Rage Against The Light

For the past week, I’ve been struggling to write. A creative block. Writer’s block. Put your own label on it.

Something wasn’t there.

Somewhere in the middle of last week a book arrived. Ron Haviv’s “The Lost Rolls”. Stunning. Thought provoking. Impactful. 

Still I was stuck.

Then, a couple of days ago, another book arrived. One that I had been waiting on since September. Coming from Australia, it made quite the trip to reach me in Denver. The wait was worth it.

I study a lot of different things. It helps me be more creative. It helps me be a better photographer. 

One of my favorite genres to study is street photography. One of my favorite street photographers is Markus Andersen.

Earlier this year, he was featured in a documentary called “Into the Belly of the Beast”. His use of light, shadow and color among the streets of Sydney is beyond wonderful.

Then I got wind of a book. This book. The one I’d been waiting for so patiently.

The square cropped, black and white images are beautifully simple. The harsh Australian sun. The crisp shadows. Geometries of towering skyscrapers. Fragments of life. Fleeting moments.

His play on light and shadow is unique. Tied together with his compositions, you’re pulled into the images and wandering the Sydney streets alongside him.

So, have I gotten through the block?

I dunno. I’ve written some words. It snowed last night. The world outside is different. 

Let’s see what happens.


Yesterday was our second Halloween in this neighborhood. Last year we were warned about the intersection a few blocks down. It blew away an neighborhood Halloween setup I’ve ever seen.

This year was bigger.

Setup starts at the beginning of the month. Slowly at first. A few items dragged out onto the lawn. Then the momentum builds. Coffins. Skeletons. Tomb stones. Spiders munching on cocooned humans. A few days prior to Halloween, it’s all done.

Words cannot describe the scenes. Luckily, I’m pretty handy with a camera.

The houses on each corner of the intersection compete against each other. They’re old houses with history. They have the look. The owners take it to a completely different level. 

About 6 blocks of the neighborhood gets blocked off by the city. People come from everywhere in the city. It’s a block party. Kids everywhere. Parents with their plastic cups. Conversations and laughter float on the night air. Every now and then there’s an ear piercing shriek. One of the neighbors put up a haunted house this year. 

Just after dark, the horn went off. Every few minutes it went again. Time to head to the castle.

Yes. The castle.

The original owner was the uncle to the Red Baron. Not Snoopy’s Red Baron. The other one.

The current owners have been renovating, massively, the past few years. Each Halloween, they open the grounds to the neighbors. It’s unbelievable. They put on a great show.

After the castle, it was time to head home. The girls wanted to watch a movie that was appropriately scary. Gremlins. Yep, that amazing classic from nineteen eighty FOUR…

Fleeting moments

The world is full of unnoticed moments. Things happen. Beautiful things. Gone in an instant. Never noticed.

I think this is where my love for photography originates. No. I know that’s where it originates.

You could call them fleeting moments. I call them the moments between the moments. They are the ones with the fuzzy edges. The ones you knew happened but can’t describe. It could be the last kiss a father gives his daughter before walking down the aisle on her wedding day. It could be the crash of a wave on a lonely beach. 

These moments are why I fell so hard for surf photography in Southern California.

It was a challenge. Find the moment in the midst of that wonderful watery chaos. So many variables. So many visuals to separate. Then focus. Put the world in slow motion and focus. Find that singular moment that is the essence of a breaking wave. The beauty within the chaos.

I pulled that challenge out of the sea. Rinsed it. Dried it. Applied it to my other photographic work. Weddings. Families. Street.

Even without a camera in hand, I am looking. Making mental photographs. Mental images that I can use later for inspiration.

Looking for that next moment. Studying the world. People watching. 

It’s fascinating. Never boring. There’s always something new. Constant discovery.

When I work with families, these moments are endless. Children are masters at stringing them together. Everything in the world excites them and it’s infectious. 

Weddings are different. Emotions and nerves are on high alert. There are a lot of moving pieces. A little bit of chaos. Organized chaos. Lots of visuals to separate and prioritize. The most important moments are the ones in between. The fuzzy ones. 

That’s why I am there. 

Capturing those fleeting moments. Building a story. 

The story is what’s important. It’s what allows you to remember. The moments are what immerse you. They bring the story to life.

That’s why I love this job. Finding the moments. Building a story. Presenting it to a client. Seeing their reaction. 

Preserving their memories through moments.

For the Love of Film

Life moves fast. It is getting faster. The entire Internet is in our pocket. Knowledge, for pleasure or purpose, is very nearly instantaneous. People take immediacy for granted. The average number of images uploaded to Instagram per day is around 50 million. Take a second to let that sink in. 50 million. Per day. Average.

That’s a whole lot of instant gratification.

That’s a whole lot of images created on impulse. Created to be seen for a few brief seconds then swiped past.

Created but not seen. Not truly seen. Not by the creator nor the recipient.

Film changes all of that. 

