Kurt M Lawson Photography »

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Solo Gallery Show and new Online Store

In a few weeks I will be opening my first solo gallery show at the First Presbyterian Church Gallery in Fort Wayne, Indiana


http://www.firstpres-fw.org/the_arts/gallery/

I’ll be attending for the opening reception on September 7th, 5:30-7:15pm and on September 21st during the Fort Wayne Museum of Art Trolley Tour. I hope to see you there!

Also, I’ve set up an online store using Shopify. Currently, there are only posters, postcards and prints of the 97 Switchbacks At Night listed. I hope to add more soon as it gets up and running. Check out the store here:

http://store.kurtlawson.com

I hope to see people at the gallery show!

“Wow” redux, and my photography philosophy

WOW (redux)

While getting ready to print some of my all time favorite photos, I took a closer look at the panorama I simply called “WOW” back in January 2011. “WOW” was pretty much the only thought I could think as I witnessed the most intense and amazing sunset spectacle yet to appear before this photographer’s eyes. The setting is Badwater, the lowest point in North America in the heart of Death Valley National Park. Unusually heavy rains hammered the valley in December 2010, resulting in a flood of this lowest point, which is typically a salt flat with polygonal fractures forming miniature salty techtonic plates as far as the eye can see. Instead of that interesting and otherworldly scene, a dramatically different landscape greeted me. The entire basin was covered with a temporary lake. This was an opportunity I was waiting for. I fell in love with Death Valley after my first visit in January 2008 with my friend and fellow photographer Robert Mance. Not long after that first visit, I immersed myself in reading about this park and it’s amazing landscapes. During that research I discovered the flood of February 2005. Images of a flooded Badwater amazed me, and so did the thought of kayaking across this miniature lake, something no humans probably had ever done. I vowed to keep an eye on the weather in the future, and winter 2010-2011 would give me the chance to capture this rare event. You can read more about my January 2011 adventures in my Tales of a Flooded Badwater posts – part 1 and part 2. My second night on the first trip to a flooded Badwater would yield this panorama. “Wow” is what I said to myself repeatedly out loud into the emptiness of the valley. “Thank you!” I shouted to the landscape as I trudged back to my car through the 8 inches of salty water.

I thought I’d use this image as an example of how I will approach photographic post processing, as well as taking you through the steps I took with the “Wow” panorama to arrive at the final result. Lets begin.

For me photography is largely an interpretive art. The fun for me is in capturing something amazing that happens, and then sharing my interpretation of that through the artistic tools of photography. I try to keep things real when photographing landscapes. What I mean by that is that the landscape itself existed at the time I clicked the shutter. The quality of light is all there before the camera, recorded onto a piece of film or recorded by the electrical impulses of a CMOS or CCD sensor.

Photography is not how I make my living. I make my living as a compositor working on visual effects for movies. Think of it as “animated Photoshop” where images get combined in sequence to show movement rather than the single frame static scenes of photography. For a living, I make fake images. We call the “visual effects shots.” They might be totally transparent things that you wouldn’t notice unless someone told you – the removal of unwanted freckles on a face, the removal of reflections from a car, sky replacements, etc – or it could be completely obvious like adding the Lizard in a scene from the forthcoming Amazing Spiderman movie. All of these things may look real, but the end image is something that is no longer captured as far as I am concerned. It has crossed a line into something new that is created in post processing. Clearly, this is something highly subjective, so you are going to have to figure out where the line is for you.

It’s pretty simple for most images to me. Did I capture this scene, or did I create it later on my computer? The world of digital photography allows for limitless digital modification of images. People can remove trees they don’t like, change the sky, radically change and enhance the colors, composite elements together endlessly. If I took a photo from Death Valley and replaced the sky with one I shot at El Matador State Beach in Malibu, CA, can I still call it a “Death Valley” photograph? For me the answer is a definitive no. If I add in an over-sized moon dominating the sky of my image in Death Valley, is that something I captured or created? I’ve seen a lot of other photographers add moons to their shots, often huge moons that are astronomically and optically impossible. I think there are many people who view moons in landscape photographs with some suspicion due to the prevalence of bad moon composites. The bottom line: is this an image of a landscape that existed at the time I clicked the shutter, or is this something that could exist. For me a photography is all about the former, and the later is the realm of composites, digital art and visual effects shot. I want to capture reality with my photography. My day job of visual effects is for fake images. This is my philosophy. If you want to read an article arguing for more artistic license, Alain Briot has this article about Artistic License over at Luminous Landscape. Also, please note that composites are not the sole realm of digital photography. Jerry Uelsmann has done truly amazing composites in the darkroom long before photoshop became a verb.

