miércoles, septiembre 28

Making photos of Baja California’s landscapes with a large format camera

Alan Harper, PhD, photographer, and Terra board member
Terra has asked me to write about the photographs I have been making of some of my favorite places in Baja California (mostly in the north-west, also known as the California Floristic Province). For over six years I have been photographing these landscapes with a 4” x 5” large-format camera, using film, and then printing the images digitally.

The process of creating such a photo really deserves a book to describe it (and Ansel Adams has already written all of them), so I will just discuss some of the highlights of the process here.

To begin with, a large format camera is the camera you associate with Ansel Adams, or any of the photographers of the early 20th century. It consists of a lens in front, a frame to hold the film in the back, and bellows to connect them. (In fact, my grandfather traveled around China in the 1920’s with just such a camera, and his photos show scenes not otherwise known from that time).

Digital photo of a large-format camera, by DJOtaku, used with permission

Unlike these photographers, I have the luxury of using color film, and I don’t have to carry a laboratory with me to develop the images in the field. I send my film to a lab (in San Diego), and then I scan the slides with an ultra-high quality scanner, and do my final processing in Photoshop, before printing them on an archival giclée printer. (“Giclée” is pseudo-French for “Inkjet”).

There are a lot of aspects to this process, and it has taken me years to figure out even the basics of making a good photo, but I want to focus here on just a few of the steps: (1) translating light into an image, (2) creating the illusion of deep focus, (3) color, and (4) my commitment to fidelity, whatever that means.

1. Light

When we see an image, our eye never actually tries to create anything like a photo. The retina has areas of high resolution and low resolution, areas devoted to color or to black-and-white (cones and rods), and even a giant blind spot. And, of course, the eye is never steady but is always jumping around. But we are completely unaware of this. Our eye sees patterns of light and dark, but our brain creates an stable understandable image from this staggered, staccato input.

From the point of view of a photographer, this means that the eye-brain-mind never notices a number of problems that the camera cannot avoid. Let’s say we are in a oak forest at 2 in the afternoon—there is bright light on the leaves, and shade under the trees. Our eye jumps around and the iris (and retina) adjust so that we can see both the bright areas and the dark areas. In fact, often in a scene like this the darkest shade will have 10,000 times less light than the brightest areas in the sun—but we have no problem, we just let our eyes adjust and our brains synthesize the complete scene.

But for the photographer, the film just lays down more or less silver (or in the case of color photography, pigment), and after a certain density, we can’t make it any darker. In fact, film will only reliably record about 50 x from the lightest to the darkest. (Six doublings or halvings of light is 6 “stops”, or a 64-fold difference in light, and most film will reach only about 5 1/2 stops of difference). Even our best digital cameras only can do perhaps a 100-fold difference between light and dark.

What this means is that many scenes that look quite normal to the eye are in fact very difficult to photograph—and if you want to make a nice photograph, you either have to think differently, or work on the kinds of scenes that are easy to photograph.

A related problem is that over a few minutes or hours, the eye can become adjusted to an amazing range of brightnesses. From bright sun on sand to crescent moon is more than a 10,000,000 fold difference in light. But a photographer can’t do this, and, beyond certain adjustments our only recourse is to keep the shutter open longer, and even that doesn’t work beyond a few minutes or hours of time.

What this means for me, is that often the photos that work out the best are those that are made when the light is the most uniform—which usually means: before the sun comes up.

“Setting sun over Isla San Martín” © Alan Harper. All rights reserved.
This image of the sun setting over Isla San Martin seems to be taken with maximal contrast, with the sun in the middle of the image. But in fact, the sun was low in the sky and humidity in the air, which decreases contrast. Even so, the image of the sun itself was a clear white in the original image, and I added the yellow tint to the circle of the sun in Photoshop—recovering what the human eye saw, even if the contrast in the image exceeded what the film could register.

2. The illusion of infinite focus

Because our eyes dart around, we can focus on each part of the scene separately. Until we become old and our eyes stiffen, the world that our brains create can be in focus from nearly the tip of our nose to the horizon.

The camera doesn’t have this luxury, and in fact, the larger the camera the less volume that is in focus. If you have ever seen a classic portrait made mid-century with a large-format camera, often the only part of the face that is in focus are the eyes, and a strange slice through the nose and the lips that is in the same plane as the eyes. The film in my camera is 4” x 5” (100 mm x 125 mm), or perhaps 500 times larger than the sensor in a point-and-shoot camera, and with that size comes a very narrow depth-of-field.

The “trick” in creating the illusion of infinite depth of field is two-fold. I can make the iris on my camera very small (a high f-stop), which will bring more into focus. But the primary tool that I have is that I twist the lens, up and down, and left and right. This allows me to move the area that is sharp wherever I want it (within limits, depending on the lens).

This photo is made where the California Condors are now living in the Sierra San Pedro Martir.

