parks; many have been created in no-name stretches of empty land – between notable destinations – because the light was right or the feature simply would not let me pass without demanding an image be made.
CONTENT, NOT PROCESS
I suppose like many photographers I use a variety of different cameras and tools to create different images. This project is a earnest attempt to – once again – step away from the process and instead focus on the contents of those four, intimidating boundaries constructing the edges of the frame. I want everything the viewer sees to communicate something about the land. To that end, you’ll see no mention what so ever of whether an image is recorded digitally or etched on film, and you’ll see nothing about what type of camera (though there are a bunch made with the Nikon F6) – or the technique with which the image is created.
I hope you enjoy Terra Firma, and more so – hope it inspires everyone inclined to get “out there” into the wild – while the wild still remains.
The other day I was on an assignment and pulled a rookie move. I became so preoccupied talking and laughing with the client, fiddling with light – diffusion panels to knock the sun down; fiddling with power levels on the SU-800 and SB-R200’s – that I forgot to change the ISO after previously shooting a 400 speed film. I don’t typically use the DX setting – preferring instead to set ISO manually, especially when using custom rather than rated ISO’s. I realized my mistake halfway through the roll and was pretty embarrassed – though the client never knew.
I decided to continue on, hoping the lab would bail me out, and was blown away by the results. They were perfect. Kevin at Digi-Graphics said, “I’ve never pushed Ektar 2 stops before but it’s great film. It should be just fine. If it were junk film not so much. Who knows… this might be exactly how you should shoot Ektar…”
As it turned out, those were prophetic words… with a few caveats.
These images are scanned in using the Nikon LS-5000 and VueScan. I ordered prints with this roll – something I don’t usually do – and they were awful – unusably awful – the red channel completely flooded blocking up the center of the flower in one, big, featureless blob of red-ness. When I saw the prints I thought, “Uh-Oh… I’m busted” and the negs sat on my light box for nearly a week as I mulled over what to do. I’d also made a few digital frames as back-ups and began considering tweaking them into what I wanted for the final images.
Last night I took another look at the negs on the light box with a loop. I could see plenty of detail in the red regions of the film and thought what the heck, it wouldn’t be the first time the prints were disappointing but the images were still good. I sat down and started scanning and was – once again – blown away by what film does. Even though the original prints were unusably awful there was plenty of information there. The question was, how to get to it. A little VueScan magic did the trick. Switching to Manual mode I began adjusting values in the red channel for scanning. Turns out about half of the standard setting did the trick and all that lovely detail began to reemerge.
The F6 has the unique ability among other film cameras to leverage Nikon’s Creative Lighting System and this was a perfect opportunity to see what the R1C1 Close-up Flash kit could do. The flowers were in direct sunlight, so a diffusion panel was used to neutralize the bright, Colorado sun. The SU-800 Commander head was mounted to the F6 and set to an even 1:1 Group C, Channel 1. I typically use Group C for my Macro work because Groups A and B are used more often for the SB-800 and 900 for more common lighting tasks. The Flash Sync Mode on the F6 was set to “Slow,” and the Sync Speed (Custom Setting Menu item E-1) was set to 1/250FP allowing sync speeds greater than the 1/250th of a second using Auto FP High Speed Sync. The SW-11 Close-Up Adaptors were used to position the light extremely close to the center axis of the lens, providing a very mild, straight-on, diffused light source, but perfect for picking up reflected detail in the water droplets. The goal was natural-appearing lighting with that little extra something. Though it hadn’t rained in a while, I flicked some water on the leaves, then hit it with a spray bottle for a little extra sparkle on the petals.
I’ve said before but it bares repeating: the Creative Lighting System is indeed one of the unique attributes of the F6 causing it to stand out amidst other film cameras. At the end of the day photography is largely about how light interacts with medium. Being intentional then about how to use that light is one way to direct, or shape, the contents of the frame. In the spirit of Tomohisa Ikeno “Value of Unique Pictures” discussion (please click here), the more I shoot the F6, the more interested I am in exploring the unique images it’s capable of. Nikon’s CLS figures prominently into that exploration.