This doesn’t mean I reject outright a lot of these tools that are available. Instead, I use them sometimes to overcome limitations of the camera system I’m using. The biggest example of this is images with huge dynamic range. In a few very select cases I have combined two exposures to lower the exposure of the sky when there is a scene of a dark foreground. This image from the Racetrack in Death Valley is an example. I used an underexposed bracket to bring back some detail where the sun had overexposed: (click for bigger)

Racing Rock

This used the compositing power of photoshop to simply compress the dynamic range a little. The scene was not fundamentally altered in any way, and now is closer to what I saw. But wait! That’s black and white! That brings me to:

Black and White Photography

Black and white photography will always be a more liberal interpretation of a scene than color photography. My childhood photography hero Ansel Adams captured amazing scenes and then used his masterful darkroom skills to extract an amazing “performance” from the negative “score.” I will sometimes do some light dodging and burning (increasing or decreasing exposure selectively) in some of my photographs, mostly with black and white interpretations which is not a way the human eye sees. You still wont’ find me adding moons that were not there and skies that were shot at a different place and time. If we use the Ansel Adams analogy I mentioned about the negative being like a musical score and the performance is the print, then I would say I am not going to change out whole sections of music by inserting parts of other scores.

Star Trails and other things the human eye just can’t see

Some photography is by its very nature fundamentally different than the way the human eye sees. I am rather fond of star trail photographs, and the human eye can’t see star trails looking up at the night sky. All my star trail shots are captured at once. I haven’t yet tried to use the “stacking” technique of combining multiple exposures into one star trail image. For really long exposures I just use film.

Panoramas

Finally, we get to my example image, which is a panorama from the flooded Badwater in Death Valley where we began. One compositing technique I have no problem using is combining multiple exposures into a panorama. The result is a super high resolution image that would exceed the capabilities of the camera. The trick is that you have to be quick about it when the light is changing. My technique is to set the camera on manual and carefully and quickly fire off 3 bracket exposures, then rotate the camera, repeat. Manual focus is also important. I’ve had numerous panoramas ruined by changing focus between frames. I always bracket exposures because I don’t trust myself, and I may want the option to restore some detail in an otherwise blown out section of the frame.

I have just gone through and completely reprocessed the “Wow” panorama as I get ready to print it (the print will be 18 by 70 inches). Why reprocess it? Well with the arrival of Lightroom 4.x, I’ve noticed that images just look better. Lightroom 4 does a much better job with highlights, rolling them off more gracefully. I felt that this image could benefit from some of that. Here are my brackets. The base exposure was 0.8 seconds at f/16 iso 200. A UV filter was on 16-35mm f2.8L II lens at 24mm. Bracket exposures were +/- 2 stops.

Brackets for central panorama image


The 7 frames of this panorama

The 7 frames of this panorama


This is the three raw files with all settings at default in Lightroom. From here I selected the “normal” exposure. This frame seemed to be the best balance of exposure. Looking at the histogram, the image data bunched up to the right without hitting the wall, meaning no pixels are exceeding the range the sensor could record. Having the pixels bunched up to the right also tends to result in an image with less noise as digital camera noise tends to be very prevalent in underexposed areas in most RAW files.

Notice that this panorama has 7 images. This was not planned. Normally, I would also try to shoot the panorama vertically to record more overall information. However, in a somewhat panicked panorama frenzy, I shot several different panoramas through the magic moments of this sunset. I didn’t know what the light was going to do so I just kept shooting. There are panoramas in my raw library of 6-14 images at all different focal lengths. In retrospect I should have at least had the camera vertically mounted, but that’s hindsight. The light I have decided, was the best at this moment. The panoramas before and after this are just not as dramatic, and this moment was dramatic.

