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Every now and then I try to break out of my own shell and do something different. This ambition applies to many aspects of my life – food, wines, cars, clothes. More often than not I default back to what I know and what I love. But at least I tried, and often something new is learned, or in fact you learned to trust your instincts a little better.

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In photography I seem to do this on an ongoing basis. At times I feel “stuck” heavily using the matte B&W style. So I try different things like color, like 1×1 or other formats, by shooting different subjects. But most of the time I revert back to what I know, what I love or to what I want to better understand. But it is more than that. Even within the confines of the matte B&W form I’m constantly tweaking the formula, experimenting with new controls and settings (currently within my favorite RAW processing app – Iridient Digital).

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But there are times when I don’t feel the matte B&W formula captures the spirit of the places i typically shoot. It feels unnecessarily restrictive. In some seasons, perhaps in all seasons, color just seems to showcase the wildness and diversity more clearly. More obviously. You get a direct sense for what’s there. And I like those pictures. Color is more difficult than B&W to get “accurate,” but I’ve learned more both about what I like and how to get closer to achieving it.

Yet, still. The color pictures feel too obvious. Too understandable. Too simple, too forgetful, too mundane. Even though they are beautiful the story is not as interesting.

I’ve been working with a series of pictures from a recent Tilden Park walk processing them all as both color and matte B&W. Trying to break out of my shell. But when I flip back and forth between the color and matte B&W versions of each image I almost always prefer the B&W copy. I feel more for the B&W copy. And this is forcing me to think deeper about why.
Oddly, I sometimes feel the same way about matte B&W copies vs straight B&W copies. All around, I love B&W photography (in general more so than color). Straight B&W images can be dynamic, denser, more impactful, and contrast can be used to achieve a highly graphical appearance that is appealing.
But the quiet aura of the matte B&W style appeals to me more often than not.
Again, I wonder why. But it really doesn’t matter. I don’t want to remove the mystery from the images, to deconstruct the why until it’s matter of fact. Still, I can’t help but think about this. There is an analytical part of my mind that desires to dig deeper below the wonder of art. I can’t help myself. My software design approach involves the same balance: art and analysis, form and function.
Flipping through those color and B&W pictures I reference above a few “whys” drift in to my awareness. The matte B&W images are more mysterious. There is more uncertainty to them, a reduction in clarity or obviousness or explicitness. They are the same picture and the same subject, but it’s not always obvious what you are looking at. They ask for deeper reflection; I suppose that is intentional.
The matte B&W images also resemble pencil drawings, an art form that I love but I’m not yet very familiar with. The gritty, expressive nature of lead pencil marks on textured paper. I believe that is one reason why I prefer to print on textured matte paper; because it augments that character of my pictures. I recently stumbled onto the work of Sarah Gillespie. At first glance, I assumed she created B&W photographs. However, I was surprised to learn that they are pencil drawings. This, I thought to myself, was where I’d like to go next. Another recent discovery along similar lines is John Keane’s series Fear. On seeing those images I was inspired to try something new in the future; stay tuned.
There is also a still, quiet aspect to my matte B&W images, and I sense that that component plays into what I see when I walk through those woods. Away from the urban environment surrounded by (semi) wildness filled with quiet or the lyrical sound of birds or other animals. In addition to the quiet of the subject, matte B&W adds a quiet sense of history. Of age, or perhaps timelessness. This component may have to do with the fact that many older B&W prints have a faded, matte look to them. The blacks dull over time, the whites fade to a lesser vibrancy.
Finally, to my eye, the color pictures and matte B&W images cause you to focus on different subjects within the frame. This will vary from frame to frame, but in general I find that that color pictures draw your eye more directly to specific elements within the frame whereas the matte B&W pictures are more holistic and often allow your eye to wonder on its own or to view the image as one object. Again, this is by no means a universal truth. I have no idea if it is an unconscious intent, but it may be something to think about.
Ironically, to my eyes, the matte B&W style feels less photographic. Of course they are photographs simply processed using apps – in most cases to date I do not do anything else with them. But the matte B&W style seems to remove the pictures one step away from straight photograph (as in the color versions, which feel more direct) and towards something else. Then again, the same argument can be made for virtually any photograph; they are all processed in some way.
But A/B testing the color and matte B&W images by flipping back and forth through them (I have not printed them yet) is not the right way to consider them, and will eventually give you a headache. Like anything that is A/B tested, one affects your sense of the other. The matte B&W image will naturally look dull when viewed right after the color image. Similarly, the color image may look too bold when viewed right after the matte B&W image. This study is best done over time and with prints, with enough time to allow their spirits to soak in. I have no doubt this will be an ongoing debate in my mind, and of course there is no right answer.
I’m still learning how to get the most from my matte B&W pictures. I primarily use curves to achieve the base matte appearance, but the shadows can clump up, lose detail. That does not bother me so much, but even still I’d like to figure out how to preserve detail in deep shades to the extent that, quite literally, a shadow of the subject remains. This becomes a bigger issue when printing, and often times I have to reprocess a picture for printing as opposed to online viewing. The darker sensibility I prefer can end up too dark, too dull in prints, lacking enough vibrancy to activate. That challenge reminds me of the difference between back-lit viewing on an LCD and viewing prints, which reflect light instead of transmitting it.
Some will see the matte B&W appearance as just another “filter” commonly applied in many smart phone camera apps. That is how it started for me, but I felt inherently drawn to it and I deconstructed the settings that were used to create the filters. I’d like to believe that by now I’ve made it my own. That I’ve absorbed it into my work as a natural output of what I see.
We’ll see where it goes over time. There may be more cracks in the shell to come.