As it turned out, shooting Ektar at ISO400 – while not something I’d have thought to do intentionally – produced great results. It allowed working with higher shutter speeds to combat a slight breeze shifting the flowers ever so slightly. Pushing Ektar also amplified the natural tendencies of this already vivid, contrasty film. “Yup. Pushing a color film increases grain, saturation and contrast at the expense of latitude. Pushing an already saturated film super saturates it,” said my buddy Eric, well versed in matters of darkroom chemistry. Given that Ektar is already a finely-grained film, the increase in grain is nominal, if noticeable at all. But the increase in saturation is very noticeable – and to a lesser degree a bump in contrast may also be seen. This explains the flooding of the red channel in the initial prints.
These images are directly out of VueScan with no adjustment to color or contrast at all. Normally when scanning Ektar there’s a certain degree of color adjustment required to get the images looking right to my eye. Here – they just jump off the screen with no adjustment what so ever.
So in case you ever need to push Ektar, do it with confidence. It works great. Just be mindful when you go to print the images that you adjust the color properly. The resulting super saturated images may exceed most printers’ ability to reproduce the results. This I know for sure: I’ll be shooting my next roll of Ektar at 200 and pushing it a stop to experiment. Who knows… I may have just stumbled bass-ackwards into a new look.
For the past 10 years now the city of Fort Collins, Colorado has sponsored, in conjunction with Bohemian Nights Music, the New West Fest; essentially a birthday party for the city and fall jamboree for Northern Colorado, focusing heavily on live music. The scale of the event is difficult to grasp. The city blocks off the core of famous Old Town and people wander freely with children, strollers, the occasional huge stuffed animal won at a carnival game, and open containers. It’s a truly great event we’ve come to enjoy more each year.
This year we met friends for Saturday night’s Library Stage line up and first to play was a band from Nederland, Elephant Revival. I can sum up our feelings about Elephant Revival in one word: utter bliss. OK, two words. Elephant Revival hails from the small, mountain community of Nederland, Colorado – at the foot of the Indian Peaks Wilderness and hovering in the clouds 30 miles above the city of Boulder. Years ago while working in Boulder I had the good fortune to live in Nederland and can attest to its unique, authentic, Colorado vibe – perhaps one of the reasons Elephant Revival resonated so much with me. Surely some of you have felt this before so hopefully it’s not a new phenomena I’m trying to describe and you can all smile and nod your heads as you remember… but every so often there are bands and performances that create something really special for you. Somehow, through the combination of elements produced in a show; the atmosphere created by the actual music’s rhythms and tempos, instrumentations and arrangements mixed with the musicians and their artistry, countenance, performance, expressions, posture, dress and demeanor all – viewed through a modest use of light and a whiff of atmosphere – something special happens – and the audience is transported to another time, another place. That was Elephant Revival for me on Saturday night. Thank you, Elephant Revival. For that brief period I forgot the rest of my life and vanished into your world.
Photographically I’d made some decisions the day before on how to approach this year’s New West Fest. Friday’s opening act, Shatterproof, also held a special draw for us. Their electric violin player T.J. Wessel’s family are friends, and we stood front row in the hot, late afternoon sun watching this band of talented young musicians go at it. As I looked around at the building crowd I smiled upon realizing that 1 out of every 5 had either a DSLR strapped around their neck, or some sort of electronic “phablet” held up – fingers extended – to record.
Given my natural proclivity to photograph with film when it came time to plan how I wanted to record this year’s festival – it was a pretty simple decision. The follow up question was, what film. I consider myself primarily a color photographer and for many events and occasions this fits. There are times, however, when choosing black and white film feels like the right move. Don’t ask why because I don’t think I could explain. I just go with it. And so it was for Saturday and Sunday’s outings; as I happened to find myself standing in the crowd, close to the front, transported to this other world.
