Category Archives: Commentary

Forest Edge, Mountain Slopes, Evening

Forest Edge, Mountain Slopes, Evening
Forest edge in evening light with forest sloping upwards toward Sierra crest peaks

Forest Edge, Mountain Slopes, Evening. Yosemite National Park, California. July 13, 2015. © Copyright 2015 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Forest edge in evening light with forest sloping upwards toward Sierra crest peaks

This is most certainly not an iconic view, but I’m sure that many fellow Yosemite high country aficionados have been to this spot and gazed at this and the surrounding view. (Part of one Yosemite high country icon does appear in this photograph, but it is the bottom part.)

Earlier on this visit to the park I had walked out into this landscape to photograph in the meadow, on low hills, among trees, and alongside a river. As I passed by here again on this early evening I stopped and was entranced by the warm evening light on the trees at the edge of the meadow and by the further forest-covered slopes rising into the alpine zone and eventually above tree line to the elevations where there is little but rock and tundra plants. While the landscape often seems rather static during the day, at moments like this near the beginning and ending of the day the landscape changes dynamically as light shifts and highlights and then shadows subjects.  I had only a brief moment to make this photograph (and a couple of others) before the light lifted from the trees and left them in shadow.

G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. His book, “California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra” is available from Heyday Books and Amazon.
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Closing Time, Sunnyland Produce

Closing Time, Sunnyland Produce
Closing time at shops in San Francisco’s Chinatown district.

Closing Time, Sunnyland Produce. San Francisco, California. July 25, 2015. © Copyright 2015 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Closing time at shops in San Francisco’s Chinatown district.

In late July I met up with a group of fellow night/street photographers in San Francisco. The group’s explorations ranged between the commercial hub of Union Square and the old neighborhood of North Beach. (The rest of the group got there before I did and they began with dinner in the latter district.) I finally connected with the group along Stockton Street, the less touristy portion of Chinatown.

I frequently walk though here but often don’t make too many photographs. I love the Stockton Street area, with its vibrant shops and busy morning crowds, but sometimes I feel a bit too intrusive making photographers there and then. But on this evening things were quieting down, shops were closing, and there were fewer people.

G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. His book, “California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra” is available from Heyday Books and Amazon.
Blog | About | Flickr | Twitter | FacebookGoogle+ | | LinkedIn | Email

All media © Copyright G Dan Mitchell and others as indicated. Any use requires advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.

Gray Areas

This post derives from something I wrote elsewhere in a discussion about a photograph that included something that wasn’t originally in the scene, a discussion that became rather polarized. 

“Not everybody trusts paintings but people believe photographs.” 
― Ansel Adams

Imaginary Landscape - Death Valley
An imaginary landscape derived from subjects photographed in Death Valley National Park.

All photographs lie. But all photographs carry a burden of reality.

Except for photographers who overtly and obviously manipulate reality in major ways as a central concept of their work — see Jerry Uelsmann, for example, or some work by John Paul Caponigro, among others — viewers come to photographs believing that the images had their genesis in the real. Photographers can respond to this basic presumption in photography in a number of ways, and perhaps in landscape photography the response has even more implications.

Let’s say you are Caponigro or Uelsmann and a major point of your photography is to produce visual art that derives from and references the landscape but then combines it with non-landscape elements or takes those elements and fundamentally rearranges them so that they intentionally no longer can be taken to represent the real landscape. These photographers openly embrace and build their work on creating imaginary fantastical worlds out of materials derived from the real landscape, creating what I refer to as “imaginary landscapes.” The photographer and the viewer are on exactly the same page here – both accept and embrace the fantasy and the sometimes more ambiguous line between the real and the imagined. This work seems completely honest and genuine.

