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Simple Joys

Jackson Biking on Rusty Spur Trail

My son, Jackson Edge, rides a section of the Rusty Spur trail at Bar M near Moab, Utah.

Earlier this year my wife and I won a GoPro Hero 3+ in an online contest.  The little camera sat in a box on a shelf in my office until a couple days ago, when I finally removed it from its packaging, charged it and read enough of the instruction manual to get started.

Today I took my 5 year old son, Jackson, mountain biking on a singletrack trail near our home.  We’d ridden the trail numerous times before.  I knew that Jackson enjoyed speeding up and racing through one particular curved section of the trail, trying his hardest to kick up a “turkey tail.”  What’s a turkey tail, you ask?  It’s a rooster tail.  But when you’re a kid and your favorite movie is Free Birds, it’s a turkey tail.  So, I mounted our new GoPro on a chest harness and we set out for our ride.

As we approached the curve I pressed the shutter button and the GoPro started taking photos every half second.  Jackson and I sped through the curve and, upon exit, Jackson loudly proclaimed “I crushed it, Dad!”  We stopped and high-fived, shared a small bag of jelly beans and then cranked our way through the rest of the trail.

Back at home I flipped through all the images and found myself smiling wide when I got to this one.  There was Jackson, a tiny little turkey tail spraying off his rear tire.  It was a proud Dad moment, to be sure.  Perhaps even more important, though, was the realization that I’d made an image for the simple joy of it.  Not to print large and hang in my gallery.  Not to sell to an outdoor magazine or some tourism agency.  Just to have a photograph to help me remember and cherish a wonderful morning riding bikes with my best friend.

Bear Therapy in the Tetons

Grizzly bear #760 walks through a wildflower filled meadow in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

Grizzly bear #760 walks through a wildflower filled meadow in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

I’ve had an odd relationship with bears for all of my adult life.  Living in the Sonoran Desert during the formative years of my hiking and backpacking career it was common to cross paths with rattlesnakes.  Consequently, I respected the venomous creatures but harbored little to no fear of them.  Bears, on the other hand, were the thing of nightmares.  They were malicious creatures intent on dragging me out of my tent for a late night snack.  It wasn’t a matter of “if” it would happen, it was “when.”  My fear paralyzed me to the point that one night, while car camping in Flagstaff with an ex-girlfriend, I left our tent after hours of sleeplessness to lock myself in our truck.

Always on-guard with bear spray in the Wind River Mountains, Wyoming.

Always on-guard with bear spray in the Wind River Mountains, Wyoming.

I knew I wasn’t being rational.  I knew there wasn’t a bear in the woods somewhere that had heard through the grapevine about a tasty little dude in Phoenix.  I read every book I could get my hands on that dispensed bear safety wisdom.  It didn’t help.  Mind you, I’d never actually seen a wild bear.  But that didn’t matter.  Bears were put on earth to eat me and that was that.

Then, in 2000, on my first trip to Grand Teton National Park, I shared a trail with a bear.  Five bears, actually.  Five beautiful black bears who would forever change my relationship with the ursine world.  That same ex-girlfriend and I were hiking to Amphitheater Lake when two young women came around a bend in the trail, their eyes as wide as Frisbees, and breathlessly told us that a mama bear and two cubs were just up the hill.  They wasted no time passing us and continuing down the trail, in the opposite direction of the bear family.  I unholstered my bear spray, clicked off the safety and started slowly walking up the trail.

I saw the sow first.  She was standing dead center in the middle of the trail.  She slowly turned her head to look at us and her expression made it clear that we’d come close enough.  Only 50 yards stood between me and the most beautiful animal I’d ever seen.  We slowly backed away and when the bear was comfortable enough with our distance, she averted her gaze.  Just then, two little cubs wobbled out of the brush and gathered around Mom.  We watched the bears walk the trail uphill for a short distance and then disappear into woods.

I stood there in silence.  Neither of us spoke.  I holstered the bear spray and after some time, a few minutes perhaps, we resumed our upward trek.  Two switchbacks later we saw another bear throwing large clumps of earth as it dug for grubs or possibly roots.  It was right next to the trail, even closer than the first bears.  We stopped at our switchback and hikers coming downhill queued up at the one just above us.  We waited and waited and waited for the bear to finish digging.  Eventually, it did and we passed a dozen or so hikers headed downhill, all of whom had massive grins stretched across their faces.