One of the tricky things about concert photography – especially in the evening – is low light. It’s no secret todays DSLR’s handle low-light situations very well – especially my D3s – which I can push to 3,200 and even 6,400 with confidence of getting a usable image. Film is another matter. But if you’re working with the right film in the right way, there’s potential for some unique images – it just takes a little more thought – and work. The black and white film I revert to typically is Ilford’s Delta line. Delta 400 provides deep, rich long tones, deep blacks and dramatic contrast while also rendering smooth tonal transitions and holding sharp detail. If I were to pick one black and white film to head out with I knew would hold up in virtually any lighting conditions it would be Delta 400. It’s a beautiful film.
The stage’s backdrop is an important part of the photograph. Fortunately those who plan these sometimes elaborate, complex stages understand this. In this case it was a neutral grayish color, probably a stop less than the middle tone of a gray card. The Library Stage faced East, it’s back to the afternoon sun. This was actually good news – providing you were prepared for it. Initially one might be tempted to try and shoot manually. At first glance, light would’nt seem to change much because they’re out of direct sunlight. The problem is, once the lights begin sweeping over performers, everything changes. Spot metering or center weighted metering is the way to go in situations like this. Matrix metering would unnecessarily factor that large, dark backdrop too much while calculating exposure – and cause overexposure of the figures in front. Black and white film has great exposure latitude to retrieve blown or buried data, but it’s always best to get things right from the git-go than have to fix mistakes in post. The solution is of course spot metering and positioning the “spot” on the faces – or other middle value portions of the scene. Easier said than done when performers start moving around. And depending on what lens you’re working with and how far you are from the action – a face or head can get pretty tiny in the viewfinder, making it difficult to get that single “spot” in the right place at the right time. When musicians are stationary – like in the shot below – it’s of course much easier.
The lens to work with is the 70-200/ƒ2.8 VR. It’s fast-focusing and at 2.8 lets in plenty of light to work at reasonable shutter speeds with 400 speed film. I knew I could push Delta to 800 or higher if necessary, but I was getting between 1/80th and 1/125 typically at 2.8 and deemed it good enough, even at 200mm. If that doesn’t make sense, don’t worry. You want to try to keep the shutter speed at 1 over the field of view of the lens you’re working with. With image stabilization (Canon calls is IS, Nikon calls it VR for Vibration Reduction) you can usually get away with another stop. So for a 200mm lens, you want to be working with shutter speeds around 1/200th sec. With VR, you can get away with 1/125. If you have VR and a steady hand, you can sometimes get away with 1/80th or so. The question you have to ask yourself is, will you get better results pushing the film and shooting higher shutter speeds, or a shooting at rated and holding the camera still. It all depends. I went with the later for Elephant Revival and the following act, the Subdudes, and was glad I did.
The next – and final day of New West Fest was the one I was most looking forward to. Richie Furay’s band was on the main, Mountain Avenue stage at 2:30 and nothing could stop me from from being there. Richie Furay is one of the iconic founders of country rock for the past 40 years and is now a pastor at a church near Boulder. Growing up, like so many others, Richie Furay’s music with Buffalo Springfield, Poco and the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band were on my turntable and car’s cassette player nearly every minute of the day. He was and is the sound track of my youth – but I’d never seen him live. For this, Ektar and Delta were in order. I wanted the flexibility to shoot color and black and white depending on things. I reloaded 3 times during the 50 minute set and do believe it’s the first time I’ve ever sang into the back of the camera. Good thing the F6 doesn’t have a microphone like the D3s.