On the other hand, let’s say you are a photographer who builds and bases a reputation not on the creation of visual fantasies — things we all know are not and cannot be real — but instead on going to great lengths to travel to “special places,” often telling stories of finding special places and special conditions that less focused and dedicated photographers do not find. Continue reading Gray Areas

Photographic Myths and Platitudes: The Best Camera! (part 1)

Three manufacturers companies now produce widely available full-frame digital cameras with features that are attractive to folks who photograph landscape subjects, among other things. Two of them recently released new models that are getting a lot of attention, and plenty of photographers are interested in their relative merits and perhaps in choosing among them.

The three I’m thinking of are:

Three Full Frame Digital Cameras
Nikon D810, Sony A7rII, Canon 5Ds R

Here is a statement that a thoughtful, experienced, knowledgable photographer who has looked at the options carefully and selected one of them might make:

I chose this camera because it exemplifies the continuing evolution and improvement of digital cameras. It introduces useful and powerful improvements that offer the potential of a range of image quality improvements. The camera has the ability to produce photographs with outstanding image quality in a wide range of conditions and circumstances, and photographers who use it are going to be very pleased with what it can do. It has its pluses and minuses, and other cameras may be a bit stronger or weaker in various areas, but on balance it is a first-class and powerful tool that works extremely well for the most demanding photographers. I recommend that other photographers take a look at it!

The question: To which of the three (and a half?) above-listed cameras does this statement apply?

If you have paid a lot of attention to the passionate and hyperbole-filled discussions and “tests” that inevitably accompany the release of new cameras, you have read proclamations that any one of those is “the best” or even that it will transform your photography.  And it is possible that “the answer” is already obvious to you, and you are certain that one surpasses the others in obvious ways. You might even have come to the conclusion that a photographer choosing one of the other options is making a mistake, is probably unaware of the significance of the error,  and that his/her photographs are likely to suffer as a consequence of this flawed decision.

With all of that in mind, the answer is… Continue reading Photographic Myths and Platitudes: The Best Camera! (part 1)

Photographic Myths and Platitudes — That Sensor Noise is Awful!

Let’s say you are looking for a new camera. You want to make a smart decision, especially since you are sinking your hard-earned money into the purchase. You sure don’t want to make a mistake and end up with deficient gear. So you do the smart thing — you do some research. You look around on the web, find some articles, and you discover that there is a lot of contradictory information. Some tell you that Product X is wonderful, while others are adamant that Product X is pathetic and that Product Y is far superior. The Product X fans point out that Product Y is deficient in other critical ways by comparison to Product X.

You have some unanswered questions.

I keep hearing that Camera X has terrible noise compared to Camera Y. In fact, I found some photographs that demonstrate how bad this noise is. Why in the world would anyone get Camera X?!

Both sides provide “evidence.” Photographers love evidence, especially evidence of a failure to achieve divine technological perfection, and double-especially when the failure is demonstrated in a brand they don’t own. They get a little testy though, when the “evidence” makes their product look weak! (For a fun detour, look up the term confirmation bias on the web. Also, this is an important time for a reminder that photography is about photographs, not about cameras.)

I want to construct a little story for you based on “evidence.” We’ll start with evidence that makes a particular product (one that I rely on) look particularly bad. But before we start, you need to promise to read the whole thing. I’ll try to make it worthwhile.

OK, I promise to read it all, and with an open mind.

Good. Here we go.

Lots of people are concerned with the related issues of dynamic range (the camera’s ability to record image data from both light and dark sources in a single photograph) and noise (non-image artifacts that are, in a rough sense, sort of like “grain” on film).

I’ll begin with an example of noise in a photograph I made using the the new and very expensive Canon EOS 5Ds R, a 50.6MP full frame DSLR that Canon released recently.

Example #1

Man, that is awful! That 5Ds R obviously produces terrible noise. It is so bad that the photograph is unusable, at least for anything other than an article demonstrating how bad it is! And the color is pathetically bad, too!

Yes. That image looks absolutely horrible!

Astute, critical thinkers are already wondering what went wrong here. Let me explain. Continue reading Photographic Myths and Platitudes — That Sensor Noise is Awful!

