Oct 30, 2008

Tony Hillerman, 1925-2008

From my vantage point along the ancient dike, the Sun had dropped below the western horizon, casting long shadows down its backside. Yet, direct sunlight was reflecting from Ship Rock. A slight front was trending southeastward from Utah, up north past Four Corners. Highest cirrus clouds, seeming to consolidate the eye, jaded from Ship Rock's beauty, trailed to the edge of the world.

The basalt dike, Mother Nature's bold brickwork wall, trending from the upper right edge toward distant Ship Rock, acted as an arresting lower frame for our image. Magic Hour's shifting sunset pastel lights, some direct, some reflected, add a softer, evocative upper element.

Ship Rock, that ancient almost Gothic spires lit by the setting Sun's golden hues, assists with the same silent wonder, bears prolonged silent witness to man's wanderings across this dry, semi-arid desert. The distant Roman nose shape of Sleeping Ute Mountain is another famous, dominant Four Corners landmark.

Tony Hillerman Memorial 1925-2008

"I love the place," Tony Hillerman wrote of vast tribal lands that span the northeast corner of Arizona and straddle the borders of New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. "I need only drive west from Shiprock into that great emptiness to feel my spirit lift."

Over 10 years ago, Hillerman penned The Fallen Man

They could see the snowcapped top of Mount Taylor looming over Grants, New Mexico, about 80 miles to the east, perched on one of relatively few outcrops of basalt in what Ship Rock climbers call Rappel Gulley. On the way up, it was the launching point for the final hard climb to the summit, a slightly tilted but flat surface of basalt about the size of a desk-top and 1721 feet above the prairie below. If you were going down, it was where you began a shorter but even harder almost vertical climb to reach the slope that led you downward with a fair chance of not killing yourself.

Whiteside slid along the wall, getting closer. He was moving slowly along the cliff, body almost perfectly vertical, toes holding his way on perhaps an inch of sloping stone, his fingers finding the cracks, crevices, and rough spots that would keep him balanced if the wind gusted. He was doing the traverse perfectly. Beautiful to watch. Even the body was perfect for the purpose. Just bone, skin, and muscle, without an ounce of surplus weight, moving like an insect against the cracked basalt wall.

And 1000 feet below them - no, a quarter of a mile below him lay "the surface of the world." Almost directly below, two Navajos on horseback were riding along the base of the monolith - tiny figures that put the risk of what Whiteside was doing into terrifying perspective. If he slipped, Whiteside would die, but not for a while. It would take time for a body to drop 600 feet, then bounce from an outcrop, and fall again, and bounce and fall, until it finally rested among the boulders at the bottom of this strange old volcanic core.

It was late afternoon, but the autumn sun was far North and the shadow of Ship Rock already stretched southeastward for miles across the tan prairie. Winter would soon end the climbing season. The sun was already so low it reflected only from the very tip of Mount Taylor. Eighty miles away early snows already packed the higher peaks in Colorado's San Juan's. Not a cloud anywhere. The sky was a deep dry-country blue; the air was cool and, a rarity at this altitude, utterly still.

The silence was so absolute one could hear the faint sibilance of Whiteside's soft rubber shoe sole as he shifted a foot along the stone. A couple of hundred feet below them, a red-tailed hawk drifted along, riding an updraft of air along the cliff face.
Whiteside moved, and stopped, and looked down.
"There's more honeycomb breccia under the overhang," he said. "Lots of little erosion cavities. It looks like some pretty good cracking where you can see basalt." He shifted again. "A pretty good shelf down about _"

Silence. Then, Whiteside said, "I think I see a helmet."
"My God!" Whiteside said. "There's a skull in it."
Tony Hillerman, 1996

Over the past 20 years, I've read and reread Hillerman's fascinating novels of the Four Corners. I was deeply captivated with Tony's description of Skinwalkers, Navajo tradition, and the land he so deeply loved. At times, cassette tape players spun breathtaking tales of Leaphorn and Chee as I trekked repeatedly into those beloved wilderness lands Hillerman brought to life in his novels.

Tony... your full life, your incredible ability to tell stories, your writing - I'm simply much the better because you took me far beyond just the land, invested me in the spiritual, and deeply intrigued me with Navajo myth, tradition, and mystery.

A week ago, I captured this HDR image of Ship Rock, knowing then it was very simply one of my better efforts. After Hillerman's recent passing, I found a deep, compelling need to complete the image, whose stories so helped invest me in our gorgeous Four Corner myths and legends.

I dedicate this gorgeous Ship Rock image to you!
"I need only drive west from Shiprock into that great emptiness to feel my spirit lift." Tony, I truly understand…
I suspect your spirit may have joined that of other Navajo spirits atop Ship Rock... may you continue in hozh√≥. May you walk in peace, harmony, and beauty… !

