Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Escape to a Warmer Greener World

Last week I left home all bundled up, walked through cold blowing snow, opened a door, and entered the warm verdant stillness of a forest of fig, lipstick and butterfly trees. In the understory grew bromeliads, bamboos, orchids, and plants I remembered from our yard in California long ago. It was a magical transition!
Bird-of-paradise awakened childhood memories. Photo by Betsy Jo Moore.
Betsy and I spent several hours in the Williams Conservatory (University of Wyoming), intent on improving our camera skills. We didn’t look at all that many plants, waylaid as we were by technicalities. But it hardly mattered—there still was so much to see!

All around were splashes of bright colors. Betsy captured them in beautiful flower portraits.
Photo by Betsy Jo Moore.
Photo by Betsy Jo Moore.
Photo of Betsy Jo Moore.
Meanwhile, I fell down a rabbit-hole into a wonderland of leafy abstraction.

Several years ago I blogged about abstract photographyPlants in the Abstract. Things haven't changed; it's still just as fun and satisfying. The abstract photographer looks at plants in non-traditional ways, seeking things like pattern, line, form and texture. It’s a fascinating experience, full of discovery. Immerse yourself in it, and you can escape whatever reality you’re currently stuck in.
This is obviously a plant. But high-lighted curving lines feel like the subject to me.
There was no shortage of patterns, curves, details and arrangements to capture with my macro lens (and tripod). It’s astounding how much I don’t see when I look at a plant, preoccupied as I am by the whole subject and its larger parts.
Bromeliad leaves.

Cactus areoles.

I entered a miniature Enchanted Forest …
… atop a giant barrel cactus!

The umbrella sedges (Cyperus alternifolius) looked like the ones we had in our backyard as kids. It was here that I took my only flower photos.
Flower head shot with macro as telephoto (100 mm).
Many tiny flowers in a cluster of spikes.
By making close carefully-framed compositions, I came away with a greater appreciation for the plants than my eyes alone would have provided. Will this ever be possible without a camera?
How to look closely—one of life’s persistent questions.

My escape didn’t end when I left the Conservatory. At home, I discovered more details after downloading the photos. I cropped profusely, and played around with post-processing.

Sometimes converting to black-and-white got rid of distracting color.

It was fun to experiment, even to the point of creating surrealistic images from subjects that were quite real. I was reminded of one of Ann McKinnell's recent photo tips (#4): “Give yourself permission to play! Sometimes you just need to allow yourself to experiment with new subjects and techniques without the pressure of making good images.”

Tuesday, January 19, 2016


The standing dead.

The Laramie Valley is part of the Rocky Mountains, 7000 feet elevation, far from any ameliorating marine effects. Winters are cold and long. What’s a lover of wild plants to do? Well … turns out plants are common right now, even herbaceous perennials and annuals! They're dead, of course. But if we look close, there's plenty of interest.
Musk or nodding thistle, Carduus nutans.
Plenty of plants to choose from.
I harvested a variety of dead plants, and brought them inside for macro portraits. As always, I saw things I hadn’t seen before. This time I was better able to capture them, as I now have a tripod.
In the early days, no photographer would shoot without a sturdy base, even though it sometimes meant hauling a heavy tripod a long way to a precarious perch. Early cameras took so long to collect enough light for detailed images that a photographer couldn’t possibly hold one by hand.
WH Jackson makes a view from Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park (ca. 1884); source.
In his early work in the American West, William Henry Jackson typically used exposure times of 5 seconds or more for "views"—landscape photos. Though "fast" shutter speeds of 0.5 seconds were possible for action shots, detail and beauty were paramount in making views, and long exposures were necessary.

