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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!

Should You Hire A Photography Guide?

There are two types of outdoor photographers: those who need help getting to the right place at the right time and those who don’t.  If you are of the latter persuasion, you can stop reading now.  Really, I mean it…stop reading.  Okay, that’s better.  For the rest of you, let’s spend some time discussing just what to expect when you hire a photography guide.

The business of guiding outdoor photographers isn’t new.  However, in the past few years guiding has experienced significant growth.  I blame it on the digital revolution – everyone has a camera and almost everyone is a photographer.  I have seen guides advertised in Outdoor Photographer and all over the internet who are available to lead you on a private photo tour in just about every state.  But what can they do for you?

What Do Photo Guides Do and How Much Do They Charge?

What a guide does and how much they charge for their services varies tremendously.  One thing almost all of them have in common is that you can usually depend on them to lead you to the right place at the right time.  Some guides service only iconic locations while others will spend several days backpacking with you in remote and forbidding territory.  Some guides offer personal instruction, image critiques, portfolio reviews, digital darkroom tutorials, and more.  Guide fees are all over the board and may range from $150/day to more than $2,500/day with a prominent photographer.  Surely the more you pay the better the guide, right?  Nope.  Not even close.  In my research it seems that $300 to $500/day is the average going rate.  Generally speaking, paying more than that buys you the opportunity to rub shoulders with a heavy hitter.

How Do I Know What I’m Getting For My Money?

This is easy – just ask ‘em.  It’s your money and you deserve to know what you’re paying for.  Check out their websites for details about their services.  If you don’t find what you’re looking for there don’t hesitate to send an email or give them a call.  Ask questions.  What does the guide fee cover?  Park entry fees, transportation, meals/snacks?  Will they be available to answer your questions or will they show you where to set up your tripod and then disappear to make their own images?  It isn’t necessarily a bad thing if they plan to break out their camera.  I’ve often had clients tell me that they learned a lot watching me work.  But, I think it’s important for you, the client, to know what to expect on your guided tour.  Perhaps even more important, if you expect your guide to never leave your side you should tell them so.  Successful guides have mastered the art of managing expectations.

How Do I Know If The Guide I’d Like To Hire Is Any Good?

Check their website for testimonials.  Sure, they could be faked but at least it’s a good start.  If you’re still not convinced, ask the guide if you can contact a prior customer or two.  If he balks at that idea I’d have to wonder why.  Perhaps a phone conversation with the guide may help to ease your mind.  Spending all day with someone with whom you have a major personality clash pretty much sucks.  It sucks even more when you’re paying them.

What Will The Schedule Be Like?

Excellent question!  Most guides offer full or half day tours.  Find out what that means.  Does a full day tour mean you’re in the field from sunrise to sunset?  Will there be a break during mid-day?  I always build in a break to allow us both to recharge batteries (both literally and metaphorically), download images, eat and relax.  Not all guides do this.  If you need or want a break, be sure to relay that information to your guide.  On the other hand, if you expect to be in the field the entire day, be sure to tell your guide that, too.

Does “Private” Mean It’s Just Me?

Don’t automatically assume it’ll just be you and your guide.  Some guides only do small group tours.  It would suck to show up thinking you will have the guide’s undivided attention only to discover there are 2 or 3 strangers tagging along.  Often this information can be obtained on their website.  When it isn’t spelled out there, call or email them.

Is My Guide Legit?

This is a big one, in my opinion.  The Feds require that anyone operating commercially on their property do so with a permit in hand.  National parks, BLM, Forest Service or national monument – they are all regulated to some degree.  Find out if your guide has the proper permits.  Being permitted also means that he will be carrying liability insurance and most likely, a first aid and CPR certification.

While we’re on the topic, help your guide plan a productive and fun trip by telling him if you have any medical issues or physical limitations.  You don’t want your guide planning a lengthy hike if you aren’t capable of completing it.  A good guide can and will customize the tour to your interests and abilities.

Why Should I Hire A Guide?

I’m a pretty independent dude.  When I’m traveling somewhere new I research the living daylights out of the place until I have a pretty firm grasp on how to photograph the area.  It’s a time intensive process and I’m not always successful.  Usually, but not always.  I’ll be posting an article soon on what I do to prepare for a trip, so check back often so you don’t miss that post.

But, what if you don’t have the time or interest in doing all that research?  Hiring a guide can be a great way to ensure that you are maximizing your time on the ground at a new location.  Guides should be intimately familiar with the areas in which they operate.  This is important because as the seasons change, so do the photo opportunities.  For example, if you come to Arches in April to photograph the Three Gossips you might be really disappointed to find them completely in the shadow of The Organ until well after sunrise.  A knowledgeable guide would know this and be able to steer you in the right direction.

Although not a critical point, it’s always nice to work with a guide who is, on some level, a naturalist.  If he knows a little bit about the flora, fauna, history and geology of the area it will certainly make your trip more enjoyable.

A guided photo tour can be an excellent way to best experience a new area through your camera’s viewfinder.  With these tips in mind I’m confident you’re fully prepared to make the most of your private guided photo tour.  If you’re interested in learning more about my services, I invite you to visit the Moab Photo Workshops website.  Here you will also find a directory of reputable guides throughout North America.  Please note that I have not updated the directory recently and rates as quoted may have changed.

I love reading your comments!  If you’ve got something to add please take a moment to leave a comment.

