nature

My Top Ten Images for 2017

Another year is in the books, as 2017 has come to an end and we begin 2018. The past 12 months weren't some of my most productive photographically, at least in terms of quantity of images captured and locations visited. A look at my Lightroom catalog shows exactly 14,000 images for the past year. Of course, that doesn't count several thousand that were taken for use in time-lapse videos, which aren't in the catalog. My guess is the number for the year is closer to 20,000.

The quantity of images, however, really isn't any way to measure the success for the year. Taking lots of pictures can be a good thing, but it certainly doesn't mean that any of them are going to be any good. Instead, I like to look back at some of my favorite photos and the great memories attached to them. 

The year started off with a bang, with a trip to Maui the first week of January. A week in the tropical island paradise provided numerous photographic opportunities, and you'll see a few images from that trip on this list.

Shortly after the Maui trip was a quick trip to LeClaire, Iowa to photograph bald eagles along the Mississippi River. The number of eagles was down compared to the previous year (which was my first), but the trip was a blast and I came away with a few 'keeper' images. 

In March, I attended the Improve Photography Retreat in Phoenix. I made the decision to make it a road trip with intentions of a few side trips on the way there and back. That turned out to be a great decision. One of my favorite Milky Way images was created in Kansas on my way down there. While in Phoenix, there were plenty of opportunities to shoot as well, which resulted in a couple more images in my Top Ten list. Then, on the way back, I spent a couple days with Aaron and Brendon of Photog Adventures fame exploring in and around Zion National Park. There was a ton of driving involved, but that trip was ever so worth it. 

The rest of the year was kind of quiet, with most of my shooting done close to home. There were no other photo trips planned, which was kind of a bummer, since there were still a lot of months left in the year. It's not surprising that what I feel are my best 10 images were taken in the first 3 months of the year. It is kind of disappointing that the other 9 months didn't yield anything that made this list. I'm not complaining though; it was still a very good year with the camera. 

Without rambling on any further than I already have, below are my top ten images for 2017. These are in no particular order. It's hard enough narrowing it down from 14,000 to 10, so I decided there was no need to rank them. Let me know if the comments which one you like the best.

"Island Dreams" - Night time on the beaches of Maui, captured on January 4, 2017. Not a bad way to spend some time in January. 

"Twin Falls" - Captured on January 6, 2017, along the Road to Hana. 

"Are you squawking to me?" - The image was captured along the Mississippi River just south of LeClaire, Iowa. January 21, 2017.

"A Whale of a Tale" - On a whale watching cruise while in Maui. Captured January 4, 2017.

"Bamboo Forest" - On the Road to Hana, while in Maui. Captured January 6, 2017.

"Monument Rocks Milky Way" - This is a panoramic image created at Monument Rocks, about 30 miles south of Oakley, Kansas. This was early in the season (March 8), so this was captured very early in the morning, not long before sunrise.

"Kanarra Creek Falls" - Located just outside of Zion National Park, this is a fabulous short hike into the canyon, with the reward of waterfall scenery. Captured on March 13, 2017.

"Picketpost Mountain Milky Way" - This area just east of Phoenix offered some surprisingly dark night skies for capturing the Milky Way on March 9, 2017. This was less than 24 hours after spending the night at Monument Rocks. 

"Canyon Overlook Sunset" - A wonderful view of the canyon in Zion National Park. Captured on March 12, 2017.

"Kolob Canyon Sunrise" - Captured on March 12, 2017, after doing some night photography and catching some sleep in the car while waiting for the sun to come up. Another of the amazing locations in Zion National Park. 

So, there you have it! My 10 best (and favorite) images of 2017. Hope you all enjoy viewing them as much as I enjoyed capturing them. Part of this exercise is to reflect on the year and to also look back to see how (or if) my photography has improved from previous years. I feel that it has. There is still much room for improvement. I look forward to 2018, and the adventures that are in store. My goal is to bring my camera along on the journey and share it with you. 

Thanks for reading!

 

    

Good Things Come in Threes: The Lensbaby Trio 28

Photography is a journey.   

It is a journey that follows many different paths.  At times, it is a simple road where the intersection of inspiration and creativity is easy to find.  Many other times, the path is a meandering one with many obstacles, and inspiration is much more difficult, if not seemingly nonexistent.   