DSLR & Mirrorless: Flexibility and Adaptability

(Note: This is one of those occasional posts adapted from something I originally wrote elsewhere. This one came from an online discussion of the relative merits of DSLRs and mirrorless cameras and their abilities to work with various lenses and photographic subjects. I have edited the original slightly for its re-use here.)

With all of the recent (justifiable!) interest in new mirrorless camera developments from Sony, there are factors that may persuade some photographers to go slow on giving up DSLRs for mirrorless. (It may also convince them to do what I did — I augmented my DSLR system with a second mirrorless system.) As good as mirrorless cameras are becoming, in particular the full frame Sony A7r and newer A7rII, they have their pluses and minuses when it comes to real-world photography. They can do some things quite well – there are advantages in some cases to the electronic viewfinders, Sony sensors provide state-of-the-art dynamic range, the bodies are compact, and more. They do some things less well — native lenses are few, other lenses require adapters, the autofocus systems are slower than DSLRs, there are still latency issues with the viewfinders, and so on.)

In this context, I recently realized that one of the nice things about the new Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II Lens and the newer Canon bodies (like my 5Ds R, which is very similar to the 5Ds)  is that they now autofocus (AF) quite well at f/8. The 100-400 len’s maximum f/5.6 aperture at the long end is no longer a barrier to getting 560mm out of the lens by adding the TC.

I’ve only tried the combination on one occasion so far, when the opportunity to photograph wildlife came up on a recent photography venture along the California coast. I put the 100-400 version II and the Canon 1.4x TC on my 5DsR and photographed two wildlife subjects, elephant seals lounging on a beach and pelicans doing everything from flying past to landing to sitting still. (For those who want more information than I can provide here, I wrote about the initial results in a another article.)

While I do not recommend that people whose primary photographic focus is birds in flight rush out and get a 5Ds or 5Ds R, a 100-400 v2, and a 1.4x TC as their primary setup, it does work decently and in some cases extremely well.  Most importantly, it means that my primary landscape photography setup and can also work very effectively with non-landscape subjects, including wildlife — a task that will severely challenge the best current mirrorless options.

The Landing
A brown pelican joins the flock on a rock along the Pacific coast of California

The combination focuses well and provides good resolution, even with moving subjects — though, obviously, not as well as using something like a 1Dx with a 300mm f/2.8 prime. It is good enough that I can track birds in flight and catch sharp photographs of them in motion. Continue reading DSLR & Mirrorless: Flexibility and Adaptability

A Photograph Exposed: One Subject, Two Compositions

(“A Photograph Exposed”  is a series exploring some of my photographs in greater detail. A companion article looks at post processing issues related to the same subject.)

Landscape photographs depend on many things: good fortune to be in the right place at the right time, experience that helps predict when and where to find “right place at the right time,” sensitivity and experience that help you recognize the potential in a scene, being able to think beyond the intrinsic beauty of a scene to consideration of how it might make a photograph, an intuitive sense of “what is right” visually, the ability to apply some objective thought on top of the intuition, and other things in a list that is too long to recount completely.

I would like to share some of the thinking that went into photographing one particular scene earlier this summer.

Island and Trees, Tuolumne River
Trees grow on a small, rocky island in the Tuolumne River, Yosemite National Park

Back in mid-July I experienced a special evening in the Tuolumne Meadows Sierra Nevada of Yosemite National Park. It was special for many reasons — some photographic and some not, but even the non-photographic reasons helped put my mind and my senses in the right place to make photographs. I had arrived and set up camp, taken care of camp chores, and finally headed out for late-afternoon and evening photography. I pulled off the road to take a look at a possible subject, and by remarkable coincidence found myself parked behind two good friends who were there for much the same reason. We joined forces and headed of to a nearby area that seemed promising. In an even more remarkable coincidence, partway there two more friends showed up, also there for the same purpose! Something about hiking off into a beautiful landscape with like-minded friends seems to heighten my awareness.

We followed the Tuolumne River and soon its angle of descent began to increase slightly as its channel narrowed and became more rocky. Continue reading A Photograph Exposed: One Subject, Two Compositions