So next I think about what I want to accomplish with the post processing. In this case I am making some adjustments to the overall exposure level and contrast. Besides that I want to darken the sky a little to equalize it with the reflected sky, and then that’s pretty much it besides stitching the panorama together and a pinch of sharpening. Can’t forget dust removal too. I hate sensor dust. Here are the adjustments. I’m not going to go into too much detail as to what each function does, since there are plenty of other resources as to how lightroom’s controls work.

The raw image ready to go in Lightroom

The raw image ready to go in Lightroom


Basic contrast, exposure and black level adjustments applied

Basic contrast, exposure and black level adjustments applied


Slight tone curve adjustment

Slight tone curve adjustment


Digital graduated ND filters, profile corrections, noise and sharpening

Digital graduated ND filters, profile corrections, noise and sharpening


The final result, which I felt captured the essence of what it was like standing there:
Central panorama image with all adjustments

Central panorama image with all adjustments


I felt like I was between two worlds. The reflection quality was incredible due to the lack of wind. I didn’t adjust saturation / color controls at all. The color is all “straight from the camera”, though there is a natural increase of saturation by darkening the image down a little. I didn’t feel it needed anything else.

A quick synchronize of settings across the 7 images and everything looked good, except for the far right. In that image the Black Mountains had become really black, so I added a grad in the last image of shadows +35 all the way across the frame to feather detail back into the blackness.

Now it was time to stitch. I exported full size 16-bit TIFF files of each of the 7 images and had Autopano Giga look at the folder.

Autopano Giga's automatic panorama stitch

Autopano Giga's automatic panorama stitch

In just a few seconds Autopano Giga produced a panorama that was 99% of where I wanted it to be. I ended up exporting the panorama setup to PTGui Pro to do a couple of fine tweaks. I probably could have done the tweaks in Autopano, but I’m not as familiar with it. I used PTGui since before you could automatically generate any points at all. I added a couple control points, re-centered and rotated the panorama slightly to try and keep the horizon as centered and straight as possible. Here’s a screenshot of PTGui Pro showing where the stitch points are:

PTGui showing stitch pionts

PTGui showing stitch pionts

I love that Autopano Pro can export setups to PTGui, which I can then tweak.

I think the end result is better. Here’s the original (click for bigger):

WOW

And here is my reprocessing (click for bigger):

WOW (redux)

Summary

So there you have one example of my post processing. I don’t do any content-altering compositing. I will use technology to overcome camera limitations such as dynamic range problems (though none of that tone mapped over-processed HDR stuff) and combining images to make panoramas that were shot at the same time (within seconds of each other). I don’t add a moon to shots that didn’t have it. I don’t replace skies with skies shot at other times or places. I don’t remove trees that I don’t like. I capture and then interpret reality. I’m not out to create a fantasy land visual effects shot. I don’t want to create images that could exist. “Here’s what I saw” is what I want my photography to be, not “here’s what I made up in Photoshop.” This is just my philosophy, and I hope you enjoy my photography as I share it. Not every landscape needs to be retouched as much as your average model shot. Nature isn’t perfect, and neither are my photographs. I hope maybe at least a little that my photography will inspire you to go out and see the natural beauty that is in the world around us. It’s everywhere, you just have to look.

Please comment below and let me know what you think.

August 21, 2012 - 1:41 pm

Cody Smith - Hey Kurt,

I’ve been following you on flickr for a while now and just today I’m discovering your blog.

Firstly, really, mind-blowing panorama of Badwater. I might’ve named it “Wow” myself; a sight such as that one tends to defy words altogether, much less any kind of description. I’d love to see it printed.

Secondly, I found the outline of your photographic philosophy to be very refreshing, especially considering current trends in digital manipulation. Very intriguing, too, when noting the duality inherent in being a digital compositor professionally (at it’s highest level, manipulating reality in four dimensions) and a naturalist in your photography. I wonder if it makes you feel well-rounded or as if you are at odds with yourself, at times. But I digress.