We made it to the lake and enjoyed a hiker’s lunch in the sun before heading back downhill.  Very near the spot where we’d seen the sow and cubs we again found ourselves in the company of a bear.  This bear was young, maybe two or three years old, and surprisingly small.  It was standing on the trail above a woman who was taking a break just off-trail.  She was digging through her pack, oblivious to the fact that a bear was sniffing the air only a few feet above her head.  We didn’t want to yell at her as we were afraid it would spook the bear.  Instead, we stood quietly and watched, ever hopeful we weren’t about to witness a mauling.  The bear ambled away and began munching on vegetation alongside the trail.  A trail runner coming uphill ran right by the bear, close enough to smack it on the butt if he was so inclined, and rushed past us.  The bear didn’t flinch.  Again we waited for the bear to move and again the bear was living life on his own time.  We watched as several other hikers walked right by the bear and finally decided that maybe we should do the same.  So, we did.  And the bear didn’t budge.

Those encounters must have been therapeutic.  I no longer fear bears.  I respect them.  I hold them in the highest of reverence.  But I don’t fear them.  I don’t lie awake in my tent, panicking every time the wind rustles a few leaves.  I enjoy the quiet, fleeting moments in the mountains when I and a bear occupy the same meadow.  I understand now that bears, for the most part, do not want to make a meal of me.

Melissa, Jackson and I recently spent a few days in the Tetons.  On our first afternoon in the park we found ourselves trapped in the middle of a bear jam near Oxbow Bend.  Traffic wasn’t budging so we sat in the truck and watched a grizzly bear move increasingly closer to the road.  I grabbed my camera with 70-300mm lens attached and made a few images through the open window.  Park rangers soon arrived and somehow managed to get traffic moving in both directions.  Leaving the bear behind, we passed bison and deer, elk and pronghorn, before rolling into town for dinner at the Merry Piglet.

I saw the same bear the next morning.  It was a brief encounter and at much more of a distance.  But it was quieter.  The tourists weren’t awake yet.  Only a handful of die-hard wildlife watchers lingered on the side of the road with high powered spotting scopes and lenses that cost more than my truck.  We each enjoyed our time with the bear and when he disappeared into a willow thicket, I drove off into the clarity of a summer morning.

Autumn in Canyon Country Landscape Photography Workshop

Autumn in Canyon Country Photography Workshop

I’m thrilled to announce that this year I’ll be co-leading a landscape photography workshop in Moab with my friend and fellow photographer, Jason Hatfield.  Join us October 9 – 12, 2014 for an intensive three-day workshop in some of the Southwest’s most incredible red rock scenery including Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and Dead Horse Point State Park.  This is an exciting opportunity to learn from two passionate and experienced workshop leaders in one of the most desired locations in the U.S.

CLICK HERE TO REGISTER FOR OUR AUTUMN IN CANYON COUNTRY PHOTOGRAPHY WORKSHOP

The workshop will begin on the afternoon of Thursday, October 9 with a meet and greet in the lobby of our sponsor hotel, the brand new Comfort Suites in downtown Moab.  We’ll take a few minutes to get to know one another before departing for a group dinner at a popular local restaurant.  After dinner we’ll depart for an immersive field session at sunset at an iconic location in Arches National Park.

The next two days will be a whirlwind!  On Friday we’ll awake early to make the trek up to Dead Horse Point State Park to photograph sunrise over my favorite view in the entire Moab area.  Here the Colorado River does a u-turn 2,000′ below with an endless vista of cliffs and canyons stretching as far as the eye can see!  After our field session we’ll return to town for a short break before retiring to a comfortable meeting room at a local hotel for 4 hours of hands-on digital darkroom instruction.  We’ll utilize the latest versions of Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop software, as well as Nik Software plug-ins, to help workshop participants learn to “process” their RAW images for maximum impact.  An afternoon break will be followed by another field session at sunset at one of many dramatic vistas in the area.