Oct 20, 2008

Ship Rock

Ship Rock Four Corners New Mexico

Places that really strike me have features in common. Harsh powerful grandeur, graduations of colors, tortured eroded shapes…
All are empty and lonely. They invoke a sense of both space and strangeness. All have a fierce inhospitality, an infinite variety of desolate beauty…

Man is not himself only, but a changing pattern of immediate experiences. He has all he sees; all that flows to him from a thousand sources; half noted, or noted not at all except by some sense that lies too deep to name. He is the land, the lift of its mountain lines, the reach of its dusty, dry valleys, the subtle delicacy of its pastel evening colors. If there is in this country of his abiding, no more than a single resplendent color, such as the splendid wine of sunsets built along Ship Rock, he takes it in and gives it forth again in directions and occasions least suspected by himself, as a manner, as music, as his wind song, as a prevailing tone of thought, as the line of his camera’s eye, and, finally, the pattern of his personal growth.

This sense, always at work in Man, takes up and turns into beauty the stuff of his sensory contacts. It works so deeply in him its only notice of perpetual activity is a profound contentment in the presence of the thing it most works upon.

By land, I mean all those things common to a given region: flow of prevailing winds; legends of ancient life; and the scene ~ above everything a magnificently shaped and colored scene. Operating subtly below all other types of adjusted experience, these are things most quickly and surely passed from generation to generation, marked in the face of all daunting or neglectful things a land can do to its human inhabitants, by that piece of inward content, the index of race beginning.

By ancient life, I mean both planetary origin and life lived on the land. Ship Rock was formed as the throat to an ancient volcano 30 million years ago. A volcanic ray - thirty or forty feet high but only about three feet thick - wanders like the Great Wall of China southward from Ship Rock. Molten magma squeezed up through the cracked earth. Up the wall to the north, the core of old Ship Rock volcano rose a thousand feet against the sky, like a free-form version of a Gothic cathedral. Gothic, too, was the color — the stone reflecting soft sunset umbers. Balanced on the wind just over the wall, a red-tailed hawk hunted a rodent to kill. A million years of frost and heat cracked this dike as chunks have fallen out.

Before that, from 700 AD to ~ 1300 AD, the Anasazi lived all over this land. Their time honored legacy of remarkable stone dwellings is legendary!

I would want Ship Rock to look exactly like this. The Navajo call it Tse’ bit’ a’i – Rock with Wings. What about deeds done by Monster Slayer here in the time of Navajo myth? Monster Slayer, climbing the vertical stone of Ship Rock toward the nest of the Winged Monsters to kill them and make this landscape safe for the Navajos. Monster Slayer, at the nest, taught the Monsters' chicks to become the eagle and the owl. Monster Slayer rescued from his impossible perch by the sacred Spider Woman.

On a day I most like to remember, gusting wind pressed me against the dike’s west wall. This wind was advance guard of a front sweeping eastward out of Arizona and Utah. It bombarded Ship Rock with long tendrils of cirrus clouds against blue sky, sending dust devils skittering across the prairie. Ship Rock, the dike, and sunset's pastel hues provide a truly evocative memory of the West.

It’s been such a deep pleasure to read Hillerman and traverse his Beloved Land! Adapted from Tony Hillerman’s consistent influence on the Southwest; his Spell of New Mexico is well known for its portrayal of New Mexico’s contribution to the Four Corners. Mary Austin, cited in Spell, wrote a provocative piece on man which gave me much pause for thought.

Oct 14, 2008

Taking Stock…

Well, our exciting 2008 Kodak International Balloon Fiesta is done; some 970 14-bit raw images resulted.

2008 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta Haunted House Pano

One of the highlights was shooting the Haunted House at sunup when sharp colors reigned!

Sounds like an easy go; but, there's some work to be done between capturing the raw image and writing a blog workflow documentary.
We go through each image, delete out-of-focus or bad compositions, insert key words, pick our competition and special shape images for panoramas, create the panoramas, and, finally, end up with our Picks and keepers.
Sound like a handful? After four years of digital photography, where I ignored such seeming trivia, experience taught me _Do It Now_. I'm tired of looking for the same image out of many thousands and not being able to quickly find it.
Lightroom's Library module is skillfully designed to quickly facilitate going from an initial raw image, sharpening, adding contrast, and camera profile as development presets , putting in the copyright, and adding first-order keywords during import. In short – get your images into colorful DNG format, then begin to search for those images your client wants, images you'd submit for competition, and exotic special shape panoramas.

