Spring Sprung

Each year as winter approaches the world prepares itself to go dormant and fall asleep.  Trees lose their leaves and become only skeletons of what they were.  The land dry and hard awaits the rains that will make it supple once more and fertile for the seeds of the summer to finally take root.  In the winter, everything goes to sleep.

So too should we take a lesson from it and learn how to look inwards and take stock, find a respite, and let go of those things that drive us so that we can rejuvenate ourselves.

However, this past winter I did not see it in that light.  This past winter had to have been one of the least productive times I have ever had as a photographer. Had it not been for the new moon each month I do not think I would have even ventured out with the camera at all.   All the while I questioned my worth as a photographer as no matter what I looked at I could not see anything in such a way that appealed to me to make a photo of it.

Yet when I allowed my auto-pilot to take control, I found that great photos were still coming from me even if I could or would not see it.  ‘Washed’ was the only fruit that was harvested all winter.

Stones on beach washed by waves


I guess what I did not see happening was exactly what I needed.  I too had gone dormant for the winter.  I needed to take a creative time out to allow for new growth to emerge.

Spring entered and something sprung inside of me.  In early April, still thinking I was in my slump I geared up to go out to photograph the Moon of Jamad Al-Awwal.  Then just as I was about to leave, an emotional train wreck occurred that derailed my outing completely.  Without the time left in the day to make it to my quite place in the mountains to see and photograph the moon in peace, as I normally do, I had only enough time to walk down my street to an opening amongst the trees to see and make a record of my celestial friend the Moon.

The new moon cradled amongst tree branches


When I saw the moon just nestled there amongst those branches appearing safe and protected, something inside of me suddenly opened.  My heart saw everything anew and I felt that Spring had finally sprung in me.

The flowers were soon to be blooming and I could barely contain the excitement in me to be out there once again finding light and bringing it back for others to see as well.  The time had come and I made my trek in search of the wildflowers.  I visited all my old haunts to find that even though my spring had sprung this year, for the flowers they decided to take a year off.  I suppose they deserve time off as well.  With just under 1000 miles of driving this year in search of those elusive gems of color, I found only one patch that conveyed my sense of coming to life again.

Miles of Tidy Tips

I Can See For Miles

Standing there in Carrizo Plain I could see for miles.  The elation and disappointment coupled to move me in such a way as to not let the absence of flowers keep me from enjoying Spring and I gave up on the preconceived notion of finding wildflowers and I just went wild.  Photographing things for the shear joy of it.  My creative juices were flowing with such fervor that I did not know when to stop.

I returned home to lead a private workshop and I took my client to all my familiar spots in the Santa Cruz Mountains and along the San Mateo Coast.  I had no preconceived ideas of what I would find and I expected to just stand around most of the time directing my client at all the things that I had photographed more times than I can count without having the desire to do the same again.

The funny thing was that everything looked fresh and new, as if I had never seen them before.  I took more photos in that one day than I had in possibly the last six months!  I was seeing light in a very new way and I liked it.

Deer Fern Frond in Sunlight

Ladder of Light

Then the day came to a close and my elation was given a good stiff clocking to the jaw.  On a beach that I have worked on for years, among hard stone sculpted over the millennia I saw what Mother Earth wanted me to see.  Even though it was a spectacular day, with a slight sea breeze blowing, seagulls calling, the sound of crashing surf, the scent of the redwoods and the sounds of a babbling creek still fresh in my mind from earlier that morning, here was Mother Earth shedding one black tear.  A stark reminder that she is in pain.

Mother Earth sheds a black tear.

Black Tear

Even though my creativity and vision came back to me this spring, Mother Earth did not let me forget why I make portraits of her: to remind others of just how fragile she is.  She also reminded me that she goes through cycles for a reason – so that growth can continue.  Down time, rebirth, growth, vigor and waning are all part of a precious cycle that we must adhere to as well if we are to grow.  We also must take heed in understanding that we do not make our own fate as that is in the hands of the Divine.  We cannot produce whatever it is that we preconceive in our minds and that sometimes we just need to be grateful for what is given and appreciate it as much if not more than what we originally wanted.  In the end, we will find that what we do come away with was much more valuable.

Enjoy the rest of Spring, it will be gone before we know it.


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What We Can’t See

The new moon is upon us once again.  As I write this post, it is about 6 hours before it will be visible in the western sky provided the sky is not cloudy.

Last month I photographed a new crescent moon that moved through the sky in varying light over a twenty minute period.  As elusive as the new crescent moon is in its own right, making it difficult to see,  some times the camera manges to pickup light that our eye just cannot perceive.

Pictured in the photo below is the new crescent moon of February 3rd, 2011 taken 10 minutes after the photo that was posted in the Rabi Al-Awwal Begins post.  It was a toss up for me as to which photo to actually post for that entry in the journal.  I chose the former due to its sharpness, as the photo below used a shutter speed that was a bit longer than I normally like to use and the moon blurred ever so slightly due its motion in the sky.

