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Category Archives: Philosophy

I made the photograph below with a Tamron AF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di LD Macro, an inexpensive lens by any standard.  Pixel peeping would undoubtedly reveal that the image quality would not be quite on par with the same photograph shot with Canon L-series or Nikon ED glass.  Yet, to most eyes under typical viewing situations, an online or physical print of this daffodil would demonstrate more than adequate image quality.

The point is expensive glass is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition of good photography.  Photographs that move us are the result of a synergism between knowing how to meet the light, what to do with your camera when you get there, and sometimes just plain chance.

As a landscape photographer, I spend a considerable amount of time contemplating the notion of “landscape”.  This is not to say that I think exclusively about broad views of natural foreground elements framed by scenic backgrounds of mountains and sky.  I certainly think a lot about such images, but my vision of the landscape ranges from the the very narrow to the very broad.  Specifically, I conceptualize landscapes along a continuum of perspective which can be parsed into the following categories:

1.  Macro: This category is probably the farthest stretch of my definition of “landscape”.  Nonetheless, anyone who has ever looked through a lens+tube setup knows that entire landscapes can appear at the macroscopic level.

2.  Closeup: I envision the closeup shot as the tightest of all landscapes.  Essentially, making such a photograph is a recognition that one wishes to isolate a very specific element of that landscape.  I think the challenge is to do so in such a way that represents or hints at the broader landscape with two levels of depth (i.e., foreground or background included around the focal point object), or to intentionally avoid such a result with a single level of depth.

3.  Intimate Landscape: Some of the more evocative landscapes I have shot are intimate landscapes.  These are photographs of very near natural elements (e.g., a rock and few trees selected from a broader arboreal scene).  This category of landscapes typically includes two levels of depth (i.e., foreground and background).

4.  Landscape: This is the traditional conceptualization landscape shot.  I consider landscape photographs to encompass wide views and to ideally incorporate a full three levels of depth (i.e., foreground, middle ground, and background).  I think there is something of potentially significant power captured by the successful landscape shot in which the photographer, and later the viewer, becomes immersed in the perspective of the photograph.  The question of focal point is dependent upon the goals behind making the specific shot.

5.  Starry Landscape: I essentially visualize a starry landscape as a variant of the more traditional landscape in which the background is extended into a starry night sky and the perspective is angled up toward the stars.  This approach incorporates three levels of depth (i.e., foreground, middle ground, and background), but with the eye naturally drawn the the heavens.  Without doubt, I personally find this vision of the landscape to be the most invigorating to contemplate and the most challenging to effectively execute.

Note that these specific perspectives are not dependent upon lens focal length.  One might use a wide-angle or telephoto lens to make a landscape shot in the hills of the SF Bay Area.  Either lens will provide the same perspective, but the results will obviously look and feel differently.

In the end, I constantly remind myself that all lenses are potentially landscape lenses.

As the photo  illustrates, the precession of seasons does not quite move smoothly from the pristine white of snow to an explosion of vernal colors.  Meaningful change requires time.  Whether it be in a pool of water atop thawing ice, or within the thoughts and emotions of an individual, renewal is a process that often begins slowly before bursting forth with the potentiality of a future.

Pentax has just announced the 645D, a 40MP medium-format digital SLR slated for release in May 2010.  The anticipated price tag of $9,400 will pale in comparison to the approximately $30,000 required to obtain a Hasselblad H4D with 40P, 50MP, or 60MP back.  I agree with Brooks Jensen that there will eventually be a limit to meaningfully noticeable improvements in image quality from digital sensor technology.  However, cameras such as the 645D demonstrate that such a ceiling remains some way off.

Traditional medium-format photography relied on shooting 6×4.5cm frames (or some variant, e.g., 6x6cm, 6x7cm) on 120 film.  This resulted in a 4:3 frame ratio (cf. the 3:2 frame ratio of 35mm).  In contrast, or in complement, the Pentax 645D features a 44x33mm CCD sensor.  All three Hasselblad H4D models also offer the same 4:3 frame ratio, albeit with larger sensors.  More importantly, these digital medium-format cameras feature sensors with 6.0μm pixels.  These are larger pixels than available in 35mm digital cameras.  Couple with the size of the medium-format sensor, such large pixel pitch should result in far larger printed images free from the negative effects of diffraction than available with the best 35mm digital SLRs.  Of course, the same could be said of prints from medium-format film versus 35mm film.