When all was said and done, 970 images became 825. Some of those results were Photoshop PSD panoramic files. I built collection sets for several categories, consolidated all Picks into 80 images, and came up with 17 Keepers. I use Flags and Collection Sets to discreetly work my way through images, throwing away out of focus and bad compositions immediately (hitting the X key), then carefully choosing between two similar shots in picking the best one (hitting the P key), then finally began the consolidation process using Quick Collections. If I've chosen either P or X in error, U undos that temporary choice.
To find keepers, I went through all Picks, and for each one I liked, I hit the B key to place it in Quick Collections, before renaming that quick collection to the Keeper Collection Set.
Keyboard shortcuts are an workflow important element; perhaps we'll deal with them another time...

Dawn lift-off of special shapes is an exciting aspect of Balloon Fiesta. I found a way to stand slightly above the crowd, did a handheld 3 shot pano pivoting around the nodal point of the lens, imported and identified the three raw shots as DNG's in Lightroom, then submitted them to Photoshop CS3 to make a pano. When the pano came back into Lightroom, I used the Angle tool in the Crop function (Develop module) ~ Voilà, you've got a Haunted House pano.
Timewise - import took 20%, pick 75%, in CS3 pano time 5% f- or our delightful Lightroom romp to this blog. Images, catalog, and previews required 12 GB of space. Now, if I'll just go back and keyword some prior 13,000 images, one bite at a time, I'll be caught up...

BTW ~ with several weeks ahead shooting natural wilderness landscape and Anasazi ruin images at dawn and dusk, honing my skills on this workflow will definitely provide more time for my shooting than dull processing. Isn't that the real deal for any avid digital shooter?

Oct 11, 2008

Fired Up Too Chase Crewing

A week of chase crew activity at the 2008 Kodak International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque garnered some really neat action shots.  From before dawn till after dark, for the chase crew, highlight events are characterized by competitions and glowdeos.  In between, you get to photograph and take part in other exciting fiesta activities.

For me, one afternoon's Glowdeo became quite a highlight...

Just clouds setting over the Sandia's marked a wonderful evening.  The balloon was laid out, the fan is working hard, and soon, Fired Up Too will begin to stand proud.

2008 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta Laying Down
These Connecticut gals are volunteers helping us put up the balloon.  One of them was an amateur photographer who really liked David's G3 iPhone display of remarkable nature posters.

2008 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta Glowdeo fan
With faint changes of sunset reflecting off the clouds, the crew has stabilized #254 as onlookers watch.

2008 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta Glowdeo Up
As you can see, Fired Up Too is standing; some balloons have yet to be inflated for balloon glow.

2008 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta Glowdeo Lit
But we're clearly not all here just for balloon glow!  Our pilot, Michael Marx and his wife Becky of Dallas, have been avidly competing for several years.  He either tosses a flag at a target or catches a ring from pole (they had a Honda Pilot as a prize in one competition).  In either case, it's no mean task; between all the balloons and often conflicting winds, it can be quite a potentially dangerous chore.

2008 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta Competition
Our balloon competition image was shot as Michael and Becky came in on the last calm morning before a weekend storm arrived.

As for me, this is my first chase group experience.  With early morning and late evening hours, I was allowed to come on the field for each event, passing through the Northgate as chase crew.  Besides walking nearly 40 miles in 10 days, I'd lifted and prodded balloons, watched events, and just generally wore myself out...

I'd like to thank Michael Marx, Becky Marx, David Lyons, Leo Ruiz, Roxy Ruiz, Alan Baldridge, and Wanda Baldridge for their fine Texas companionship (oops, one of them is from Tennessee) during this spectacular photographic event!

David and I will be shootin’ in the Four Corners for the next few weeks…

BTW, all images in this particular blog used the DNG conversion with presets from the last blog.  They were simply saved to JPEG files for rapid blog presentation. 

Oct 10, 2008

2008 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta Glowdeo and Lightroom 2 Presets

2008 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta Glowdeo

Kodak's International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque presents the professional photographer with interesting problems.  You're on the chase crew; you've got balloon competitions and glowdeo (all balloons light up at night) camera time as well.  So, how do you process some 500 raw images a day in the middle of all this chaos?

Enter Lightroom; injest your images, back up, prepare them with presets, pick your keepers, then use a few brush changes, save your file (s), and you're ready to quickly prepare your blog.  But first... let's talk about chase crew duties.

When you're on a chase crew, you're on the balloon field by 5:45 a.m.  You set up the balloon; as soon as it lifts off, you shoot all balloons nearby, then jump in the truck to go find them and reload the balloon - after a late breakfast, it's time to process images and catch a quick nap.

Glowdeo is the Fiesta’s 'Really Big Show!'  After importing morning images, you go back on the field at 6 p.m., set up the balloon for the evening show, then when burners start firing, go off and shoot more images.  When glowdeo is over, you repack the balloon about 9 p.m.  Once again, process recent images before falling asleep.  After all, you got to leave for morning at 5:30 a.m. ... imagine a week of chasin'!