Now our fast and clever cameras let us shoot hand-held in most situations, even for exposure times measured in seconds. In fact, some photographers are of the opinion that tripods will soon be obsolete.
“Between the much-improved high-ISO performance of modern imaging sensors and the excellent image stabilization technology available for most systems today, it would appear that we’re running out of reasons to use tripods anymore. After all, if we can shoot hand-held at shutter speeds as slow as 1.5 seconds and ISOs as high as 6,400 and still get great images, what do we need a tripod for?” Alvano Serrano
But there are situations where we need the stillness of a tripod—for example, in low light where a flash can’t be used, or for artistic long-exposure shots.
With exposure times of 5 seconds, William Henry Jackson’s waterfalls and streams were artistically blurred. Little Firehole Falls, Yellowstone National Park, 1874(?); source.

Two sessions of experimentation convinced me that shooting with a tripod is a hassle! (compounded by the challenges of macrophotography). I also decided it was worth it. With the camera on a firm foundation, I could carefully adjust settings and view results. A side benefit—I learned several camera features too.

Being so close to the subject, a macro lens produces a narrow depth of field, i.e. only a small part of the scene is in focus. This is not necessarily bad. Macros can create interesting compositions, for example a sharply-focused subject against a blurred background. But the depth of field can be too narrow to capture everything desired. In fact, insufficient depth of field is one of the two problems I’ve had with macrophotography (the other is poor focus—a tripod helps here too).

Many cameras have a mode dedicated to depth of field. In aperture priority mode (Av on my Canon Rebel), the aperture or opening for light can be adjusted to create less or more depth of field. This will be a smaller or larger f-stop number, which I know better than to try to explain. See A Tedious Explanation of the f/stop (only a little tedious).

Then I found I needed more light. But in aperture priority mode, how can I adjust anything else? The camera manual explained that I could still use exposure compensation, even in Av mode. Sure enough, it worked.

With the stillness of the tripod, I could look at settings in the LCD monitor, adjust them, use longer exposure times without worrying about camera shake, adjust depth of field to my taste, bring into sharp focus things I wanted to feature, and then press the button.
Abstract #1—showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa)
All this may seem complicated, with lots of details to remember—not something I enjoy. And this is just the simple stuff; there are many more options! But I like the results. After some early frustration, it became interesting and even fun. And that’s what we look for mid-winter in Laramie.

Milkweed pods—dry, open, empty. Most of their seeds have been cast to the wind.
Pod is about 9 cm long.

Abstract #2—Scotch thistle (Onopordum acanthium)
The pits once held seeds (technically achenes or cypselas).

A forest of phyllaries (bracts).

Nodding head of nodding thistle (also first two photos in post).

Dock, Rumex sp.
Dock’s winged fruit are about 4 mm across. The brown bulges are called callosities or tubercles, and are useful for identification.

What’s this lovely arrangement?
It's yellow sweetclover, Melilotus officinalis. Dried pods (legumes) are about 3 mm long; each contains a seed.

I wonder—how easy will all this be outside? My tripod can hold the camera as low as 4.5 inches above the ground. Will I be able to capture blooming flowers? (Yes … I’m dreaming of warmth, verdant growth, and bright colors!)
Pasque flower.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

"never before photographed"

“… the Tetons, never before photographed, now became of the first importance, so far as I was concerned.” (William Henry Jackson 1872; USGS)

In 1872, William Henry Jackson was on his third expedition with the US Geological & Geographical Survey of the Territories. They were returning to Yellowstone, which they surveyed the previous year. In the intervening winter, it had been designated a national park by a unanimous vote of Congress and the signature of President Ulysses S. Grant.

Jackson played a key role in designation, convincing Congress and the public that Yellowstone was special—that the fantastical stories of thundering waterfalls, boiling multi-colored springs, and scalding water shooting hundreds of feet into the air were true. For Jackson was a photographer, and photographs don’t lie.
Grotto Geyser, Yellowstone National Park. “The great amount of steam given off almost entirely conceals the jets of water.” (WHJ 1871; USGS)
The head of the Survey was geologist Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, a visionary. He saw great potential in the American West, and knew that photographs would show those at home what the West offered. In 1870, he recruited Jackson to accompany the Survey through southern Wyoming. He wouldn’t be paid, but would be provided a saddle horse, food, lodging (tent), space in a wagon for his belongings, and a mule to carry his gear on day-trips in search of photos. Finally, Jackson would have personal use of all negatives. The results were successful beyond expectations, both for Hayden (photos for his report) and for Jackson (photos for sale). Hayden appointed Jackson field photographer, a position he held until the Survey became part of the new US Geological Survey in 1879.