Five Ways Photography Changed My Life

There was a time, many years ago, when my world revolved around being an outdoor athlete.  I was a rock climber, trail runner, backpacker, mountain biker, long distance hiker, canyoneer, kayaker and sometimes I would combine them all when doing adventure races.  I spent most of my free time training.  I was obsessed with going far and getting there fast.  I spent a lot of time in the outdoors but it went by so quickly that I rarely had a moment to enjoy a sunset or notice the coyote yipping in the distance. 

And then it happened.  I fell in love with nature photography.  I gave up adventure racing.  I spent more time photographing and less time training.  I stopped counting miles traveled each week and started counting rolls of film exposed.  Everything just sort of slowed down.

Looking back I realize that photography has taught me some valuable lessons.  I’ve learned that when you don’t train on a daily basis the size of your waistband increases.  Actually, I’ll blame that on age.  More importantly, I’ve learned a few things that are helpful to me as a member of the human race and I think they’ve made me a better husband, brother, friend and an all-around better person.

1) Have Some Patience - Through photography I have learned the art of patience.  I have learned that it is okay to slow down.  It’s not about the miles covered or the peaks bagged.  It’s about getting up early and sitting in the desert watching an entirely new day develop in front of me.  It’s about plopping down on a rock and waiting for the light to work its magic upon the landscape.  It’s about slowing down and enjoying a moment, whether it’s while you’re creating art or spending a few unexpected minutes with your family.  Life is entirely too short to spend it rushing from one place to the next.

2) Be Persistent - What would it be like if every time we took out our camera white puffy clouds filled the blue sky, dramatic light poured down over the landscape and an eagle glided through our frame?  Sure, at first, it would be awesome but after a while it would become really boring.  Okay, I admit – it probably wouldn’t.  But the reality is that we often have to visit a location over and over before Mother Nature feels we’ve earned the right to witness her awesomeness.  Those who persist will eventually be there when all the right conditions collide.  Persistence reaps rewards not enjoyed by those who are easily discouraged.  Know what you want and don’t be afraid to go after it with all you’ve got.

3) See The Light - Before photography consumed my life the only purpose light served was to illuminate the trail, rock or river before me.  My first “a-ha!” moment occurred in the Sonoran Desert outside Phoenix.  I was out for a trail run after work in the Squaw Peak Preserve when the setting sun backlit the translucent needles of a field of cholla cactus.  It literally stopped me in my tracks.  I stood there, jaw slack, staring at these beautiful cactus glowing in the late afternoon light.  How many times had I run or biked this trail and never had I noticed how beautiful they were?  I had only been concerned with keeping them out of my skin (not always successful).  For the first time I stood there wishing I was peering through a viewfinder.  Since that day I’ve had hundreds more moments just like that one.  Each and every one has been just as special as the first.

4) Don’t Neglect The Details - It’s difficult to appreciate a tiny wildflower or the beautiful texture of juniper tree bark when you’re flying by in the middle of a long trail run.  After moving to Colorado in 2002 I set a goal to spend more time developing my ability to find and photograph intimate landscapes.  In my pre-photography days I never would have slowed down long enough to study a stand of autumnal aspen trees  looking for the perfect balance of color, light and symmetry.  Photography helped me to discover that if you enjoy life’s little details you’ll be even more appreciative of successes on a grander scale.

5) Art As Therapy - The year 2001 was not a stellar one for me.  Early in the year I went through a difficult break-up, the events of 9/11 deeply affected me, my Mom passed away in November and I really didn’t enjoy my job.  I was sinking into depression and it seemed I was on a path spiraling quickly downhill.  I decided to move from Phoenix to Denver and use all the new free time associated with being single to immerse myself in photography.  Eventually, my mood improved.  It seemed that creating art was cathartic.  By the end of 2002 I felt like I’d come back from the brink of a place I’d rather never revisit.  Putting all my energy into art was a most intense therapy.  Now, when I need to clear my head, I head out to the desert to scout a new location or make a few images.  After a few hours I’m back in the land of the rational.

There are no accidents in life.  I never suspected that picking up a camera would change my life.  But it has, and I believe I’m a better citizen of the earth because of it.       

What have you learned about life through photography?  Continue the conversation by leaving a comment!

What’s Bloomin’ in Arches NP?

With the Sonoran desert wildflower bloom taking it’s last breath photographers are starting to look elsewhere for their fix of colorful flowers.  Weather around Moab has been strange, to say the least, and the wildflowers are just now starting to brave the crapshoot that is our current climate.  With temperatures hovering at 80 degrees one day and 60 the next plants, creatures and humans alike are all at a loss as to what to expect.

Today I wandered out to Arches NP for a sunrise shoot.  Along the way I stopped to record some of the early bloomers with my iPhone camera.  These photos have no artistic value.  They are for reference only so you’ll know what to expect if you show up in Moab tomorrow.  Don’t do that, though.  The nightmare that is the annual car show is in town and if you’re wise you’ll stay far, far away while doctors, lawyers and rednecks drive their hot rods up and down Main St. for hours on end, occasionally slipping into their teenage years as they light up the tires all the way across an intersection.  On a state highway.  Soooooo not legal.  Sooooo totally silly.

I should know the names of all these flowers.  Sadly, I don’t.  I can only name one of them.  If you’re a better naturalist than I you are cordially invited to share your knowledge in the comments.  And now, the snapshots.