The shadow of the Moon

Ghost Moon

However, what fascinated me about this image was that after I had processed the RAW file, I could actually see the entire shadow of the moon in the sky.  There was just enough variation in the light from the moon to be recorded by the digital sensor.  Now this is not unique to digital cameras as I have recorded the shadowed moon on new moon nights before using film, however what is intriguing is the fact that my eyes could not see these subtle variations in the light.

Our eyes do not accumulate light the way a camera does.  As light enters our eyes the cones and rods on the retina become activated and immediately send their impulses down the optic nerve to our brain where in interpret what we “see”.

In contrast a camera opens its shutter to allow light to enter it.  The light hits a piece of film chemically treated to react to light, the longer the shutter is left open the more chemical grains on the surface of the film become activated and retain visual information.  The same is true with digital sensors however in this case the sensor is electrically active and starts to record light as charge build upset up when the photons of light cause current to flow through the micro-sized photo transistors on the digital chip.  The longer the shutter is left open the more charge is built up and interpreted as brighter light. In this manner the camera is able to “see” things in dim light that our eyes can never see.  As long as there is some visible light the camera can record it given enought time while the shutter is open.

Darkness has always been symbolic of mystery, the unknown and all that these ideas bring with them, like fear, terror, evil and so on.  And while there is nothing out there in the dark that does not exist in the day, our inability to see in the dark conjures up fear of the unknown.  Today however, with modern digital camera technology night time photographs have never been easier to make.  And for those brave enough to venture out into the darkness of night to make such photos, we can all marvel and rest assured, there are no monsters in the dark and to know that what we can’t see won’t hurt us.


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God Forbid

Just over two weeks ago I was in Yosemite Valley leading a private class.  Maybe it was because my mind was on instructing and making sure my student came away with photos that he would be happy with that I was not able to see.  Or perhaps it was because my mind was preoccupied with other life consuming worries that always tend to work themselves out in the end.  Or maybe I could not see because I have lost my photographic vision.  When I say ‘see’ I mean seeing photographically of course.  I was having a terrible time seeing things to photograph even in one of the most photogenic locations anywhere – Yosemite Valley!

On one of the morning sessions we found ourselves wandering among Cottonwood trees near the Merced River among the grasses along its bank. There we found a ocean of fallen Cottonwood leaves among the grass.  It was a frustrating morning, not moved by anything I saw to even raise the camera, the fallen leaves suddenly made an impression on me and I began to photograph.  As I wandered among the grass and leaves one unique leaf stood out to me among all the rest.

A Dead Heart

I was stopped dead in my tracks as I looked upon this blackened leaf lying there in the shape of a heart.  A cold shiver ran down my spine as I looked on and pondered why I was seeing such a gruesome reminder of the fragility of our hearts to the diseases that can plague it and cause it die a spiritual death; a death that occurs due to an ever growing black blemish that can envelope the whole of the heart and kill its spiritual light if the heart is not protected and cleansed from the wrong actions we commit.

Was I looking at the state of my own heart?  For as of late, I have come to realize that we see out in the world what we harbor in our own hearts.  Was I seeing my own dead heart?  Was this the reason for my inability to see the beauty that lay all around me?  I shuddered at the thought.  Have I allowed the worries and tribulations of life to lead me down a path that is strangling the life out of my own heart?

I quickly turned up to look at the face of El Capitan, the single largest monolithic piece of granite in the entire world.  There, imprinted in its face is a heart of stone. Not a stone heart mind you but rather a heart engraved in stone.

Heart of Stone

We often label a person who is cruel and devoid of compassion as one who is hardhearted.  But here was a symbol of resolve and certitude, a monolith of immense grandeur exhibiting its heart for all to see, a heart impervious to any disease or ailment, a heart of stone.

Perhaps the secrete to protecting the heart is to make it impervious to the travails thrown at it by the world through nurturing sincerity and certitude in the One who gives us the blessings of a heart in the first place?  Perhaps by looking at the material world and becoming desirous of its charms allows the one ailment that weakens the shield of certitude that protects the heart to enter and cause the heart to waiver and quake with fear.

Give up on chasing after the world and its charms.  Absolve yourself of petty desires, comforts and false hopes.  Live in the moment and soak in the magnificence, splendor and magnanimity of the Creator that manifests all around us.  Stop chasing after the light that you may trap it in a photo and let the light come to you.  God forbid that we don’t take care of our heart and protect it from becoming black and dead and thus killing the heart’s penetrating eye that allows us to see truth as true so that we may follow it and falsehood as false that we may abandon it. God Forbid!


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The Structure of a Photograph

The structure of a photograph is founded on light. It starts out with seeing that light and then building up from there.  Seeing the light however, is where most of the real work behind a photograph takes place.  Some say seeing photographically is inherent and can’t be taught.  I am not of that bent.  I think anyone can be taught how to make great photographs.  There are a number of skills that are required to make great photographs and all of those skill can be acquired.