Lastly, I thought I’d go out on a limb. I live in Los Angeles and I am currently pursuing a career in film (I’m the only one, I’m told) and photography. When I say I “live” in Los Angeles, I say it with hesitation, because I don’t feel like I do much “living” here at all. But I do feel alive when I leave here, typically Northward, toward Mt. Whitney, Owens Valley, Death Valley, and all manner of other beautiful mysterious places. If you also “live” here in LA and you’re ever in need of a fellow photographer to accompany you to the mountains, I’d be more than interested in taking a trip. I’m very amiable, and I could discuss photography all day long, among other things. If the opportunity comes up, send word.

Anyway, this was a rather long comment, wasn’t it? Keep up the good work, I’ll be sure to follow you here more often.

Prints, posters and post cards

I’ve received quite a lot of interest for my photo, The 97 Switchbacks at Night. I’m pleased to finally announce that I will take orders for prints of this photo. For the past several months, I’ve been working like crazy at my day job. That project has finally come to an end, and as a result I finally have time to return to my photography, which is my #1 passion when I’m not working. That passion demands the utmost quality in my prints. I’ve therefore selected Fujiflex Crystal Archive prints for this photo. It’s just an amazing printing technology that reminds me of Cibachrome / Ilfochrome, which I used to print myself when I had access to a darkroom. A LightJet imager “prints” onto photographic paper with lasers and then the paper is developed through photochemical processes. It looks wonderful with this image, and you can see one of these prints in the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center as noted in the previous posting. Each print will be personally inspected and signed. In addition, I’m including mounting in the price. The image will be float mounted onto acrylic or aluminum with a border, ready for a matte and frame of your choice. Contact me directly if you wish to have it border-less or laminated and we can work out on a case by case basis. Fujiflex printing and the professional mounting are not cheap, but they are stunning prints.

FujiFlex Prints, mounted:

8x10 $ 250
16x20 $ 450
24x30 $ 600
40x50 $1200

Posters and Post Cards

This is not the only way I am going to offer this image, however. I’m currently working with a few people to produce some posters and post cards with The 97 Switchbacks at Night on them, which I hope will be sold in the area as well as direct from me online. I’m waiting currently on some quotes before that can proceed. Naturally, the pricing on these reproduction posters and postcards will be what you might expect based on the price of other posters for sale. The total poster size will be 18×24 inches. Post cards will be 4×6.

I’m also busy preparing a selection of prints for my first gallery exhibition. Details for that are coming soon. It will be in my home town of Fort Wayne, Indiana this fall and I will be there.

Ordering

For print ordering, Paypal seems to be the easiest thing for me at the moment, though I will work on more and perhaps better ways to accept payment.
Please contact me at prints “@” kurtlawson.com and I will send you a Paypal invoice based on what you want, and then I can make prints and get them to you as soon as possible.

The 97 Switchbacks on Display

On Saturday March 3rd, 2012 I loaned a print of The 97 Switchbacks At Night for display at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center in Lone Pine, California. This is the very same visitor’s center where permits are picked up to climb Mount Whitney. The print measures 24×30 inches and is a FujiFlex Crystal Archive print, with about 4 inches of white matting and a quality black wooden frame. I’m really excited for people to be able to see it. I have twice visited this visitor center to pick up Mount Whitney permits myself, including the permits for this very photo and my own ascent to the summit in 2010. The next time you find yourself in the Owens Valley, stop by and check it out. The FujiFlex print is really something to see compared to the small version online.

The Eastern Sierra InterAgency Visitor Center is located at the junction of US Highway 395 and State Route 136, one mile south of Lone Pine.

The 97 Switchbacks on Display

 

Kurt stands next to his photo

 

Inter-Agency Visitor Center

 

 

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March 6, 2012 - 9:51 am

Kristen - Congratulations!

May 30, 2012 - 10:42 pm

fabian - Hey Kurt! I’ll be doing Palisades this weekend, I’ll check the picture out!!!