• • •

Photo-graphy—light-drawing—was still relatively new. It was only 50 earlier that Joseph Nicéphore Niépce made the first surviving photograph. “The image of objects is represented with a clarity, an astonishing fidelity, complete with myriad details and with nuances of extreme delicacy,” he wrote excitedly to his brother, “and I must say my dear friend, this effect is truly something magical” (Hirsch 2000).

Niépce had coated a small sheet of of pewter with bitumen dissolved in lavender oil, exposed it to the view from his window for hours, and then developed it in a mix of petroleum and lavender oil. The image was poor by today’s standards, uneven and blurred, but the future was clear. It was possible to capture light, and hold it for posterity.
View from Niépce’s window, ca. 1826-27. Source.
The early photos unleashed a powerful human desire for images—though expensive, they were hugely popular. Technology advanced quickly. Innovators came up with better light-sensitive emulsions and surfaces to hold them: silver-iodide on copper, sodium chloride + silver iodide on paper, nitrocellulose + bromide on glass. They converged on a general process whereby light produced a latent (hidden) image, which was revealed when the emulsion was treated with chemicals, i.e. developed. The result was a negative—a reversed image—from which multiple positive prints could be made at reasonable cost.

In the 1870s, the most popular medium by far was the “wet plate.” Wet plates were sensitive enough to capture detailed images in a reasonable amount of time (Jackson typically used exposure times on the order of five seconds for landscapes, known then as "views"). Most exciting—cameras now could be used in the field!
Hayden’s Cathedral in the Uinta Mountains. "Vast piles of purplish compact quartzite, resembling Egyptian pyramids on a gigantic scale …” (WHJ 1870; USGS).
While wet plates were the best system available for field photography, they were not convenient. A photographer made his own immediately before taking a photo. To avoid unwanted exposure, the plate had to be prepared in the dark, quickly placed in the camera and exposed before it dried, and then developed in the dark. In other words, a field photographer had to carry a dark room.
“The pioneer photographer of that time had to be something of a chemist as well as an artist and a mechanic also. He had to carry with him a kind of laboratory with many chemicals, trays, glasses, and other apparatus, for each plate must be prepared on the spot for every exposure.” (Unless indicated otherwise, all quotes are from Jackson and Driggs 1929.)
Jackson made his own portable dark room, actually a dark box:
“For the portable dark room I used a box measuring 30 by 15 by 12 inches. By careful conservation of space, the necessary chemicals and apparatus were stowed in this box. It was convertible into a dark room by attaching to it a folding frame covered with a hood of black and yellow calico, with a baglike opening for the head and shoulders. The arms were left free for the usual operations, which I generally performed in a kneeling position.”
In this position, he would pour a light-sensitive (and combustible!) thick syrupy solution onto a glass plate, and then tilt the plate back and forth to produce an even coat.