I believe that most all photographers encounter this difficult road at some point(s) along their creative journey.  This is all part of the process and is, quite frankly, really necessary for growth. Some may call it a photographic rut, burn-out, or maybe even photographer's block.  The important thing is not necessarily how one gets into these situations, but rather how one gets themselves out.  

 

Grinter Sunflower Farm at sunset, using the Sweet optic on the Lensbaby Trio 28.

Maybe Gear Does Matter 

I'm not sure how many times I've heard the statement, "It's not about the gear."  I understand the gist of that statement and believe it to be mostly true.  However, there may be times that gear really does matter.  For instance, if a new piece of photography gear gets me outside and shooting more, then that's a very good thing.  That gear doesn't instantly make me a better photographer, but practicing the art sure does help.  Whether it's a new camera, lens, tripod, filter, or something else, if that new piece of gear provides some motivation and inspiration, then it certainly does matter.

Purple Coneflower; using the Twist optic on the Trio 28.

Lensbaby Trio 28

Although I had heard much about Lensbaby and had been curious about their products for some time, I had never tried one of their lenses.  That changed about three months ago when I received the new Lensbaby Trio 28.  I had ordered the lens for my Fuji X-T1 camera and was excited to try it out and push myself and my creativity.

 

About the Trio 28

The Trio 28 is a lens made specifically for mirrorless camera users, particularly for Sony E mount, Fuji X mount, and micro 4/3rds cameras.  It has a fixed 28mm focal length as well as a fixed f/3.5 aperture.  The lens is also manual focus only.  The most unique thing about the lens, however, is the trio of selective focus optics.  It's like having three lenses in one (hence the name).  

Kansas City Skyline; using the Sweet optic on the Trio 28.

The Look

The Trio 28 is one funky looking lens.  It is rather small, extending just under 1.5-inches off the front of my Fuji mirrorless camera.  The unique thing about it is the small rotating element protruding from the front that is used to select between the three different optics: "Sweet," "Velvet," and "Twist".  These optics are nothing new for Lensbaby, as they offer several lenses that offer one or the other of these options.  The Trio 28, however, has all three in this small package, providing for a lot of creative flexibility.  

Grinter Sunflower Farm; using the Velvet optic on the Trio 28.

The Feel

One of the first very noticeable things about the Lensbaby Trio 28 is the size and weight.  It is quite a small, and light, lens.  In fact, when UPS delivered the box, I wondered if there was really anything in it since it was so light!  The Trio 28 weighs in at just under 5 ounces and is 2-inches long by 2.75-inches in diameter.  It is easily my smallest lens, and that's a good thing.  More compact means that it is more likely to be carried with me to more places. 

Despite being relatively small and light, the Trio 28 feels like a quality lens.  Although it does appear to use a fair amount of plastic bits for the internals, the mount and outer body is all metal. The metal focus ring has a nice, smooth feel and has a distance scale in feet and meters. Selecting the desired optic is as simple as rotating the dial on the front of the lens.  Each selectable optic has a nice detent, which positively and securely locks into place. My one gripe about this feature is that the rotating dial is fairly thin and is smooth, so it can be somewhat difficult to grip in certain conditions.     

Warm autumn sunset; Velvet optic on the Trio 28.

The Performance

The Trio 28 was a joy to use.  It does take some time to figure out the effects of each of the optics and how to best utilize them, but that's part of the fun.  Using a manual focus lens may seem tedious, but with the focus assist features available on mirrorless cameras, it's a breeze.  One advantage to a manual lens such as this one is that it causes you to slow down.  This is a benefit, as it causes you to concentrate more on composition and shoot more deliberately.  Speed is really not a necessity for landscape and nature photography anyway.

I enjoyed using the trio of optics to see how each one performed and the effects they had on my images.  That's where this lens really shines and really gets the creative juices going. It's also what makes it so much fun to use.  The different effects are generally defined as follows:  

  • Sweet allows you to get the center part of the image (the sweet spot) in sharp focus while the rest of the image fades into a pleasing blur.
  • Velvet creates kind of a dreamy effect, where the image has a subtle glow.
  • Twist has a sharp central area of the image while the surrounding area takes on a swirling bokeh.  

The Sweet effect was by far my favorite of the three.  So much so that I found myself leaving it on this setting most of the time.  It worked great for nature shots where I wanted to really draw attention to a particular subject.  For certain situations, particularly an urban setting, it has a miniature effect on the buildings and cars if you are shooting from a high perspective.  Pretty cool.  