Saturday’s schedule follows the same format as Friday’s with exciting new locations for the  morning and evening field sessions.  We’ll use some of our classroom time to do a group image critique, which is an exercise that workshop participants frequently find to be one of the most fun and valuable aspects of our time together.  Each participant will choose one or two images to share with the rest of the group.  Jason and I will lead a discussion about the images, helping each participant to understand how deconstructing a photograph leads to a deeper understanding of creating dynamic imagery.

On Sunday, we’ll photograph sunrise at a location not far from town.  This will allow us to return to Moab and wrap up the workshop early in the morning, giving all workshop participants the opportunity to begin traveling home at a reasonable time.

Below are a few questions I am frequently asked about my group photography workshops.  They should answer most of your questions but if not, please don’t hesitate to email me.  I’ll respond within a day or two unless I’m on the road with limited access to email.

How physically demanding is this workshop?  The longest hike we’ll do is the trek to Delicate Arch, which is 3 miles round-trip with an estimated elevation gain of 600′.  This is an optional location.  Those who don’t want or can’t make it to Delicate Arch will go with either Jason or me to another location that does not involve much physical effort.  Most of the locations we’ll visit are only a few minutes from a parking lot.

Where should I stay? We’ve negotiated a great rate for our workshop participants with Comfort Suites, the newest hotel in Moab.  Your rate is $138/night.  The hotel opens for business on June 10 and I will have information about making reservations at that time.

What gear should I bring? Rather than make assumptions about your gear, I’ll tell you what I carry every time I head out into the desert to make images.  I use a Canon 5D Mark III as my main camera and the following lenses in order of how often I use each lens: 24-105mm lens, 16-35mm lens, 70-300 mm lens, 15mm fisheye lens.  My 24-105mm lens is the workhorse and is probably used 70% of the time.  A sturdy tripod and reliable ballhead are absolutely critical.  The only filters I carry are a circular polarizer and a solid neutral density filter.

Do I need a laptop and if so, what software should I have on it for the classroom sessions? We will be using the latest versions of Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, as well as the Nik Software plug-ins.  Right now, the latest versions are Lightroom 5 and Photoshop CC.

Can I bring a spouse/friend/pet iguana?  Sure, but unless they’re a registered (paid) participant we can not allow them to join us in the field or in the classroom.  Primarily, this is due to our insurance requirements.

Where is the closest airport? There is a small, regional airport just north of Moab called Canyonlands Airfield.  Many people fly into Grand Junction, CO, which is about 1.5 hours from Moab.  The closest major airport is in Salt Lake City, 3.5 hours away.

What is the weather like in October? Spring and fall are generally very temperate, although Mother Nature reserves the right to change her mind.  Most likely, we’ll experience daytime temperatures in the 50′s and 60′s and overnight temperatures in the 30′s.

Do you have all the necessary permits to legally conduct photography workshops in and around Moab? Yes!  I have permits from Dead Horse Point State Park, Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and the Bureau of Land Management/Moab office.  Jason and I are both certified in basic first aid and CPR.  I also carry the required liability insurance.  I invite you to contact the local land management agencies to inquire about my permit status, if you’re so inclined.

Why should I take a workshop with you and Jason instead of photographer XYZ? Jason and I are passionate about helping other photographers break through creative barriers and learn to create images that meet their own, unique visions.  We will not utilize our time together to pad our own portfolios.  We’re there to work with you, not make our own images.  We’ll both bring our gear into the field but we only use it to demonstrate concepts or ideas to our workshop participants.  YOU are our #1 priority.  Every participant will receive personal attention and instruction during every field session.  Still not convinced? Take a look at my Trip Advisor page to see why former workshop clients give me a 5 star rating!

Registration is currently open.  Please visit my website to register for the Autumn in Canyon Country landscape photography workshop.

 

An Adventure Tyke in the Valley of Fire

Not too long ago my friend and fellow photographer/dad/outdoor dude Greg Russell wrote a touching blog post titled “Little Mentors“.  I encourage you to read his post but if you don’t have time, the general idea is that we as adults stand to learn much from spending time in nature with children.  They needn’t be your own kids but I strongly encourage you not to randomly adopt one on the trail. Kinda creepy.  At any rate, Greg’s post inspired me to write one of my own about a recent family adventure.