Film is a process. Not that the act of making an image, digital or otherwise, isn’t a process. Film is just a different process. A slower one. A more involved one.

I started photography with film. I continued with film long after many of my compatriots had switched to digital full time. Part of my hesitation was that I wasn’t happy with the available cameras or the software. The other part was my love with the process. I just wasn’t ready to give it up.

Eventually I did. Though not completely. I couldn’t because I loved the process.

The darkroom was the only part of the process that I let fade. Soon it will be back but I’ll save that for another day.

There is a very well defined act in shooting film. A tangible one. One that lets you feel, literally feel, the image being created. You handle the film in the canister. You touch the emulsion as you load the camera. Then again when you develop it into negatives. Finally, you have contact when you make the print. That image is part of you.

The darkroom is magic.

Sure all that stuff above is mechanical. Mostly done by muscle memory. It was the fast part of the process. The part that needed to be done with just a tad of urgency. Shooting weddings on film teaches you that awfully quickly.

The part where things slow is the physical act of pressing the shutter. 35mm gives you 36 frames. In 120, 645 gives 16. 6x6 drops you to 12. 6x7, only 10. 4x5 and 8x10, you get one. One frame. It isn’t instant. It isn’t infinite. Every frame needs to count. Needs to mean something. 

It’s okay if it only means something to you. Not every frame needs to be shared.

On my desk sit three 35mm cameras of varying ages. A Minolta SRT303b. A Canon F-1. The Lake Placid Olympic edition no less. A Nikon FM. 

In one bag, you’ll find a Hasselblad 500 C/M as well as a Mamiya 645afd. In another bag, my EOS 1v HS, a camera that became attached to my hip and has seen many adventures in far flung corners of the globe. Like a good Timex, it’s taken a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’.

In the fridge are boxes of my favorite films in both 120 and 35. Portra. Ektar. Velvia. Provia. And a newcomer, CineStill, which definitely needs a 120 size. Back on my desk you’ll find various flavors of Ilford. HP5, PanF, FP4 and Delta. In between those is the odd roll of TriX.

I use those cameras for personal work. I use them with clients too. Not often enough but I do.

I use them when I need a creative recharge. When things need to slow down. When I need to see.

To really see.

Each frame needs to count. Needs to count just for me. Shadows. Light. Dark. Color. Faces. People. I use them when I need to study.

They are my Zen moment.

Because I am still enamored with the process, I treat my digital cameras just like the film ones. In my head, there is no LCD. Just like there is no spoon. Did I just date myself?

Go find an old camera. Check the garage sales, KEH, eBay, wherever. Load up a roll of film and find a place to sit. To watch. To study. To breathe.

When everything lines up, press the shutter. Slowly. With purpose. Listen. Wind. Then wait.

Find your Zen moment. The next image.

Revel in the process.

Bear Creek trail, Telluride, CO. Hasselblad 500 w/ 80mm lens. Kodak Ektar 100.

Bear Creek trail, Telluride, CO. Hasselblad 500 w/ 80mm lens. Kodak Ektar 100.

What makes a good portrait photographer?

So, you’re looking for a portrait photographer? Do you know what makes a good one?

There are a lot of highly competent photographers out there. Almost all of them are able to make a decent portrait image. The lighting will be fine. The composition will be pleasing. In all respects, it will be a technically good image. But, is a technically good image good enough? Do you see yourself or your family in that image? Do you really see who you are?

When you view a great portrait what is the first thing that happens? For me, there is almost an instant emotional response. I am drawn to the eyes and within those eyes, a great portrait shows the raw personality of the person being photographed. It shows their soul and who they truly are as a person. The iconic example of this is Steve McCurry’s portrait, Afghan Girl.

Children on the beach, Samoa.

Children on the beach, Samoa.

If you go back in time a few years, you can find this in Paul Strand’s work from the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. In Dorothea Lange’s work for the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression. More recently with the work of Richard Avedon, Annie Leibovitz, Jeff Lipsky, or Joe McNally. Anastasia Taylor Lind’s portraits from Maidan Square in Kiev during the protest in 2014 are incredibly powerful.

What magic had all of those photographers above been using? It isn’t anything special but they all naturally have the skill, or worked incredibly hard to develop it, of being able to instantly relate to people. Within the first few seconds of meeting someone, they can remove all the extraneous distractions and put someone at ease. At ease with themselves, the studio, the lights and the army of assistants that may be running around in the background. Once you’re at ease, the camera, the image making, everything just becomes secondary. Laughter is key.

Peter Hurley is incredibly good at this. As he mentioned in a TedX talk, he has a schtick. A schtick he has perfected over the years and it works. Very well. Another person who is very gifted at this is my friend Kevin Connors in San Diego. I always loved watching him work whether it was in his studio chatting with friends and clients or making portraits of my own family.

As I began my photographic career 12 years ago, this people skill was not natural to me. That is why I embraced the photojournalistic style so completely. Over the years, I have worked hard to develop it. I am still working hard to develop it. 

