LaBarque Creek Conservation Area, Jefferson County, Missouri

LaBarque Creek Lichen

Thursday was a good day for a hike at the LaBarque Creek Conservation Area in Jefferson County, Missouri. The hiking trail starts along the creek,  ascends into the hills overlooking the creek,  and crosses the many drainages that have exposed the underlying St. Peter Sandstone in many intriguing ways.

LaBarque Creek Bank

When I returned home and loaded my images in Bridge, the modern-day contact sheet, I saw that the details were way more interesting than the long shots.

Exposed sandstone drainage and pine tree

The close-up of the same sandstone ledge and the small pool beneath it is more intimate, more interesting.

Exposed sandstone drainage with small pool

And sometimes photography is all about playing with light.

Sandstone Glade


Make Great Photographs–A Short Course in Learning to See

There is a new page on this blog, one that offers photographers who would like to improve their images a course that will help them see better.

Go to the top of the blog or to and download the course for the small sum of $57.

Manipulating light in pixels

I have had this digital camera for almost two years now, and I only just fell in love with pixels.

These days, if you work in large format negatives as I have, all negatives are scanned, because the scanner sees way more than the enlarger, so much so that it even sees the substrate that holds the emulsion. This can be very disturbing when you are manipulating the negative in Photoshop. Pixels are cleaner.  And you don’t have to deal with all the dust that loves the negative no matter how hard you work to keep things clean.

Here’s the story. Thursday, on my way home from a book peddling trip to Dubuque, Iowa, on the encouragement of my sister, I stopped in Peoria, Illinois to make photographs of a church my architect father designed in the fifties. Of course I left my tripod at home and had to shoot handle-held in the dark. The camera did its focusing job well enough for small prints at 72 dpi on a blog.

With traditional photography, that is shooting with negatives, we all learned specific ways to expose a negative or expose a transparency. They are different. To expose a negative, you would expose for the shadows and print for the highlights so you would have the detail you want in the shadows and have to work at burning in the highlights. You would probably bracket your exposures so you would at least have a printable negative. Hence, neither the shadows nor the highlights would be perfect on the negative.

With tranparencies you would expose for highlights and the shadows be damned, because if the highlights are overexposed you have nothing.

A tricky photographic problem with film is to balance objects in shadow with bright, highlighted backgrounds, using fill light with flash.

Fill light to see details in the windows and the faces of the bride and groom.

The church I photographed on Thursday had a stained glass window that covered the whole front facade, a sky light over the alter, a side light next to the chapel at the rear of the church, and windows along the aisles. That was it. I did not turn on the lights because I did not want to hassle with the church office.

The front facade was in shadow, so I exposed for the shadows  and for the highlights.

Exposure for the Facade in shadow.

My exposure for the facade in shadow blew out the highlights and was unworkable in camera raw and using the shadow and light toogle in Photoshop CS3.

Exposure for the highlights

The exposure for the highlights, the ambient light, yielded a dark facade. But put it in Camera Raw and use the fill toogle and magic happens.

The manipulated image using the fill toogle.

Inside I faced a similar, but more severe situation. The nave of the church was dark with only the skylight and aisle lights and facade light coming in the building. When I exposed for the ambient light in the church I had no detail in the window. So I exposed for the window, using a measurement close to the shadow exposure outside.

Exposure for the window.

The window was perfect, but the rest of the church was dark. But again using the fill toogle in Camera Raw and some adjustments in Photoshop, I came up with an excellent image.

Manipulated image using the fill toogle.

The window is not as detailed as I would like. With more work in Photoshop it could be. But the point I am making is the information is there, where it would not be in either negative film or transparencies.

Hence, with pixels expose for the highlights and manipulate for the shadows. The information is there.

Wide angle lenses versus Telephoto lenses

Reed Lake, Peabody River King State Fish and Wildlife Area

I am a wide angle person. I put that wide angle lens to my eye and my eye and my brain swoon.

And, I find a place that intrigues me and work the place until it bores me and the images go stale. Such is the case with the Peabody River King State Fish and Wildlife Area, an old strip mine converted to a wildlife refuge, where the overburden, the stripped out soil and rock, creates an intriguing landscape.

Reed Pond, Peabody River King State Fish and Wildlife Area

Two weeks ago I purchased a new lens, a 55-200mm zoom with all the bills and whistles and took it out to the refuge to learn how to use it.

New pieces of equipment and new places make for bad images at first, and I discarded much of the work I did the other day, much of it poorly focused. But as I used the lens I began looking at this place that has become so familiar to me in new ways. That it’s winter and I can see things I couldn’t see when I discovered the place last fall added to my excitement.

I found a small pond in the overburden next to Reed Pond. I had to stand on a picnic table to really get the image. This image would have no impact using a wide angle lens.

Small pond in overburden off Reed Pond

I climbed off the table and noticed the top of a mound of overburden reflected in Reed Pond.

Reflected overburden

Reflected Overburden--Wide-angle Lens

I got out my wide angle and tried the image again. I spent the rest of the afternoon trying other approaches to the subject.