My 11 favorites from 2011

Well today is the last day of 2011. Last year was a great one for my photography, and this one has turned out to be exceptional as well in my opinion. I learned a lot this year and I feel my shooting has matured at least a little. I still manage to shoot 800 frames a day (lots of exposure bracketing) in places like Death Valley. Indeed Death Valley was a frequent destination this year, as it proved a convenient place for me to do test exposures for my Mount Whitney project. Perhaps I was a bit biased after falling in love with that park in 2008 after my first visit, but its proximity to Mt. Whitney and absence of human or animal interference was a factor. I also got to visit a place I had been longing for: the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains. I ended up making three visits to this magical place. This year also saw a return to Anacapa Island, as we made good on our plan to camp there overnight. I had planned to shoot star trails at Inspiration Point, but some insane winds all night forced me to use my tripods to stabilize my tent instead. I made quick visit of Yosemite through Tioga Pass, and finally did some shooting in the Alabama Hills. Virtually every single trip prior to August was designed around test shots for the Mount Whitney project. That project turned out to be a huge success, as the final image speaks for itself. I can only hope that 2012 will bring in new and exciting photo opportunities, and I’m looking forward to new adventures.

Sorting through some 18,000 frames was not easy, but in the end here are my 11 favorites from 2011. And be sure to check out my 20 favorites from 2010 as well.

"WOW" - An incredible sunset in a flooded Badwater

"WOW" - An incredible sunset in a flooded Badwater


Click here for a bigger version

When I posted this image to flickr, I just titled it “WOW.” I couldn’t think of anything else, and when I had walked away from the landscape I spoke out loud “thank you” for the experience of just being there for that. December 2009 saw heavy rains that created a temporary lake at Badwater, Death Valley’s lowest point in North America. There was no wind, so the lake offered a near perfect mirror to the spectacular light show in the clouds. I couldn’t move my feet as the water would ripple for 5 minutes. I was quite contorted as I shot this panorama without a ripple, and this is the result of those efforts.

Star trail reflection on a windless night

Star trail reflection on a windless night

After shooting the panorama of the sunset, I went to bed early. I awoke at midnight and headed back to Badwater with one thing in mind: Star Trails. I was shooting my first test exposures for the Mt. Whitney Project, and placed a number of film cameras and opened their shutters. I then placed my 5D2 out in the water and set the timer for a 45 minute exposure. Due to long exposure noise reduction, I had a 45 minute wait after that was done before I would see an image. I decided I would go to Zabriskie Point maybe for my next digital star trails. When I got there the camera was done and I was floored by the image on the tiny LCD. I scrapped the Zabriskie Point idea and sped straight back to Badwater and shot this shot as my second exposure. I’m glad I did! The wind was basically nonexistent again, producing clear reflected star trails with just a bit of rippling at the end of the exposure.

Quiet symmetry

Quiet symmetry

A final favorite from the mirrored reflections is this image from my second trip to Death Valley this year. The water was still, and this morning there were a few other photographers present at sunrise (at the far right of frame). Here the blue shadow of the Earth can be seen just before it is fully chased away by the rising sun. I just love the soft hues here and the mirror reflection.

Windy Winter on Whitney

Windy Winter on Whitney

In March I paid a visit to the mountain that would really occupy my mind for 9 months out of the year. We had just passed into spring but it was very much still winter up on Mount Whitney as you can see . I like this one as it is very dynamic with the clouds and snow blowing across the valleys and passes leading up to the mountain’s 14,508 ft summit. I stood up on that highest point in August 2010 and that trip inspired my project.

First moonlight on Mount Whitney

First moonlight on Mount Whitney

The stars! This image, shot in the Alabama Hills looking towards Mt. Whitney (just to the right of center), was one of the shots upon which the Mt. Whitney Project’s exposure was based. Long, beautiful star trails and the rising moon illuminating the tops of the Sierras. This was more the expected colors for the final shot, which would turn out to be colored quite differently.

The 97 Switchbacks at Night

The 97 Switchbacks at Night

It should be no surprise that this image, the culmination of my Mt. Whitney Project is here on this list. All the effort of planning and hard work and the generous volunteer work of friends new and old helped me capture this. The infamous 97 switchbacks of the Mt. Whitney Trail, illuminated at night by lantern. My favorite shot from 2011, and pretty much the end of sleepless nights shooting star trails for this year as well.