I still seek out the moments between the moments as they have the details you normally miss during your daily lives. Those are the ones that hold the most memories. 

Quiet moment with Linnea during her senior portrait session.

Quiet moment with Linnea during her senior portrait session.

But, to get to those moments, I have to make you comfortable. At ease. I have to make you laugh. Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s difficult. When it’s difficult, I just have to resort to knock knock jokes from my seven year old. 

Serena enjoying the knock knock jokes.

Serena enjoying the knock knock jokes.

It would be fair to say my schtick is still evolving.

As you search for a portrait photographer for your family, high school senior or headshot, keep a few things in mind when you talk to me, which I would love, or any other photographer. Yes, they need to be technically competent but, more importantly, do they make you feel comfortable? Can they relate to you on a personal level? Can they make you laugh?

Telluride Photo Festival

I've been photographing professionally for a long time and I've never attended a conference or a workshop. I'm not sure why that happened but a few months ago I decided to change that after receiving an email about the Telluride Photo Festival.

I took a peek at the Festival's web site and browsed the list of available workshops along with the speakers. A number of very recognizable names began to jump out at me. Nevada Weir, Jeff Lipsky, Michael Clark, Jeff Foott and Alexandria Bombach to name a few. If you have yet to see Alexandria's Frame By Frame, stop what you're doing and watch it. Now. Amazingly well done documentary with powerful but beautiful stories. Equally as moving, if not more, as War Photographer and The Bang Bang Club.

As I looked at the workshops, I noticed that Michael had one. I have followed his work for quite awhile and had been really impressed by his recent surf images from the North Shore, as well as ice climbing, utilizing Elinchrom strobes and hypersync. For me, it is an amazing leap in technology and I can't wait to play with it more.

I signed up for the workshop and grabbed a standard pass for the rest of the Festival. I would have loved to have participated in the portfolio reviews but time was against me. Getting a new book together just wasn't in the cards. Next year.

Michael's workshop kicked off on Tuesday while the Festival opened Thursday evening. I drove down to Telluride from Denver on Monday with my father tagging along for the ride. What should have taken us 6-6.5 hours, took us 12. Yep. 12 hours. A semi decided to play turtle on the 285 shutting down the highway and leaving us parked in no man's land between Fairplay and Johnson Village. Fun times.

So, after a drive twice as long as it should have been and a few hours sleep, I was on the gondola heading from Mountain Village down into Telluride proper. As always, the views coming down the hill from St. Sophia station into town were spectacular. The color in the aspens, along with the gorgeous early morning light, was totally off the charts.

The workshop itself was great and with only 4 participants, including myself, it was basically one on one instruction. Totally lucked out on that. I was looking forward to picking up some new tricks along with getting some business insights and Michael proved to be an excellent teacher. 

We spent Tuesday photographing some amazing downhill mountain bikers in the bike park at the Telluride Ski Resort. The weather was perfect. The dirt near hero status. The light was scrumptious. Michael had brought along some Elinchrom toys so learning about out-in-the-boonies on-location lighting was fantastic. 

On Wednesday, we met up with a couple of rock climbers and headed to a spot just above town near the power station at the top of Bridal Veil Falls. Neither the approach nor the wall were terribly difficult but the view down the valley into town was gorgeous. As the light faded, we headed down into the valley to a well known bouldering spot. So well known that we had a visit from a sheriff's deputy. The strobes blazing in the near darkness were the equivalent of a giant blinking neon arrow saying, "Here we are."  Brief conversation and we were packed up heading back into town. 


Thursday morning was an early one photographing a trail runner down in the valley along the river trail just before town. Quick shoot and we were done in about an hour. Later that day was all about on-location portraits. I always enjoy watching other photographers set up lighting scenarios. Michael was quick and methodical and I grabbed a few things to put in my back pocket. Somehow, I wound up as the model. The headshot in the sidebar was the result.


The actual festival kicked off Thursday evening with a couple of talks. Nevada Weir spoke about some of her early stories and travels with NatGeo. Nothing short of amazing.

Things slowed down a little on Friday. Breakfast meeting that went smashingly well then a quick hike up Bear Creek. A few lectures in the afternoon including another from Nevada. In the evening, Michael and Jeff Foott gave retrospectives on their careers. Again, amazing. 

Saturday included a hike on the Jud Weibe trail through wonderful fall color with a few lectures in the afternoon, including an interesting panel on social media marketing. That evening the Festival screened Frame by Frame. As I mentioned earlier, go see this. Hopefully, Alexandria will get some distribution soon. Following the movie, Jeff Lipsky shared his career in photographs. Every one more mind blowing than the last with stories to match.

For a first workshop experience, it was excellent. I learned a few new things, met some great people and made some fantastic images. Will I go back next year? More than likely but with more of a focus on the portfolio reviews. Time to get cracking on a new book.