Reed Pond with Cedar Tree

The long lens allows me to document the overburden hills in ways the wide-angle lens doesn’t and see the landscape in a new way.

Overburden Hills

However, I had to discard many of the images, because they were not well focused. Bring on the light meter, manual selection of shutter speeds and lens openings, and a tripod.It’s February and I can’t wait for green.

Photographs that Make the Brain Work


Sometimes photographing only part of an object or the object backwards makes a more interesting image that photographing it straight on. It makes the brain complete the object, which is fun for the brain.

St. Louis’s Gateway Arch is way more interesting in parts than as a whole, possibly because it’s familiar shape, a cantenary curve, is so simple.

The Gateway Arch at St. Louis

But what about places/objects that are not familiar like the overburden at the Peabody River King State Fish and Wildlife Area at New Athens, Illinois. It’s an old strip mine that Peabody Coat donated to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources when it played out. Half the mine was stripped before Congress passed the 1977 Reclamation Act and half after. as I noted in a blog titled Do Your Research several months ago, the corregated landscape of unreclaimed half is way more interesting than the reclaimed half.

I went back to the refuge a week or two ago to see what it looked like in winter and explored a pond I had not noticed before.

Pond at Peabody River King State Fish and Wildlife Area

First I photographed the whole pond. Not very interesting.

Part of the Pond at Peabody River King State Fish and Wildlife Area

Then I photographed only part of the pond and put in Photoshop to enhance the image: brighter yellow in the grass, more purple in the snow, more interesting line of trees, a little more color in the sky. In all, a more interesting image.

Photographing 6-year old girls–not easy

I learned my craft photographing children. As one editor said, they were not threatening.

My first job was a neighbor’s 6-year old girl. I thought photographers told people how to pose and people posed. Not Sharon. She upside down hung from a tree, peeked at me from behind a column, did anything but look lady-like and smile.

The pictures were fabulous. Her mother loved them. She taught be a lesson: Leave people, particularly kids, alone.

I spent the week before Christmas with my 5-year old granddaughter, who is three months short of 6. She has arrived.

She played with her hair.

She made faces.

She rolled on the floor.

She made silly smiles.

But get her doing something she loves, and the pictures are magic.

Get her talking to her mother in her play corner and she's beautiful.

The rule of thumb with photographing children, let them do something they love and leave them alone. Get down on the floor with them and keep making pictures. Pixels are cheap.

Make Great Photographs: Do Your Research

In August I head north up Route 66 in Illinois to Moraine View State Park and found a wind farm outside the park. It was one of those fist-pumping YES! moments when I realized that no matter how we extract energy from the landscape we are going to alter it, for good or for ill.


Wind Farm on the Bloomington Moraine

On a foggy morning in September I headed east to New Athens, Illinois and the local strip mine/wildlife refuge and began making photographs. Long narrow lakes lace the Peabody-River King Wildlife Management Area and I responded to them as the wetlands they are.


Beaver Lake, Peabody-River King WMA

The refuge was the River King Pit #3 strip mine and is located on the floodplain of the Kaskaskia River. When the mine played out, Peabody Energy donated the mine to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources for a wildlife refuge, where the long skinny lakes are popular with bass anglers.


Soybean Field on the Floodplain of the Kaskaskia River and Overburden from the River King Mine

I began cruising the web to learn more about the strip mine and the wildlife refuge it had become. My most critical visit was to where I could look on U.S. Geological Survey maps, and more important, aerials of the refuge, where I realized a machine created this landscape.


Aerial of the Peabody-River King Wildlife Management Area

I was surprised to find the lakes on the western half ran perpendicular to a corrugated landscape. This is the half of the refuge mined before Congress passed the 1977 Strip Mine Reclamation Act. The eastern half, the smoother area was mined after 1977.

I asked John Bowman, the manager of the refuge, why? He speculated that the Peabody stripping shovel stripped the lakes first and then worked the corrugated areas.

Think of the shovel as a really, really big Tonka Toy, a huge steam shovel, a stripping shovel actually, all levers and pulleys and 22-stories tall and designed to remove earth and rock–the overburden–from the landscape, reaching down to the underlying coal. Once there it creeps along the top of the coal seam, scooping out the earth in front of it. It scoops, it swivels, it dumps the overburden to the side, and it moves forward, creating a sausage-shaped spoil bank. When the shovel reaches the end of its first strip, it makes a parallel cut alongside it, scooping earth and rock, swiveling, and dumping the overburden into the first pit, creating a second sausage-shaped spoil bank next to the first. And so on, back and forth across the landscape it works until the mine is played out. Smaller shovels, but still big Tonka Toys, follow in its wake, digging out the coal and dumping it into haulers, more big Tonka Toys.

Once I understood the process I could go back and make photographs of the wetlands and the overburden.


Overburden on Reed Lake

The sun did not shine this October and I had a month of dramatic clouds, but no sun to define the irregular topography of the overburden. November came and the sun came out.


Overburden at Cypress Lake

The sun also dried out the road that ran along the western edge of the unreclaimed overburden, allowing me to hike to the backside of the refuge and make photographs of the ends of the spoil banks. Sometimes the troughs between two spoil banks were filled with water, and sometimes not.


