Santa Fe and Vintage, Nikon Film Bodies, chapter 2

Supernatural autumn evening light bathes the Rio Grande Gorge just outside of Taos, New Mexico.

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.

Sangre de Cristo sunrise, San Luis Valley, Colorado
Sangre de Cristo sunrise, San Luis Valley, Colorado

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.

Big Horn Sheep, Rio Grand Gorge, Taos County (2014)
Big Horn Sheep, Rio Grand Gorge, Taos County (Nikon F6 + 70-200mm @200mm + Ektar pushed 1 stop; 2014).

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.

Sangre de Christo mountains, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Fresh snow on the Sangre de Cristo Mountains up Ski Basin Road, Santa Fe, New Mexico (Nikon F4s + TMAX400).

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.

The Wildcat's Den, Quesa, New Mexico (2013)
Donny, The Wildcat’s Den, Questa, New Mexico (2013)

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.

Roadside Memorial, Questa, New Mexico (2014)
Roadside Memorial, Questa, New Mexico (2014)

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.

Efforts to curb suicides at Rio Grande Gorge sputter
Jumper no.1, Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, Taos, New Mexico (August, 2013)

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.

Efforts to curb suicides at Rio Grande Gorge sputter
Emergency workers make their way down perilously steep canyon walls to reach yet another body, a victim of suicide by jumping off the 650 foot bridge (August, 2013).

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.

Big Horn Sheep, Rio Grande Gorge, Taos, New Mexico (2014)
Big Horn Sheep, Rio Grande Gorge, Taos, New Mexico (2014)

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.

Rio Grande Gorge, Taos County, New Mexico (2014)
Rio Grande Gorge, Taos County, New Mexico (Nikon F6 + 105VR lens + Ektar pushed 1 stop; 2014)
Old Jeep Willys Pick up truck living out the rest of its days as a planter, Taos, New Mexico (2013)
Old Jeep Willys Pick up truck living out the rest of its days as a planter, Taos, New Mexico (2013)

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.

Taos, New Mexico (2014)
Taos, New Mexico (2014)

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.

Lincoln's Union by Charles Collins, Taos, New Mexico (2014)
Lincoln’s Union by Charles Collins, Taos, New Mexico (2014)

“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.

Santa Fe and Vintage, Nikon Film Bodies, chapter 1

The Arrow Motel, Espanola, New Mexico (2014)
The Arrow Motel, Espanola, New Mexico (2014). Nikon F4s, Kodak Portra 400

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).

Vintage automobiles on the plaza one evening in Santa Fe, New Mexico
1956 Chevy Nomad Wagon on display one night at the plaza, Santa Fe, New Mexico (2014). Nikon F6, Kodak Portra 400

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).

Old, Chevy Pick Up, Chimayo, New Mexico (2014)
Old, Chevy Pick Up, Chimayo, New Mexico (2014). Nikon F4s, Kodak Portra 400

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.

Cherry tomatos at the Santa Fe Farmer's Market (2014)
Cherry tomatos at the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market (2014). Nikon F4s, Kodak Portra 400

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.

San Luis, Colorado sits quietly in the San Luis Valley, virtually on the border of Colorado and New Mexico. It is the oldest town in Colorado.
San Luis, the oldest town in Colorado, sits quietly in the San Luis Valley, virtually on the border of Colorado and New Mexico (2014). Nikon F4s, Kodak Portra 400

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?

Sangre de Christo Catholic Church, established 1992 in San Luis, Colorado
Sangre de Cristo Catholic Church, established 1992 in San Luis, Colorado (2014). Nikon F4s, Kodak Porta 400
Sangre de Christo Catholic Church, San Luis, Colorado (2014)
Sangre de Cristo Catholic Church, San Luis, Colorado (2014). Nikon F4s, Kodak Portra 400
Sangre de Christo Catholic Church, established 1992 in San Luis, Colorado (2014)
Sangre de Cristo Catholic Church, established 1992 in San Luis, Colorado (2014). Nikon F4s, Kodak Portra 400

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.

Sangre de Christo Catholic Church, San Luis, Colorado (2014)
Sangre de Cristo Catholic Church, San Luis, Colorado (2014). Nikon F4s, Kodak Portra 400
Stations of the Cross sculpture exhibit at Sangre de Christo Parish, San Luis, Colorado (2014)
Stations of the Cross sculpture exhibit at Sangre de Cristo Parish, San Luis, Colorado (2014). Nikon F4s, Kodak Portra 400

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.

San Luis, Colorado (2014)
San Luis, Colorado (2014). Nikon F4s, Kodak Portra 400

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.

San Luis, Colorado
San Luis, Colorado (2013). This image was made on a previous trip through San Luis last August. We spotted this junk yard, which you can almost see at the base of the hill in the first overview shot of San Luis. Multiple visits to the same destination builds knowledge – and relationships with the locals.

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

Peace to you, John B. Crane