What most impresses me about cameras such as the 645D, however, is neither their sensor size nor their pixel size.  Instead, I am intrigued by the blurring of the lines within what were historically considered discrete photographic formats.  The 35mm format was once the purview of the 36x24mm frame.  The 35mm format now includes not only the relatively rare cameras with 36x24mm “full-frame” digital sensors, but also those cameras with various APS-C and APS-H crop-format sensors which preserve the original 3:2 frame ratio.  There is also the increasingly popular Four Thirds digital sensor format which offers a 4:3 frame ratio in a more compact SLR body.  The medium format was similarly restricted to the realm of the 6×4.5cm or related frame.  Yet, the medium format now includes those digital SLRs with 44.2×33.1mm, 44x33mm, 49.1×36.7mm, 53.7×40.2mm, and similar sensors.

With the rapid development of digital sensor technologies (i.e., CMOS, CCD, Foveon), it appears as if the photographic formats are each becoming varied within their ranks.  Looking back at today 10 years hence, perhaps it will be determined that the greatest benefit to photography of digital sensor technology was its ability to deconstruct the traditional boundaries of format and photographer which reigned for so many years.

I just came across a quotation from Robert Louis Stevenson, author of my favorite poem.  I think his words nicely summarize my view of travel:  “There are no foreign lands.  It is the traveler only who is foreign.”

I realize that these comments come long after the release of the movie.  However, having just seen Avatar for the second time, I now feel  more competent to evaluate my own perceptions of the movie and the reasons thereof.  I  admit that I very much enjoyed both viewings of the movie.  As a scientist and nature photographer, I am struck by the sheer beauty of both the imagery and the implicit philosophy we observe on the fictional moon of Pandora.  I also wonder whether some members of modern society have forgotten that such real beauty exists on our own Earth, and that it does not necessitate an interstellar voyage to be among it, even if only for a brief moment.

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education demonstrates an interesting intersection of science, photography, and the potential social power of an open-source approach to knowledge as the property of all individuals.

I perceive travel as an act of study.  Travel to different environments, be they natural or cultural, provides opportunities for acquiring a broader perspective on self and the world.  Perhaps this is most true when one visits a foreign country, or when one leaves the city and spends time in or near wilderness.  Such experiences potentially serve to enrich the individual by challenging a priori assumptions about the norm.  As the Bard said through Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  How much more enjoyable these experiences are when a camera is part of the personal adventure.

There are those rare moments in one’s life when one is truly humbled beyond words, when there is an internal recognition for a fleeting moment of one’s infinitesimal place among the broader cosmos.  I have experienced such moments of awareness in select locales, such as standing amidst giant sequoias or viewing Denali on a clear day.  My experience is that seeing nature through the lens can either enhance or detract from the experience.  The camera can be a mean, or an end.  Quo vadis?

For me, photography is a method through which I more intimately and meaningfully come to interact with and know nature.  I am drawn to the intersection of science, technology, and nature inherent to landscape photography; I even experience too-frequent moments of “glass envy”.  Nonetheless, the equipment is secondary to the experience behind the lens.  After seriously pursuing the craft for the past seven years, I think I have finally evolved as a photographer to the point where having the camera with me no longer risks detracting from the experience of a natural environment or experience, but potentiates that environment or experience beyond what it would have otherwise been for me.  Having to learn to see through the lens has more generally taught me how to see what was always before me but hidden by my own lack of visual and cognitive awareness.  A sunset is no longer merely a beautiful event.  It is a visual and personal experience of understanding the interplay of timing, refraction, geometry, etc.  In other words, it is now an even more beautiful experience for me.

My goal is to create photographs that accurately represent my experiences in nature, or at least do so as best as I can.  Toward this end, I eschew the use of most digital manipulations.  This includes adjustments to such parameters as contrast, tone, saturation, or white balance.  Due to the limits of the Bayer array algorithm fundamental to CMOS and CCD sensors, I do adjust sharpness.  I might also push a stop or two with starry landscapes to compensate for an in-camera ceiling at ISO 1600.  My photographic ethos is grounded in the notion that any digital manipulations during post-processing should be done only to compensate for technological limitations of the equipment.  In my opinion, doing more might yield a beautiful photograph, but one that is truer to the wishes of the photographer than to the actual experience in nature at the time the light was captured.

My photographic vision has been strongly influenced by the works and writings of Galen Rowell and John Shaw.  Whereas John Shaw represents for me the pinnacle of technical perfection in nature photography, it is from studying the legacy of Galen Rowell that I have come to see the light, and not merely that which it illuminates.