844 Crosses the Mojave

844 Crosses the Mojave

This year saw the visit of the Union Pacific Railroad’s beautiful steam locomotive 844 to southern California for the first time in many years. Being a lover of steam locomotives since I was a kid, I set out to capture this locomotive during it’s visit. This is by far my favorite capture from this trip. The previous night I headed into Afton Canyon in the Mojave Desert to scout out a location. I picked this exact spot and returned in the morning to capture 844 as she headed downhill through the canyon. She was a little late, but 844 put on a spectacular show of steam.

Manhattan Beach Pier 11-11-11 Sunburst

Manhattan Beach Pier 11-11-11 Sunburst

I saw before 11-11-11 that there was a flickr pool set up for this day with lots of people planning to capture something from this numerically amusing date. I headed out with my gear down to Manhattan Beach, California armed with my new Lee Big Stopper 10-stop neutral density filter. This image was one of my first to use this filter, which allows you to shoot longer exposures in broad daylight. A storm was rolling in and I used it to produce this surreal effect, imagining that it might resemble my previous night exposures but during the daytime. During this shot the sun briefly poked through the clouds producing the sunburst.

Light and shadow in the dunes

Light and shadow in the dunes

No longer focused on star trail tests, I paid a visit to Death Valley to enjoy its many wonderful places. A longtime favorite has been the Mesquite Dunes near Stovepipe Wells. On this afternoon, scattered clouds were breaking up the light, causing some dunes to be in bright light and others in shadow. As I was shooting and the light was fading, the sun descended behind a bank of dark clouds, masking the light and isolating a dune in the distance. I spotted this scene and pointed my 100-400mm zoom, using ever millimeter it offered. I love the isolation and contrast of the bright golden dune vs. the whacky shadowed dunes in the foreground. I honestly don’t know where the blue-green tones came from in the shadows but they were there in the raw file.

Sunrise spotlight at Dante's View

Sunrise spotlight at Dante's View

I decided to go to Dante’s View for sunrise for once, even though there was a chance of rain. I was seeking out weather and drama in the skies, so I headed up there before dawn and was incredibly glad I did. Clouds in the East masked the rising sun, producing a sliver of light that traveled down the Panamint Range. In my initial pass through these images I had somehow overlooked this one, but now I can’t stop coming back to it. There’s something about it that just captivates me and makes me return to it again and again. I love the red tones and the contrasts of the salty flows on the valley floor.

Magic Light on the Panamints (Panorama)

Magic Light on the Panamints (Panorama)


Click here for a bigger version

And finally, I offer up an enormous panorama of the sliver of light taken at one of the more dramatic points in the morning. It was a frantic morning trying to capture this scene, as the light changed by the second. If I am to print this 12″ tall, it will measure 125″ wide. It was really a sight to behold and I hope that this will offer you at least an impression through which you can experience a bit of that morning yourself.

Well there you have it. Before I change my mind again, here are 11 favorites from 2011. Next year I hope to travel to some new places, both in Death Valley and the Sierras and new unexplored places. I hope 2012 allows me to produce images at least as interesting as these, and I hope that you have enjoyed viewing them as much as I have enjoyed capturing them and sharing them with you. I wish everyone a Happy New Year!

January 2, 2012 - 8:04 pm

Xingyuan Wang - Nice! I especially like “First moonlight” and dunes… those shots of the flooded desert are also eerily beautiful.

January 10, 2012 - 2:55 am

Jim Goldstein - Fantastic set of images. 97 switchbacks and 1st light on mount whitney are top notch. Thanks for taking part in my blog project.

January 10, 2012 - 7:40 am

admin - Thanks Xingyuan and Jim!

January 11, 2012 - 2:20 pm
January 12, 2012 - 3:20 pm

Best Photos of 2011 — the list @ Chuqui 3.0 - […] My 11 favorites from 2011 – Kurt M. Lawson Photography […]

January 22, 2012 - 12:53 pm

My Top Photos of 2011 – Jonesblog - […] My 11 favorites from 2011 – Kurt M. Lawson Photography *** […]

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