A quick word about metering with the F6. I was again – blown away – at the F6’s metering capabilities. There were a few shots, like the one above, I’d set exposure compensation to -.7 just in case. I knew I could bring it back in post if it were under, but sometimes the Colorado, high-altitude sun was so bright and harsh I was afraid things like light pants and blonde guitars would blow. The F6 tracked everything perfectly – I didn’t need to do a thing except shoot. Turns out the shot above was under by about 2/3 stop. If I’d just trusted the meter I’d have been fine. In camera meters aren’t fool proof or perfect. But I swear, just about every time I’ve second guessed the F6’s meter I’ve been wrong.
Hind site can teach you a lot if you’re willing to look. In hind site… I wouldn’t do a single thing different next year. Choosing the bands and performances I want to listen to – and trying to make good images around those performances – is a great way to enjoy the show and come away with something memorable. Shooting on film is a great way to produce something unique. For the first time, I went to the ‘Fest all three days and my dogs were barking when I finished – but it was well worth it. Can’t wait until next year.
Memphis has been the subject of many a discussion between my son and I for a few years now. We love road trips and just being in the car together so when ever we’re hunting for a just barely out of reach, crazy destination to spontaneously shoot off to in the middle of the night (from Colorado) – Memphis has been a part of that discussion. Alas, common sense has prevailed and Memphis had remained unvisited – until this past July. As we planned our route to a family reunion in Nashville I was delighted to see Memphis sort of en route on the way home. We tend to drive any place we visit not for fear of flying – though who wouldn’t these days – but because we prefer to pass slowly through places en route to any destination – not zoom over places at 300mph in an aluminum tube with wings. So it was settled: Memphis on the return leg.
It’s hard to determine the origins of my fascination with Memphis precisely but strong contributors are Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis,” John Hiatt’s “Memphis in the Mean Time” and of course the father of color photography, the incomparable Mr. William Eggleston – one who unbenounced to him – was instrumental in helping shape and refocus how I approach the art of color photography. Elvis and Graceland may have a little something to do with it too but not being quite as ardent “King” fans, they’re certainly not the strongest draw.
Graceland is Elvis’ old home and no trip to Memphis is complete without at least a drive by. We didn’t feel the need to go in – but were a little curious. Vans jammed with people cruised in and out of the fabled gates while a number of folks simply stood out front by the brick wall surrounding the estate. My wife and I agreed it was a little creepy – not sure how else to describe it… The wall was very interesting to me, containing “high-school yearbook” style insignias and drawings of Elvis along its 100 yard length. I walked it several times marveling at the influence this one, charismatic man had on so many people in a life cut short.
After Graceland we headed into the city center. It was a sunny, hot Sunday afternoon and we found a place in the shade to park near the bottom of famous Beale Street. As is usually the case on trips like this I’ll have my D3s and bunch of other gear buried beneath blankets in the car to keep everything cool, but leave it all in the car, choosing instead the F6, a 50mm ƒ1.4D and some Portra 400 to carry while I wander. I like to minimize attention while shooting as much as possible and carrying a lot of gear gets uncomfortable – especially in the heat. While it’s true there are times when a few extra frames would be nice to have – I find I focus much more intently while shooting with a finite number of shots. Something I’ve discovered after years of editing: I hate sitting in front of the computer after a trip trying to decide which one of 10 images in a burst is the “best.” I’d much rather decide while shooting. This requires patience and being willing to pay the cost: sometimes being wrong and missing a shot. The benefits include more finely tuning your process to identify and take advantage of opportunity.
The street flipper is a great example. There were two young men providing the afternoon’s entertainment, flipping down the gently sloping grade of Beale street. Pretty amazing, actually. I stopped and watched the first guy and overheard another young man walking past me saying to his girl friend, “yeh, I’m pretty sure I could do that…” I thought it would be cool to get a shot of him in mid-flip – hopefully in the air – so I walked up the street and found a good spot. There were trash cans lining the street and the one across from me was brightly colored, different than the others. I didn’t want it to be the brightest spot in the frame and distract from this guy’s athleticism as he flipped through the frame so moved up the hill a bit more. Working with the 50mm produced a lot of background that I couldn’t control. I could minimize it though by shooting a shallow depth of field. An aperture of ƒ4 allowed 1/1250 shooting Portra 400 at ISO200. Plenty fast to stop the guy in mid-flip were I lucky enough to time it right. Focus might have produced a problem at this point. Acquiring focus as the flipper flipped through the screen wouldn’t be feasible (he was a fast flipper), and if I settled for what the camera wanted to do I’d have been focused on the buildings across the street – making the foreground flipper blurry.