Condor country, Sierra San Pedro Mártir. © Alan Harper. All rights reserved
If you look at this (even when it is printed at 45” wide), it looks like it is completely in focus, from the Arctostaphylos stems 1 m from the camera to the horizon 100 miles away. But this is an illusion, which is possible because most of the image is in one plane.

By rotating the camera lens (which is possible with my camera) I moved the plane of focus to pass through the shrub to the left, the stems and rocks in the middle, the lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) behind, and the Sierra Juárez in the distance. This detail shows how the lodgepole is in focus, but the snow in the chute below it is not.

© Alan Harper. All rights reserve
3. Color

How the eye registers color is at least as amazing, and to me, more surprising, than how our mind synthesizes an image from a shifting eye. Color sense takes place in the brain, and, to describe the process simply, our brain finds something that is “white” in the image, and then uses that to deduce the colors of everything else. A series of wonderful experiments have shown that if you can confuse the brain as to what “white” means, every other color will shift accordingly.

Film, of course, has no brain. And when we look at a photo (unless the exhibitor takes special pain to eliminate all other clues), the “white” in the image will have whatever hue it really has, and won’t fool our brain into thinking that it should use that white to interpret the rest of the photo. This means that when I take a photo at mid-day, the “whites” will be blue, at sunrise, the “whites” will be orange, and 20 minutes before sunrise, the whites will be an extraordinary violet color.

But, while it is true that our eye adjusts to the white of whatever we are seeing, at the same time our brain is aware of the actual tone of the image, and this affects everything we think and feel about it. Cloudy days are cool, the light at sunset is warm, and midnight has its own color, even if we don’t have a name for it.

In the photo above, the white of the snow is really quite blue, but not as blue as was registered on the film. I adjusted the color to reflect a midpoint between what I remembered, and what the camera recorded, hopefully reflecting what I felt when I was there.

This image is taken at one of my favorite places in Baja, Punta Lobera south of Eréndira:

Punta Lobera sunrise. © Alan Harper. All rights reserved
The colors in this image seem very strange, because I made this photo about 20 minutes before sunrise. (The exposure was 2 minutes, which is why the sea seems so ethereal, and the gulls that flew off half-way through are ghost-like).

But if we had the original photo in front of us, we would see that the colors are even stranger and stronger throughout. What I did with this photo is I moved all the violet colors in the center of the image towards a pure white, but I left the colors around the edge as the colors that the film registered. This was my compromise as I worked on the photo: the colors in the center are what I saw when I was there, the colors at the edge are what the film recorded, which was in some sense the absolute color of the image (relative to mid-day sunlight). And, if I was successful, the final image reflects the scene my mind created and remembers, on that magical morning.

(In fact, the colors you are seeing when you read this article are not the colors in the image. Not only could your screen be differently calibrated, but I had to tone down the colors dramatically just to make them “web safe.”)

4. My commitment to fidelity—as if a photographer could be faithful to an image

Most of the images we see now, at least the ones that are presented to us commercially, are completely artificial. Take a look a the Photoshop Disasters blog to see some of the catastrophes that reflect this truth. In this age where a photographer can do anything with Photoshop (or, if that is not enough, by synthesizing the image from scratch), what is a landscape photographer to do?

The rules I try to live by are: (1) could I imagine doing this in a dark room, and (2) is this image faithfully representing what I remember seeing?

In the image above of Punta Lobera, while a photographer would not actually create a green filter (green is the complement of violet) just so the center would be “paper white” and the edge what the film recorded, one could imagine an obsessive printer doing just that. This is the kind of manipulation that is relatively easy in the computer, and while impossible a real dark room, not impossible in an Platonic ideal of a darkroom.

A second kind of manipulation is truly “digital”. This photo I took the day after the one above in the Sierra San Pedro Martír.
Dawn rainbow, Sierra San Pedro Mártir. © Alan Harper. All rights reserved
This photo was taken about 1 minute after sunrise, when a sudden rain storm moved through, creating a dramatic rainbow high above the horizon (because the sun was exactly horizontal, 180° away). I was so lucky to get this photo, because less than a minute later, the sun moved behind a cloud and this was the last photo I made that day.

However, when I got the image, the rainbow wasn’t as I remembered it. The colors blended into the sky in a way that made me believe that the film didn’t register what the eye saw. This is especially true for the violet color at the bottom of the rainbow (the eye sees dark violet and blue as distinct colors, while film tends to confuse them). So I worked for hours tweaking these colors, trying to resurrect what I saw, and put it back into an image for other people. (Again, the colors you are seeing on the web are toned down significantly from the actual image I print from).

This is the kind of manipulation of an image one can only do in photoshop, and has no counterpart in a physical darkroom. My only excuse is that I sometimes I have to use artifice to recover what I know that I saw, even if the camera failed to record it.


This article takes you through a few of my limited edition photos of Baja’s landscapes and plants. There are many more on my website. All these photos are for sale, and all the profits from any sale go directly to Terra to support its work.

Come and visit Terra's Community Center & Gallery in Ensenada, where you can see these images, and also learn more about how Terra is conserving these unique habitats.

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