Jackson's dark box was only barely “portable.” With camera, dark box, glass plates, water keg and chemicals, his gear weighed on the order of several hundred pounds. Yet he was rarely deterred. On the Survey’s first trip to Yellowstone, Jackson was determined to capture an image of the spectacular Tower Falls, despite great difficulties:
“Rather than take the dark box down to the bottom [200 feet down], I worked from the top. Backing my plate with wet blotting paper, and wrapping the holder in a wet towel and the dark cloth, I scrambled and slid down to the rocky bed of the stream, with plate holder and camera in hand. After taking the picture, I had a slow, laborious climb back again, and reached the top out of breath in a wringing perspiration. Four round trips [i.e. four exposures] gave me the desired number of negatives, a full half day’s work …” 
Tower Falls, Yellowstone National Park (WHJ 1871; USGS).
In more hospitable terrain, a negative could be produced in about 45 minutes, and if multiple views were made from a single spot, the time was even less—sometimes as little as 15 minutes. In the badlands of southwest Wyoming, Jackson set a personal record, making 17 negatives in one day!
Blacks Fork badlands (WHJ 1870; USGS).
By 1872, views of the American West were in demand—the bigger the better. But it was impossible to make enlargements of any quality, so a photograph was only as large as the camera. On earlier expeditions, Jackson carried cameras measuring 8 x 10 inches and 6.5 x 8.5 inches (his compact!). In 1872, he added one that was 11 x 14 inches. The plates were too large for his dark box, so he put together a “dark tent.”
Jackson emerges from the dark tent to find a visitor! (sketch by Jackson, also a skilled artist).
Before reaching Yellowstone, the party split. Half went with Hayden by way of the route taken in 1871. James Stevenson led the rest of the group, including Jackson, through Idaho toward the southwest part of the Park. En route, Jackson and a small party made a three-day side trip to capture the first images of the Tetons. (They photographed the west side of the range; today most photos of the Tetons are taken from the east).
“… we had a glorious near view of the Three Tetons with the Grand Teton, 13,747 feet in height, directly in front of us. We remained here the greater part of the day making negatives—11x14, 8x10, and stereoscopic, in panoramic as well as single compositions. It was a perfect day, clear and cold, but with enough warmth in the sun’s rays to melt the snow in trickling rivulets on the southerly exposures, thus keeping up the water supply required for plate washing.” (While Jackson and an assistant took photos, the others gathered any water they could find—or produce by melting snow.)
The results were spectacular—clearly worth their struggles to reach the airy vantage points. “… troubles were soon forgotten as the glorious panorama opened up before us.”
The pioneer photographer’s workshop on the plateau west of the Tree Tetons. (WHJ 1872; USGS)
An enlarged clip from the photo above shows the detail that could be captured with the larger camera.
Click on image to view dark tent, box of glass plates, various lenses lower right, and other gear. William Henry Jackson is kneeling. Assistant Charles R. Campbell holds the dark tent.

When he joined Hayden's Survey, Jackson was only in his late twenties. He would live a long and active life, dying in 1942 at the age of 99. It’s mind-boggling to consider the progress in photography he witnessed. Even by 1929, almost anyone could capture an image for posterity. A photographer no longer had to be “a chemist as well as an artist and a mechanic also.”
“The days of pioneer photography, too, were brought to an end with the close of the seventies. A new era of dry plates, compact cameras, enlargements, films, and kodaks had come. With these handier appliances, during the half century that has since elapsed, I have followed my own lead in quest of strange and beautiful scenes in our own and other lands. None of the later experiences, however, can ever bring more delightful memories than those of the earlier days, when I was doing my part to help reveal the scenic and other wonders of our Rocky Mountain region to the world.”
William Henry Jackson in the field (NPS).

• • •

This post introduces a new project—improving my photography. Coincidentally, Anne McKinnell recently provided five tips for improving your photography. I'm starting with no. 2: “Learn your camera settings.” Sigh ... I've tried this before. But surely the details of aperture, shutter speed, focus, sensitivity and such will be easier to remember if I learn the basics and general evolution of the camera. And surely that will easier if I follow the great pioneer photographer, William Henry Jackson, on his travels around Wyoming.


Hirsch, R. 2000. Seizing the light; a history of photography. McGraw-Hill.

Jackson, William H., in collaboration with Howard R. Driggs. 1929. The Pioneer Photographer; Rocky Mountain Adventures with a Camera. Yonkers-on-Hudson, NY: World Book Company.

Prescott, J., ed. 1994. The Unspoiled West. NY: Smithmark Publishers.