Velvet was my second favorite.  I quite like that dreamy or surreal look for certain images. This is particularly true for images of flowers.  The soft focus effect works nicely to complement the delicate nature of some blooms.  

Twist just didn't quite do it for me.  For the style of shooting I do, the swirling effect wasn't very noticeable.  Admittedly, I need more practice to find situations where that effect would be more apparent and add interest to an image.  I will continue to experiment and see what I come up with.

Country sunset; Sweet optic on the Trio 28.

Creative Exploration

There is nothing quite as exciting as venturing out in a new place or with some new photography gear to capture images.  The desire to create kicks into high gear as you become keenly aware of every nuance of light and shadow.  This is creative exploration at its finest, and the Lensbaby Trio 28 is an excellent companion to bring along for the journey.  

Creative exploration is important, and even necessary, for photographers of all skill levels.  It is vital for growth, not only as a way for us to continually improve, but also as a means to find our visual voice.  The voice that brings not only meaning, but feeling to our imagery.  It's been said that a picture is worth a thousand words.  While that may be true, I believe it to be important for those words to have significant meaning, which translates to powerful impact for the viewer of my images. 

Personally, I feel that I'm still searching for my own visual voice.  It's an arduous task and may be difficult to find in the world in which we live today.  However, it is important to point out that it's not necessarily about the destination.  It is more about each step along the way and the different paths that we choose to take.  That's what is really important.  That's what makes it so much fun.  

Photography is a journey....      

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

 

 

 

   

Top 10 of 2016 (#3)

Moving into the top three, the remaining images for 2016 represent some of my favorite times, photographically speaking, for the year.  There were lots of good memories made, and I like the images that go along with them, too.

Back in January, I took a long weekend to head up to LeClaire, Iowa to photograph bald eagles fishing the Mississippi River.  Wildlife, and particularly bird photography, has never really been my genre of choice, but my good friend Steve convinced me that this would be a great trip.  He sure wasn't wrong about that.  I wasn't really sure what to expect, but rented a couple of super-telephoto lenses, packed up the photo gear and warm clothes, and headed north.

The first day was gray and pretty uneventful.  The eagles were there, but not very active. Saturday was a different story.  It was sunny, there were tons of eagles, and they must have really been hungry.  What an amazing treat to just watch them swoop down out of a tree to skim the water's surface and snag a meal for themselves.  Almost without fail, every time there was a catch, another eagle would try to steal away the fish.  It was so much fun to watch this and try to capture the action.  

This image was captured at about 2:30 that Saturday afternoon.  That usually isn't a great time to be out shooting, but the low angle of the sun and position of the eagle made some pretty good light.  By the way, I debated between this shot and a couple of others for the list, but decided this was the one I liked best.  

I learned a lot on that trip about photographing birds and anticipating the action.  I hope to be back up there again in January 2017 to see what I can capture.  

Camera Tech:

  • Focal length - 400 mm (even at that, this image needed some serious cropping)
  • Shutter speed - 1/2000th of a second (they were moving pretty fast!)
  • Aperture - f/8 (good middle of the road and sharp aperture)
  • ISO - 800 (even at mid-day, needed to boost ISO to keep shutter speed fast)

Top 10 of 2016 (#8)

Night photography is something I have tried to do more of this past year.  It is so much fun to do and it really gives you so many creative opportunities.  I enjoy shooting the Milky Way, but even though we live several miles outside of any city, there is still too much light pollution.  Star trails are the next best thing, and I have thousands of images on my hard drive to prove it.  

This image was created back in late June.  The hay had just been baled, so I decided to take advantage of that for some foreground interest.  Without any kind of foreground, these usually turn out to be pretty boring images.  There are a couple of different methods for creating star trail images.  You can take a single, really long exposure.  Somewhere in the neighborhood of at least 30 minutes.  Or, capture a series of shorter exposures and stack them together.  Either way will show the apparent movement of the stars over time, as the earth rotates on its axis.  

I choose the use the multiple exposure method for a variety of reasons.  With several different exposures, it is possible to throw out one or two that have issues.  If you take one really long exposure and something messes it up, then you have to start all over again.  One longer exposure will also tend to have more digital noise (grain) due to the sensor heating up.  

The creation of this image consisted of capturing about 50 exposures.  Each image was exposed for 30 seconds, with only about 2-3 seconds in between each image.  They were shot at the relatively wide focal length of 14 mm, at an aperture of f/2.8 to allow in as much light as possible. I kept the ISO at around 1,000, which is about all you need for star trails.  A small flashlight was used to light paint the hay bale in one of the images to provide a little more foreground accent.