What to do… Here’s where de-coupling your focus from the shutter release is a really fantastic idea – and I think everyone should do it. It’s a good thing I usually shoot like this because I was ready. If not, to dig through the camera’s menus there on the street and fuss with CSM Settings would have taken too much time and attention away from all that was going on around me. In the F6’s CSM Menu, Custom Setting A4/AF activation/”AF-ON Only” allows the camera’s auto focus feature to be activated using only the AF-On button(s – plural if you use the MB-40 grip as I do). The camera’s default setting is “Release/AF-ON” which means if I’d used this setting to pre-focus on a certain point, the camera would try to focus again when I pressed the shutter to make the image – producing a blurry image because the camera would have focused on the buildings across the street instead of the flipper. At ƒ4 there’s not much room to miss before the image is out of focus. Not what I wanted. Using the AF-On button I focused on the street in front of me where I suspected the flipper would land, then raised the camera to frame the shot and waited. Almost immediately the other flipper came flipping through the frame and I fired one shot, hoping I got him. A little thought, a little planning and a little camera knowledge goes a long way.
After asking around someone pointed us towards one of the more famous destinations of the area, the Lorraine Motel – where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot on the balcony outside room 306. The Lorraine Motel has been turned into The National Civil Rights Museum for all to come experience. This was one of the most powerful – yet non flamboyant – destinations I’ve visited in recent memory. People hovered around and the air was reverent; respectful – not a lot of goofing around and selfies going on amidst the large group of kids who’d gathered in the shade across the street. The depth to which I was moved at this location was unexpected and we explored for nearly an hour, taking it in. The museum’s doors were open and the air conditioning felt great, and they always appreciate donations to keep the lights on.
Speaking of the heat, I was a little concerned when I grabbed the last role of Portra from the console of the car. It had become warm despite the AC running while we drove. I put it in my pocket and hoped for the best, and was delighted when processing (thank you Digi-Graphics!) revealed no issues what so ever. Sometimes I’ll carry a cooler for the film but most of the time I’ll simply protect the stash from direct sunlight and call it good. I’ve never had any problems, even in the extreme heat of the Caribbean.
After the Lorraine we slowly made our way back to the car, wanting to savor as much as we could. On a Sunday afternoon there wasn’t much activity outside Beale Street and it was nice to casually view the architecture and decor lining our path. The musical legend of Memphis alone is worth the visit, but add to that the food, culture, history…
great color and geometry in the signage, urban architecture, interesting people, and magnificent night light and my imagination ignites with photographic potential. It was tough to leave – but we had 1,200 miles and 20 hours of driving ahead of us.
Memphis is one of the wonderful perks found in driving across the country rather than flying over. We only had a couple hours in Memphis – hardly enough time to scratch the surface – but I’ll take what I can get. It was fun to finally be there if even for just a short time. Hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to return and devote the proper amount of time and attention to such a historically rich city. Happy shooting.
I’ve been going through some old images for re-scan and really missing Kodachrome lately. I’ve also noticed how many more vertical images I made before the computer became the standard for viewing. Vertical images were desirable for publication covers. With 35mm film and a good reproduction they were the norm. These days, with the computer’s horizontal aspect ratio dictating how most people view photographs, it seems vertical images are made less – which is another loss for photography in general.