Oops, you're always playing catch up to get cards downloaded, images imported with presets, copyright, and back up to just be ready to shoot that next exciting balloon event.  Let's show some Develop Settings tricks during raw image import in Lightroom which cut down on workflow.  What if you could see a glowdeo image needing only a little touch up to make a positive impact on your audience.  Let's talk about how to do that...

DSLR cameras are designed to produce raw files without sharpening.  They usually look flat and pale.  Adobe has just released beta versions of camera profiles with 'true' color for leading DSLR's.  If you combine both camera color and landscape sharpen presets in Develop mode, working DNG files (Adobe’s Digital Negative) will look closer to your final touch up.  That's a considerable time saving based on two features; you don't have to sharpen or get colors right for your particular camera.  Lightroom can do this job automatically. 

Our workflow makes a preliminary file which looks like a JPEG - but has other distinct advantages.  On import, Lightroom provides inclusion of EXIF and copyright metadata, as well as keywords on import.  You see a sharp, real color on first examining images to pick keepers.  You shoot and save 14 bit images for enhanced shadows and highlights.  You also reduce file size perhaps 10% with raw file included in the DNG.

2008 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta Glowdeo raw

Here’s the raw image from our shoot.

For our 'keeper' (top), in addition to sharpness and camera profile presets, we enhanced Exposure, Blacks, Clarity, and Vibrance a bit in the Basic tab.  At 1:1, noise was dominant in the sky.  In the Detail tab, increasing Luminance to 92 reduced noise.  At blog scale, you can't see these changes; at 1:1, they're really quite apparent.

In toto; early preparation of imported images provides appetizing colors, sharpness, and keywords to find and quickly aid ‘keeper’ decisions.  Final work up is speedier; you can work through individual bunches of images while Lightroom imports ahead of your choosing keepers.

Now, if it were as easy to write a cogent blog…
Isn't moonrise a nice touch?

Oct 3, 2008

Tit (Tips) for TAT...

Sandia Sunset

Sandia Sunset
© Joe Bridwell
Several years ago, I shot a Sandia sunset as a point-and-shoot JPEG. Highlights seem blown out; the blue sky is pale.  As software capabilities progress, it often pays to revisit such shots.  Let’s see how the Target Adjustment tool (TAT) from Lightroom 2 can enhance clouds.

With advent of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 2 and CS4, there's been lots of hype in the online video tutorials world about local, nondestructive gradient filter and adjustment brush tools.  For landscape digital photographers who love Magic Hour, this translates to the gradient tool and adjustment brush which can create truly spectacular sunrises and sunsets.  So, you might ask, "Did Adobe hide any other really neat tools somewhere?"

Yes, they did; it's called the Targeted Adjustment tool.  Or, as Scott Kelby says, "TAT, for short."  The TAT is that little round target-looking icon on the top-left corner of the Tone Curve panel in the Develop module.  It looks like the TAT portion of this image.  When you move your cursor over it, two triangles are added to the cursor cross - pointing up and down.  The cross samples the image portion; the triangles modify the Tone Curve.

When you click on that little target icon, your cursor changes to the cursor seen here.  This remarkable tool lets you interactively adjust the Tone Curve by clicking-and-dragging it right within your photo.  The crosshair is actually where the tool's change is located - the target with triangles is there just to remind you which way to drag the tool.  This chosen point is also reflected in the Tone Curve itself as a circle.

TAT tool Lightroom 2

TAT really strengthens your ability to make subtle Tone Curve adjustments.  When you look at the tone curve, you'll see two things:
1.    A point on the curve were the tones you're hovering over are located.
2.    The name of the area you're adjusting appears at the graph bottom.

For example, consider a shot where captured clouds have little emphasis.  To darken these clouds, just click on them with TAT and drag straight downward.  Or, if clouds are dark, drag straight upward to lighten.  You might say, "This is a super neat way of adjusting contrast!  Thanks, Adobe (and Joe)..."

But that's not all... scroll on down to the HSL panel in the Develop module.  Once again, you'll see the TAT tool.  Here, TAT adjusts Color, instead of Contrast.  Dragged upward to increase or downward to decrease saturation.

Several years ago, I shot a gorgeous sunset over the Sandia's as a point-and-shoot JPEG.  In intense light orange regions, while highlights were not blown out, I used Tone Curve’s TAT to reduce those regions to a more apt color.
With all deeply rich color in the clouds, the blue sky was slightly under saturated.  A second application of HSL’s Luminance TAT is to darken just the blue sky.

Tips (Tit) for TAT... now you can easily add or subtract drama and/or passion from remarkably photogenic sunsets which truly complement regal landscapes!

Dramatic Sandia Sunset w TAT