After shooting, the images were loading into the Lightroom, minor exposure adjustments were made, then exported as JPEGs.  The JPEG images were then stacked together in a free software program call StarStax, which works really well.  Finally, the resulting star trail image was blended together with the light painted image in Photoshop.

Another thing I should mention is that the camera was pointed in the general direction of the North Star.  This makes the circular pattern in the star trails.  The extra light trails in the final image are actually fireflies that were buzzing around as I captured the images.  I originally thought about removing them, but feel that they add some interest and context to this image. What do you think?   

Top 10 of 2016 (#10)

I've been doing a version of this for the last couple of years, so wanted to continue the tradition. This year, I'm doing it a little differently in that there will be a countdown, starting at number 10 and going down to number 1, and my very favorite image for the year.  There will be one photo each day from now until December 31.  

These photos are not only what I consider some of my best, but also some of my favorites for this year.  It was very difficult narrowing it down to 10.  My initial list had close to 75, which was reduced to 25.  From there, it wasn't easy to get rid of 15 of my favorites to get it down to the final 10.  After much deliberation, this is what I've come up with.  Hope you like them as much as I do.

Each image has a story.  From that story and the process that goes into to making the image, an emotional connection is made.  I will share a little about each image for each day, including the process that went into making the capture.  Of course, the click of the shutter button is only the beginning of the creative process, so the post-production of the images will also be explored.  

Without further ado, here is image #10 for 2016: 

Late Summer Sunset

It's kind of ironic that a sunset image starts off my list for 2016.  If you have followed me for a while, you might remember that last year was filled with sunset images.  It wasn't a daily thing, but there were a lot of sunset images captured for 2015.  This year, the sunset image wasn't quite as ubiquitous, but there were still a few scattered about.  There's just something about that late evening golden light and the way it can make the landscape seem to glow.  

This image was taken at 7:08 PM on August 14.  The sun was right on the horizon, which gave me a great opportunity to practice one of my favorite techniques.  Stopping down the aperture (i.e. making the opening smaller) on the lens when the sun is just on the edge of something allows you to create this starburst effect.  You will notice that I do this quite a bit in my images.  Maybe too much, but hey, I like it.  

For those who like the technical details and camera settings, here they are: 

  • Focal length: 10 mm
  • Shutter speed: 1/20 of a second
  • Aperture: f/22
  • ISO: 200

Photographers would look at this image and note that many "rules" have been broken.  The horizon line is pretty much right in the middle.  The sun is dead center in the image.  But so be it. Rules are made to be broken, especially photography rules, and I'll do so when it works for an image.  I think it works here.  There happened to be some great clouds in the sky, so that would normally mean accentuate the sky.  However, I also liked the warm glow on the grasses in the foreground.  So I showed them both off as much as possible.  

In post-processing the image, I accentuated the great light as much as possible, and especially the glow of the seed heads on the grass.  The shadows were brought up and the highlights were dropped slightly to deal with the high dynamic range of the scene.  The colorful sky was accentuated with a boost to the vibrance and saturation.  Finally, a trip through Topaz Color Efex Pro gave the image the contrast and glow that I was looking for.  Hope you like it!

 

 

The Eagles of Lock & Dam No. 14

About three weeks ago, I took a trip up to LeClaire, Iowa, to spend a few days trying to capture some images of eagles.  This was my first real foray into bird photography, so I wasn't sure what to expect or if I would get any decent photos of the birds.  Bird photography can be tough, especially capturing them in action in their natural habitat.  It sounded like a good time, though, and I like to challenge myself photographically, so I packed up and left on Thursday afternoon to make the 5 hour drive.

After an uneventful drive and arriving in LeClaire, I met up with my friend Steve, who is from Michigan.  Steve and I happened to meet early one morning in October 2013, waiting for the sun to rise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park, Utah, and had kept in touch since then. He had been planning this trip for some time and invited me to come up and join him.  In the weeks leading up to the trip, we weren't sure if the weather was going to be cooperative.  The mild winter and little snow meant that the eagles had not journeyed down to this location and the numbers were really low.  However, after some cold and wintery weather a couple of weeks out, things were starting to look up.  We were not disappointed.