We spent Thanksgiving week camping, hiking and exploring in Nevada’s gorgeous Valley of Fire State Park.  It had been a while since we’d gotten out as a family for more than a few hours.  Work and other obligations have a way of invading our lives, conspiring to prevent us from spending time with those we love.  The weather was perfect and we shared the park with only a handful of other visitors.  My son, Jackson, whom we have affectionately dubbed the Adventure Tyke, is now 2 1/2 years old.  He has boundless energy and I wish it was contagious.  From the moment he wakes to the moment his blue eyes close he’s on the go, charging ahead at 110 MPH.

On our first full day in the park we hiked the 1.5 mile loop at White Dome.  The trail passes an old movie set, climbs and descends sand dunes and passes through a short but scenic slot canyon – a highlight of the trip.  Hiking a mile and a half in as scenic a place as Valley of Fire shouldn’t take more than an hour, even with multiple stops to make photographs.  Being that Jackson is never short on energy we decided to let him start the hike under his own power.  Two and a half hours later, we were back at the trailhead with one exhausted little hiker.  He surprised us by hiking the entire loop on his own!

Of course, everything we passed was of great interest to him.  He would stop and play in the sand, pick up rocks and make me carry them, point out prickly cactus and, in the slot canyon, he announced that there was a tiger just around the corner.  Yes, a tiger. Must’ve been the rare Mojave tiger that lives only in colorful slot canyons and toddler’s imaginations.  We did see a bighorn sheep scampering over a giant mound of slickrock, which Jackson thoroughly enjoyed.

As one who came into photography in the late 90’s from a ten year “career” in endurance sports, where the entire point is to move from point A to point B as fast as possible, it goes without saying that in the last twelve years I’ve gotten slower.  Becoming a photographer caused me to slow down and look at the world differently.  I learned to appreciate the small things – a play of light, tangled branches among colorful leaves or subtle reflections in a gentle creek – all things I would have rushed past several years ago.  Becoming a Dad has slowed me down even more.  When you’re 2 1/2 and outdoors exploring nature, everything is new and interesting and deserving of a few moments of your time.  At times it can be agonizing, like when you’re running late for sunset and you’ve got to stop to thoroughly inspect the 1,000th lizard of the day.  More often than not, it’s a blast.  It brings me mountains of joy to see my son interacting with and enjoying nature.  He wears a perpetual smile when he’s outside.  As a result, I do too.

We’ve all heard the phrase “kids are sponges”.  They’re also mirrors.  Everything we do and say, they do and say.  Jackson loves nothing more than to peer through the viewfinder of my camera and to press the shutter button, usually in rapid fire succession so it sounds like a machine gun going off.  He loves it so much we bought him his own camera, which you can see in the photo above swinging from his backpack.  He points that camera at anything and everything, and I’ll be darned if some of his photos aren’t pretty freakin’ good.  I’ll never force him into anything but if his interest in photography (and motorcycling!) persevere I’ll be the proudest Dad on the planet.  In the meantime, I plan on enjoying every last second in the great outdoors with my little Adventure Tyke.

If you’re a new (or not so new) Mom or Dad who wants to adventure outdoors with your kids, but you’re not quite sure how to start, my wife runs an awesome site called Adventure Tykes filled with tips and ideas to help motivate, inspire and teach you how to get started. Check it out!

Thoughts on Image Value and Effort

Rain Fingers Above the Bonneville Desert, Utah

How often do you see photos posted in online forums or hanging in a gallery, accompanied by a description wherein the photographer recounts the miles hiked, grizzly bears fought off, violent storms encountered and years of preparation before they were finally able to create the image before you?  I see it on a regular basis.  Usually, I have no doubt about the authenticity of the story.  Other times, the claims are a bit dubious.  Regardless, a recent experience left me wondering whether the effort expended to create an image is somehow tied to the value viewers place on an image.  Is a photograph made deep into an inhospitable wilderness more inherently valuable or artistic than an image where the greatest physical effort expended was simply pressing the shutter button?

The image you see above was not photographed in a wild and remote location.  I didn’t backpack 30 miles wearing a 100 pound backpack in stinging rain with lightning crashing all around.  No, all I did was pull to the side of I-80 so my son could go pee.  I saw potential in the cracked mud, mountains and ominous sky so I casually strolled to my truck (in flip flops) where I reached in, grabbed my camera and tripod, then walked 30 feet to the very spot where this image was made.  My biggest challenge was wrangling a persistent 2 year old who was intent on peering through the viewfinder and making his own photo while I tried to nail the composition before the fast moving storm in the distance was upon us.