Unfortunately Kodachrome is gone for good and there’s nothing we can do about it. I’m sure there are digital plugins available for processing that will eventually come close to representing the color cast and complexity of this beautiful film, but as of this writing I’m not aware of them. It also doesn’t help the film shooter diametrically opposed to digitally emulating true film emulsions. Running Kodachrome 64 through a solid, well-used film camera will remain one great joy of living in an era when that was possible.
All images were made with a well-worn, black-body Nikon FE2 and consumer-grade, manual focus Tamron 28-70/ƒ3.5 zoom lens. I’m genuinely sorry I won’t be able to feed the F6 Kodachrome. That would have been something special.
In years past my eyes have been focused upward, searching the skies above for the real Fourth of July photograph. This year I chose instead to focus on what’s right in front of me. Attending the Allenspark Fourth of July parade has become an annual event. Nestled high in the Rocky Mountains, tucked safely in the shadow of Indian Peaks Wilderness, Allenspark is where we began our married life 20 years ago today – and holds a special place for both my wife and I. As the small parade of locals passed in front of us, people, animals and vehicles adorned in American regalia, I was filled with a new appreciation for the strong character and relationships of this town – and our country. What we stand for, what’s important to us. Some days – especially in the mountains of Colorado – it’s great to be an American.
I’ve devoted considerable thought over the past few years as to why we as people make photographs and frankly have come up blank. I don’t think I could explain to someone why I make photographs other than the simple truth; it pleases me to do so. It’s fun to read the plethora of great essays by others, from the famous to the unknown, presenting wonderful theories and insights. I think I’ve finally concluded however that I’m not sure it really matters beyond the simple truth; it pleases me to do so.
I’ve been making images since I was about 11 years old, when my folks gave me my first Kodak 110 camera for Christmas, complete with the rotating flash cube on top of that tiny plastic body. I loved that thing. My next camera was a Canon AT-1, the manual version of the ever popular AE-1 and from the moment I held it I was a National Geographic photographer. Ruined for life. That was a good many years ago, and though I never actually became a National Geographic photographer, I’m still making images. I wonder what else we do during the course of our lives that stays with us like photography does? For me the answer is not much. It’s one constant – besides my family and my faith – that has endured through the years.
I think maybe most photographers – especially film shooters – are optimists. A musician friend once spoke of “the hope of a picture” in reference to deferring the shooting and editing process to someone who understood – and had the creative and technical ability to realize – such a thing. One of the highs of photography for me is the possibilities. The camera is full of best case scenarios, creative potential and hope. One of my favorite photographers (and writers) Robert Adams once said, “The job of the photographer isn’t to record indisputable fact, but to try to be coherent about intuition and hope.”
Hope. Every time I load a new roll of film I get a little thrill. It’s like a full tank of gas for me, the allure of that elusive “perfect frame” possibly hiding in every roll. Like a golden ticket, hidden in only so many Wonka bars. Perhaps that’s one of the things that appeals to me most about shooting roll film; the focused flexibility required to maximize finite opportunity. The digital shooter might counter with some sort of volume equation – like, the more you shoot, the more likely you are to find that golden ticket. I’m not so sure about that..
Tomohisa IKENO, on the Nikon F6* design team, summed it as “the value of unique pictures.” He said, “With a digital camera, the number of pictures you can take is infinite, in the sense that there is no limit in the number of shots to take, unlike shooting with film. You don’t have to hesitate when taking pictures. Just release the shutter… But on the contrary, some photographers reject the prospect of such ease, as they desire a more careful, rigorous approach to making photographs. They want to treasure each picture-taking opportunity by etching their vision on film…a certain degree of respect to taking each great picture.” This careful, rigorous approach can go a long way towards fulfilling the “artist” struggling for a voice in each aspiring photographer.
National Geographic reported the number of digital photographs made in 2006 was 53 billion, in 2011 was 80 billion and in 2015 is projected to be 105 billion. That’s a lot of pictures made. And deleted. If you’ve ever visited flickr, it sure looks like randomly clicking 5-12 frames per second until you stumble onto something creative may seem to have replaced this “careful, rigorous approach.” But I believe as people we benefit from limits. Boundaries.