Just a bit of background before we move on.  Lock & Dam 14 is located next to Smith's Island on the Upper Mississippi River.  This area in Southeastern Iowa and Northwestern Illinois is known as the Quad Cities Metropolitan Area, consisting of Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa and Rock Island, Moline, and East Moline in Illinois.  (Wait a minute...isn't that 5 cities??)  Construction of Lock & Dam 14 was completed in 1939 and it is operated by the United States Corps of Engineers. The Lock & Dam 14 Woodland Preserve is an approximate 9 acre area that has been set aside as important habitat for wintering bald eagles.  Because of the easy access and the proximity of the eagles, it is a very popular place for photographers to visit.  

Friday morning started out a little slow.  We arrived early in hopes of catching a nice sunrise, but the sky was overcast.  As it became light, we started to see eagles perched in several of the trees surrounding the area, but there was not much movement.  By mid-morning, however, the eagles were becoming more active and we captured some images of them fishing the river as well as some nice overhead shots.  By mid-afternoon, the action had slowed down considerably, so we decided to pay a visit to one of the other main attractions in LeClaire.  LeClaire is the hometown of the American Pickers, so we visited their shop and took a few photos.  Unfortunately, none of the stars of the show were around.

Saturday turned out to be the kind of day everyone hopes for when they come to Lock & Dam 14. The morning started out clear and crisp and we even got to the river early enough for some sunrise shots.  The sun hadn't been up long before the eagles started putting on a show.  One after another, they would swoop down from the trees and make a pass over the water to try and catch some breakfast.  It was really a lot of fun to watch, especially when one eagle would make a catch and 2 or 3 others would give chase in an attempt to steal it away.  By early afternoon, the boardwalk above the river was lined with photographers, rubbing elbows and trying to capture that once-in-a-lifetime shot.  I'm not sure how many people were there at any one time, but there must have been hundreds that came and went throughout the day.  

Sunday morning was another overcast and slow-moving day.  There wasn't much action, neither from the eagles nor from photographers.  After bidding farewell to Steve and other new friends made while on the river, I headed for home by about noon.  It was a great trip with lots of opportunities for interesting shots and a chance to meet lots of new people.  My guess is that I'll be back to LeClaire, Iowa next year, and may even make it an annual event.  Now, time to end this already too-long post and get to some images.  I took over 2,000 photos on this trip, but these are just a few of my favorites.  Thanks for looking!  

This one appeared to be yelling at me.


A Stroll Around the 'Neighborhood'

Although it has been two weeks since my last blog post, that doesn't mean I haven't been out shooting.  It's just been a little sparse and haven't had much to write about.  There is one project in the works that will some day make it into these pages, but that's going to be a while.  For now, I'm trying to find new and interesting things, although we are in the midst of winter.  This time of year can be a challenge, not only because of the cold temperatures, but also because there just isn't much color in the landscape.  Everything seems to be some shade of brown or gray (or white, due to the occasional snow).  However, that doesn't mean that good photos cannot be found.  Furthermore, shooting this time of year challenges me to work more on composition and to see and understand tonal differences in the scene.  

As with anything else in life, the more you challenge yourself at something, the better you will get at doing it.  That's the approach I've been taking with my photography.  There are so many beautiful places to travel to and photograph, and I've been blessed to go to some of them.  You've read about some of those places in this blog.  However, those trips are few and far between.  The rest of the time, photography has to be done right in my 'back yard', so to speak.  That can be quite the challenge, especially going to the same places over and over and trying to find new and interesting ways to express those places in an image.  But that's part of the growth and development as a photographer; part of the fun (well mostly it's fun); and part of what makes one become better.  At least I hope I am improving.  An honest assessment of one's self can be difficult to do.  

With all that said, if you see some of the same images showing up in my blog or elsewhere on this website, or on some of my social media pages, now you know why.  Some scenes I do shoot multiple times.  Each time, something is a little different.  The light is ever changing, and a scene can look completely different  from one time to the next.  Then of course, there is the changing of the seasons, giving each time out and each shot that is taken a different quality.  Finally, I'm changing and ever evolving as someone who likes to take pictures.  I like to try alternate perspectives or photographic techniques.  And sometimes, the post-processing techniques will change, giving each photo (even photos of the same scene) a distinct finished appearance.  I suppose the moral of this story is that you don't have to travel far and wide to get great photos.  Look in your own back yard or 'neighborhood' and you might see something that you haven't noticed before.  The opportunities are all around us.  We just have to keep our eyes (and minds) open to them.

A Walk in the Woods

Fuel for the Fire

Tree on a Hill