I posted this image on flickr and, to date, it has received 793 views, 41 favorites and 21 comments after flickr added it to the explore page.  If you’re familiar with flickr you’ll understand that 800 views is nothing compared to what truly popular images receive.  For me, it’s a bunch.  I didn’t mention that I made the photo mere feet from a busy interstate with cars and semis whizzing by at 80 MPH.  I wonder if I had, would the photo have received so many likes and comments?

What are your thoughts?

Pixels Vs. Prints: Which Do You Prefer?

Until last year I had never enjoyed the thrill of making my own photographic prints.  When I needed a print, I’d send off a file (or slide) to whatever lab I was using at the time and they’d ship the print directly to me or my client.  With only a few exceptions my image viewing experience consisted of staring at a photo on a computer monitor.

Then, I bought an Epson Stylus Photo R2880 printer and everything changed.  If that sounds like a dramatic statement – it is.  It’s also quite true.  I started making my own prints.  Whenever I wanted.  On whatever paper I wanted.  It didn’t take long and I was addicted to the smell of fresh ink on photographic paper as a new print rolled off the printer, landing ever so gently in the catch tray.  Is there a difference between viewing an image on a computer monitor and holding an actual print, that you made, in your hands?  You’d better believe it.

As an artist I like to have complete control over my work from start to finish.  While it is true that you maintain a degree of control when you do all the post-processing on your photos before sending them off to a lab, you’re really not closing the loop.  The ultimate control comes when you conclude the image making process by crafting your own print.  Today’s inkjet printers are capable of producing professional quality archival prints that rival and, in my opinion, exceed those made using more traditional methods like Cibachromes.  They’re sharper, more detailed, just as colorful and can be made using a diversity of papers.

While difficult to quantify, there is a certain pleasure and satisfaction in handling an honest to God hand-crafted print.  It is a tactile experience.  You feel the weight of the paper, the texture.  Unseen details emerge.  Perhaps you feel pride in the knowledge that the print you are holding was born of your own creativity, and that without your vision and skills it would cease to exist.  I get none of this from viewing an image on a computer monitor.

I’ve also noticed that people react differently when viewing my photographs in print.  On the computer (or iPad), they quickly flick through the images.  When I hand over my portfolio book I’ve noticed that they linger on each image.  They don’t madly flip from one page to the next.  Do people, even non-photographers, appreciate a fine art print more than they do an image on a screen?  It would seem so.

Escaping the Crowd Mentality at Colorado’s Maroon Bells

So there I was, standing on the shore of Maroon Lake on a chilly autumn morning in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.  To my left, about a dozen photographers were lined up with their lenses pointed at the Maroon Bells, which towered over my right shoulder.  I had chosen a spot I’d scouted the evening before, one that was away from the small but growing crowd of shutterbugs.  The morning was calm and the twin pyramidal peaks couldn’t have been reflected any clearer in the perfectly still lake.  I was about a week early for prime fall colors but there were plenty of golden aspens decorating the hillside below the Bells.

Just as the sun began to rise a light breeze rippled the water, destroying that crystal clear reflection.  I’d been to the Maroon Bells to photograph fall colors once before, in 2000.  I had no idea what I was doing then and every one of my photos…well, they sucked.  They sucked bad.  And they were shot on print film.  I’d wanted to return and now, 10 years later and with a little bit more talent behind the lens, here I was.  And the wind was ruining the whole damn moment.

As shutters whirred to my left, I made exactly two exposures of the celebrity peaks before me.  When the wind failed to abate I turned around to check the light on Sievers Mountain.  As I did, I caught a glimpse of a little frosted red plant growing low to the ground and surrounded by a group of it’s less colorful siblings.  Oh mama, this is good!

I grabbed my tripod and camera and ran (I may have skipped in joy, I can’t remember) to the little plant.  There I lowered the tripod and pointed the lens straight at the ground as I worked out a pleasing composition.  The landscape paparazzi stole a glance every now and then as they made exposure after exposure of the Bells.  I made a few images, packed up my gear and started back down the trail to my waiting motorcycle.