We pretend to love to hate boundaries. Truth is, though, while we may initially accuse boundaries of cramping our style, they can provide a more creatively satisfying approach through a thoughtful blend of methodical experimentation – with a little “wonder of the unknown” thrown in for good measure. Boundaries may not be mandatory in order to force one to think, but they certainly go a long way in helping us focus. Whether you have 1, 10, 12, 24 or 36 frames – you have that much-needed boundary; a governor to help steer your thinking into productive action. And in a counter-intuitive way, I’ll contend that boundaries even encourage intentional creativity.
John Szarkowski writes in the introduction to William Eggleston’s opus, Guide, “It’s not easy for the photographer to compete with the clever originality of mindless, mechanized cameras, but the photographer can add intelligence. By means of photography one can in a minute reject as unsatisfactory ninety-nine configurations of facts and elect as right the hundredth. The choice is based on tradition and intuition–knowledge and ego–as it is in any art, but the ease of execution and the richness of the possibilities in photography both serve to put a premium on good intuition.”
Good Intuition. Photography encourages a sort of focused flexibility; balancing logistical boundaries while remaining responsive to the nudges and pricks emerging throughout the creative session. The focused photographer then responds with method, technique, knowledge and bravery. I’ll suggest that all these things help train up “good intuition.” These are the things that make creative film photography a wonderful journey. Sure, there’s math and science involved too; you measure light, choose an emulsion based on creative goals (or whatever’s thawed from the freezer); you communicate through the machine’s knobs and dials your preferences on how best to approach the scene – knowing through intimate repetition how it’ll interpret and render your input. You view, you tweak. Rinse and repeat. Until you get it right. Until you get what you want. Until you’re released to move on to the next thing.
Again, Robert Adams: “Over and over again the photographer walks a few steps and peers, rather comically, into the camera; to the exasperation of family and friends, he inventories what seems an endless number of angles; he explains, if asked, that he is trying for effective composition, but hesitates to define it. What he means is that a photographer wants form, an unarguably right relationship of shapes, a visual stability in which all components are equally important. The photographer hopes, in brief, to discover a tension so exact that it is peace.” This “peace” usually isn’t the product of dumb luck, but creative intent.
This narrative began as a high-and-mighty dissertation on why people should still shoot film. Then I pulled up some digital images made on a recent outing and thought, you know what? It really doesn’t matter – beyond what your creative intent is. Digital photography has made me a better film shooter, and shooting film has helped hone my vision; my focus. For whatever reason, though, I’m always more creatively invigorated when I pick up my film camera (and I love the quality of the image. tangent: Image Quality is often talked about as only “high” or “low.” I think of Image Quality as a summary of the unique qualities an image possesses).
The way I see it life is one, big art project; sometimes even maybe like a beautiful tapestry: if you’ve ever viewed one of these intricately woven masterpieces from the bottom it appears chaotic; threads running everywhere, patterns abruptly halting, isolated threads hanging down; far from beautiful. But if you flip that same tapestry over and view it from the top, it’s a masterpiece.
As an artist then, I think an important step in recording this “masterpiece in progress” is to find a tool – a medium – that speaks to your creativity. A while back I was listening to a radio interview with Booker T. Jones, the incredible musician known for his unique sound, created with the Hammond B3 Organ. He said about his discovery of the B3, “I found an instrument that I can speak through.” I think that’s really the key to a lifetime of fulfilling, creative photography: finding tools that encourage your unique vision. Then begins the process – as it did for me that Christmas morning long ago when I popped that flash cube on my new Kodak – of getting out there and creating your own tapestry. Though at any given moment the results may not appear to possess coherent attributes; some semblance of purpose or direction; don’t stop. You never know what it’s going look like from the other side.
And yes, it’s OK if your only reason for doing it is simply because it pleases you to do so.