Ephemeral Veil

Ephemeral Veil

Photography is writing with light and so it should go without saying that a photograph will convey something to the viewer.  What a photograph conveys will depend on the intent of the photographer.  No matter what the photographer wants to say, and whether the photographer knows it or not, every photograph is made from both a top-down and a bottom-up process.

Whether the photographer is conscience of the top-down process or not, it all begins with seeing light.  Something will catch the eye or interest of the photographer and causes the process to begin.  Is the light warm or cool, is it harsh or soft, is it diffuse or directional? What elements are illuminated by that light; lines, shapes, colors, textures? Spatial relationships begin to form between the graphic elements and the geometry of the image starts to take shape. At this point the photographer might consciously or unconsciously start to look at the scene from the aspect of isolation. How can what is seen be isolated from its surroundings or on the converse how can it be incorporated into its environment. This will prompt the photographer to start on a more technical path of choosing a lens to either limit the angle of view or expand it. Not only will the lens choice determine the angle of view but it will also dictate the perspective taken, that is where will the photographer stand to make the photograph.

Once the lens and perspective are chosen, the next decision, although technical in nature, has artistic consequences and this is the selection of the lens’s aperture. The technicalities of photography now start to emerge and lacking the technical knowledge will usually be the reason a photograph fails to convey the photographer’s intent. For now the photographer has reached the bottom of the top-down process.

Tailbone Falls - Early Winter run

Tailbone Falls - Early Winter run

Upon choosing a lens it must be focused and its aperture set to a given size.  It is at this point that the photographer begins the bottom-up portion of the photography process.  The bottom-up process is one of technical skill in working with the light itself – from determining how much light is available to how much to let into the camera and for how long.  And unfortunately it is at this very point that most photographers start the image making process and also where confusion and failure start.  It all begins with choosing the aperture, then based on the light available, the shutter speed is determined and coupled with the sensitivity of the capture medium, forms what is called an exposure.

The aperture of a lens is that physical parameter that will ultimately determine how much light will get into the camera to make the photograph a reality. A large aperture will let in more light than a smaller one. While a smaller aperture will, for that given lens, increase the depth of field and a large aperture will limit the depth of field. This property of optics, depth of field, is the perception of how many elements in the scene will appear to be in focus. As technically only one distance from the camera will actually be in focus – the distance focused to on the lens, all other distances closer to and further from the camera will not truly be in focus. The size of the aperture will either enhance the perception of focus or reduce it.

The shutter speeds determines how long light will be let into the camera to expose the light sensitive medium.  The shutter too has both technical and artistic consequences.  Where the aperture was concerned with the perception of focus, the shutter deals with the perception of time.  Time is an interval over which some action takes place.  The shutter speed chosen will either elaborate time by showing action occurring through the perception of motion-blur or remove time from a scene by freezing objects in the frame. With a fast shutter, in other words allowing light to enter into the camera for a very short amount of time, motion can be stopped and time frozen in that instant.  Conversely, with a slow shutter, one in which the lens is open for a very long time, any motion occurring in front of the camera will be captured as such and give the perception of action occurring.

So as the technical settings are set, the photographer still needs to be thinking about what he or she wants to convey in the photograph and how.  In addition to that, determining the right amount of light to let into the camera is of probably the most important step in the bottom-up process.  Determining this amount of light is what most call exposure.

Unfortunately it is the failings of understanding the basics of exposure, the very foundation of capturing the very light that caught the photographer’s fancy in the first place, that renders a photo unsuccessful.  It is here that the foundation of any photograph is formed.  By observing the light, measuring its intensity with a light meter and setting the tonality of the subject being photographed to a tone that comes as close to how the photographer’ eye sees it, the photographer can start building up the photograph so that it can convey his or her intent.  Once the tonality of the subject is assessed and set on a tonal scale where the ends of the scale are pure black and pure white now allows the selection of the aperture and shutter speed such that the tonality of the subject is rendered as seen in the resulting photo.  With the first photograph formed, the photographer can asses if it resulted in conveying what was originally ‘seen’, and if not variations in either the technical or creative elements will be made until the image is deemed successful.

Tailbone Falls - Winter Run

Tailbone Falls - Winter Run

The entire process could take moments, hours, days, months or even years to make one successful photograph of any given subject.  Learning the photographic process is a long term endeavor.  Learning how to make good technical photographs takes a person on a journey through the bottom-up process of understanding light as a physical quantity, learning how to measure it and control how much gets into the camera and how it will look in the final photo.  Learning how to convey what is seen, or even more difficult, learning how to see in the first place requires a person to be immersed in the light and look at it over and over and cognitively observe how it effects mood, emotion and state of mind.

It is a step by step process that can provide a lifetime of learning and enjoyment.  Taking it stepwise in concise classes or in an intensive immersion in the whole process with an instructor devoted to communicating with light is right way to proceed.  Organic Light Photography offers many such classes and workshops.  In addition if none of these offerings suit you, contacting us about what you want we can tailor instruction to your needs and if not we can recommend other fine instructors that can help you.  It all starts with you.

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