There is an embarrassment of riches in raptors these days.

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The other night it rained (slightly) and the next morning I decided to neglect my responsibilities for a short bit and take a walk in Tilden Park to photograph what I saw. I was picturing in one of the meadows I frequent and out of the corner of my eye saw a largish bird fly by (thank you peripheral vision, you work as intended).
By now I’m somewhat trained and I was able to quickly track and follow where the bird flew. Indeed it was raptor. But a few leaves were in my way so I quietly moved position to get a better view. It flew somewhere else. I slowly walked in that direction and found the bird again, perched high in a Eucalyptus tree. It stayed there long enough for me to observe it, maybe 40 yards out.
Suddenly, a second bird flew in and landed a few feet from the first bird. Holy cow, two raptors side by side. The second bird was smaller than the first. Then, as I was watching them through my binoculars, the second bird jumped on top of the first and… it was like watching the Nature TV show in 3D! Wow. No time wasted on romance – just get the job done and fly off. We may see eggs someday soon.
After photographing more trees I searched the bird app on my phone and discovered that they were Red-Shouldered Hawks. I’ve seen some kind of raptor in that meadow before, so presumably they hang out there. Probably a good spot to capture prey.
BTW the local Peregrine Falcon seems to have moved on, but we are still keeping an eye out for it. The tree, though tall and graceful, is pretty thin, and perhaps not optimized for stable nesting.
Hold on… it’s back!
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Here are pictures of the aforementioned Peregrine Falcon. It seems to have arrived a couple of weeks ago, but lately has been gone more than not.

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The Peregrine Falcon is the fastest animal in the animal kingdom. It has been clocked at more than 200 miles an hour. When they dive for prey it’s called a stoop, where they free-fall until they get close to the prey. They were threatened in California because of DDT (like so many other birds), but have made a strong comeback. Around the world they are common.
We don’t know if this is a male or female. Some days it is there and others it is not. Under the tree lies a lot of bird poop and a few piles of gray mats of fur. It moves from limb to limb day to day. Two days ago my son and I were walking back from the grocery store and heard a screeching. Looking up we saw the falcon land on the tree followed by another falcon, which passed and flew further south. The falcon that landed on our nearest tree continued to screech for a bit – it was loud, quite a racket for a bird.
Our guess was that it was screeching to make the sure the other falcon kept its distance. Otherwise, it was screeching to call the other falcon back. Perhaps a potential mate.
A few days ago there were around 2 dozen crows camped in the tree making all kinds of noise. It seemed as if they were doing all they could to make sure the falcon stayed away.
You know these birds are around, but it is amazing to have one right next door and be able to observe it day to day. It is quite extradorinaiy to see its behavior more closely, to see this kind of nature up close.
Coincidentally, I’m reading H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. Originally published in the UK, I had considered ordering a copy from Caught By The River, but it is now available in the US. The book is a memoir from a woman who decides to train a Goshawk after her father passes away. The writing is very rich and poetic and you get a real feel for what she was going through, particularly in the experience of training such a wild, predatory animal.
On a related note, Robert Macfarlane’s new book Landmarks is just out. I’ve read his other books and look forward to this one too.

Hello World, It has been a dreadfully long time since I’ve posted anything on this blog. I won’t bore you with the details of why, or what’s been going on, but I plan to make an effort to add a few posts soon, to exercise my words and as a way to organize a few photographs.

I’d like to start with a simple selection of Tilden Park Jewel Lake Loop pictures – my old standby photography destination. I have not been there too much lately; perhaps you’ve heard that the drought continues in Northern California, and in addition to not much water it’s been warm too. I wore a sweater once this entire winter. Without water and its associated effects in both flora and cloudless days my inspiration to go out remains low, and as always I’m busy.

Tilden Park is in an odd state: plants seem to be falling down everywhere. Also, what few winter storms we’ve had have blown down a few trees. As I understand it, both are circumstances of stressed plants and root systems that are losing their strength to stand firm. What you are left with is a strange world of nests of limbs and twigs laying on top of each other. I discovered the Jewel Lake Loop soon after my son was born, when we took him there to see Little Farm and its small collection of animals, and stumbled onto the Loop. In all those years I’ve never seen it look like this.
My son is studying the Iditarod race in Alaska and thanks to the weather all along the West Coast of North America most the entire race has been rerouted. There’s very little snow in our nation’s largest state. Perhaps the race should move to Buffalo.
I may have a few more Tilden Park posts, but the core of my recent photographic efforts has been Point Reyes, which I plan to start showing you soon. And perhaps in my next post I’ll show you a picture of the Peregrine Falcon that has moved in next door.
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Trying something new here – an idea I’ve had for a long while. Less about photography; documenting more of the complete experience. This was recorded on this hike with just my iPhone.

 

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An introduction to various topics. Stay tuned.

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