I still don’t have a great photo of the Maroon Bells in autumn.  What I do have is a photo that will likely never be replicated.  I have the satisfaction of knowing that when it appeared Mother Nature wasn’t cooperating, she was actually offering a gift to those willing to accept it.  I’m proud of this photo, but I’m even more proud that I was able to adapt to the conditions I was offered and come away with an image that only I saw.  When everyone else was single-mindedly machine gunning exposures of the same thing as the next guy, I was busy creating a truly unique image.  It’ll always be a reminder of my growth and vision as an artist.

Frosted Fall, Colorado

The Beckoning Desert

Over the last few days I’ve spent hour after hour sitting at my desk staring at the computer while processing images for my redesigned website.  My new gallery structure consists of four portfolios: New Images, Adventure, Desert and Mountains.  As I worked through hundreds of images one thing became abundantly clear: I am a desert rat.

I was born in Los Angeles, where I lived for the first six years of my life.  After that we moved to Phoenix for a year, then Atlanta for six years, then back to Phoenix.  The day after high school graduation my Mom and brother moved back to Georgia.  I stayed in the desert.  I spent eighteen years in Phoenix, and I still consider it home.  In 2002 I decided it was time for a change and I moved to Denver.  Rocky Mountains, here I come!  No more oppressive heat, thorns in my mountain bike tires or rattlesnakes at my feet.  That lasted three years.

What happened next was kind of a whirlwind.  I got laid off from a job I’d held for 13 years, got married, took a 4 month road trip throughout the West and finally settled in Moab.  Another desert.  A high desert, but a desert just the same.  We’ve been here four years this month.

Clearly, I’m drawn to the desert.  Wide open spaces, hundred mile views, deep blue skies, cactus and canyons and coyotes – they’re all here.  Not to mention monumental sunsets, wildflowers eking out a brief but glorious existence from the scorched earth, sand in my ears, sun on my back and those moments of pure serendipity when I stumble upon a ruin left behind by the ODR’s - Original Desert Rats.

I suspect I’ll always run to the mountains when I can no longer bear the summer heat.  Chances are I’ll even move away from the desert, most likely back into the Rockies.  There I’ll dream of the desert while napping next to an alpine lake.  Mid-winter, when the snow is flying and the temperatures are diving, I’ll escape to warmer climes.  Back to the cactus.  Back to the sunsets.  Back to the desert.

Please Make A Donation To Benefit Slain Officer Travis Murphy’s Children

In Valor There Is Hope

On Wednesday, May 26 Officer Travis Murphy with the Phoenix Police Department responded to a suspicious vehicle report.  Upon arrival to the area he and his partner split up to search for the suspect.  Officer Murphy located the suspect, shots were fired and Officer Murphy was struck several times.  He was rushed to a local hospital in a police vehicle where he was pronounced dead.  Officer Murphy was 29 years old.  He is survived by his wife, a 2 year old daughter and a 2 week old son.

An account has been established in his name at Wells Fargo for the benefit of his children.  Donations are accepted at any branch, whether in or out of the state of Arizona.  Please consider making a donation, no matter how small, to honor Officer Murphy’s dedication to duty, community and courage, and to thank him and all other law enforcement officers for the sacrifices they make on a daily basis.  I am making a small donation for my son, Jackson.

EOW: May 26, 2010  RIP, Brother.

Tripods on the Edge

I seem to be on a tripod kick lately.  I’ll continue that theme with what I hope will be a fun exercise with lots of involvement from you, my loyal blog readers.  The other night, while my tripod and I were perched in a precarious position about 40′ off the deck and literally on the edge of a cliff, I got to thinking about all the crazy places my poor old Gitzo has been set up.  I took a photo of it living la vida loca and am including it here for your amusement.  I’m also including the photo I made while teetering on the brink.  Was it worth the risk?  You betcha!

Here’s where the real fun begins.  Let’s see a photo of you and/or your tripod in a hairy situation.  Maybe it’s the edge of a cliff or waist deep in pounding surf.  Whatever, wherever – let’s see it!  You’ll have to post a link to the photo somewhere since you can’t upload photos directly in the response fields.  That would be cool, though.  Be sure to give us a little description, too!