Overburden: Trough between two Spoil Banks

The more I learned about how machines created this landscape, the better the images became.

Flash or No Flash in Watery Landscape Photographs

Last Friday I hiked Hickory Canyon in Ste. Genevieve County, Missouri. It is a beautiful place, a box canyon of LaMotte sandstone, the first layer of sedimentary rocks in Missouri. These rocks eroded from the igneous base rocks that form places like Taum Sauk Mountain, the highest point in Missouri, and the Silver Mines Shut-in, where the St. Francis River has worn the sedimentary rocks down to the base rocks.

I have been making photographs of Hickory Canyon for six years, hoping to get there when the intermittent waterfall is in full flow. Not yet.

Until last Friday, I made all the images I took away from Hickory Canyon on 4 x 5 film, using available light and a hand held light meter to control the shutter speed and lens opening. I used slow shutter speeds to get small lens openings and great depth of field.

Friday, rather carrying the heavy view camera down into the canyon, I carried a small, digital camera, with auto focus, auto flash, auto shutter speed, auto lens opening. Basically, it’s a no thought camera. Fun and lightweight.

HickoryCanyonWaterfallSide copy

Hickory Canyon, Upper Waterfall

The weather Friday was cool and overcast. The waterfall was drippy, but not in full flow. I experimented with flash and no flash.


Waterfall, No Flash, No Control, Out of Focus



Using auto everything, the flash wipes away the reflections on the surfaces of the waterfall and adjacent rocks. It’s a bit like using a polarizing filter, which also eliminates reflections. Without the reflections, color is intensified. Without the flash, the shutter speed was slow enough to make the water slide instead of drip and blurs the ripples in the plunge pool.

Hickory Canyon Waterfall, Flash, No Control

Hickory Canyon Waterfall, Flash, No Control, Sharp

Hickory Canyon, Moss and Stream, No Flash

Hickory Canyon, Moss and Stream, No Flash

Looking straight down at a small drainage, running along the canyon floor, flash flattened the image and, like the waterfall, brushed away the reflections of the sky in the water. Using the flash made for a much less interesting image.

Hickory Canyon, Moss and Stream, Flash

Hickory Canyon, Moss and Stream, Flash

Many ways to look at the Confluence

AConfluence, Mississippi and Missouri

Confluence from Jones Park, Mississippi and Missouri

Many years ago, when I was starting out,  a curriculum development company hired me to make photographs of every aspect of the Bus Station for a Teacher’s Art project, to prove that beauty could be found in a conventionally grubby place.

I explored every part of the station, the seating, the food, the gift shop, the buses, the people. I learned that the camera is a wonderful tool for that kind of exploration, that I learned to see things other people miss.

So I was surprised when I ventured to the Confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers a week ago, when I found channel training dikes and sandbars I had never seen before. The river was low and the dikes and sandbars exposed.

Columbia Bottoms Sandbar

Columbia Bottoms Sandbar and Dike

I made photographs from the Jones State Park at the point of Maple Island on the northwest side of the confluence, at the Columbia Bottoms Wildlife Management Area on the southwest side, both in Missouri, and from the Lewis and Clark Historic Site on the Illinois side of the Mississippi.

Jones State Park

Jones State Park

At Jones State Park it is possible to stand right at the Confluence with the Missouri, rushing in from the right and  the Mississippi, sliding down from the left. The Missouri bumps into the Mississippi, roiling the waters.

Jones State Park Mud

Jones State Park Mud

Jones Park

Jones Park

There are several ways to look at the Confluence from the Columbia Bottoms Wildlife Management Area on different days in different weather.

Confluence, Columbia Bottoms Wildlife Management Area

Confluence, Columbia Bottoms Wildlife Management Area, Flood of 2009

Confluence Columbia Bottoms Wildlife Management Area

Confluence Columbia Bottoms Wildlife Management Area

Confluence, Columbia Bottoms Sandbar

Confluence, Columbia Bottoms Sandbar

Confluence, Columbia Bottom Long Dike

Confluence, Columbia Bottom Long Dike

Being Still

I had a rant the other day about industrial tourism, being dragged through tourist sites and told what I am seeing or what I am supposed to see.

I learned five years ago, while resting my feet in Italy, that if I sat still, I saw way more than when I was moving.

I have been writing about differences in my approach to photography with a view camera as opposed to my approach using and through the lens camera. With a view camera I select objects in a landscape that I want in my photograph. With a through the lens camera, I put my eye to the view camera and react to what I am seeing, exploring many aspects of the landscape.

Back to my rant: Last Memorial Day I toured Mount Vernon, George Washington’s house with my family, all my family. We shuffled through the house, where each room had a guide who recited the important points in the room over and over and over, like broken records.

The tour over we were free to go out on Washington’s porch overlooking the Potomac and sit. I sat and studied a tree, lifted my camera, and made a photograph. Not very interesting.

Tree at Mount Vernon

Tree at Mount Vernon

I tried cropping the top of the tree. So, so.

Cropped Tree

Cropped Tree

Then a little girl ran through the picture. Way more interesting.

Little girl running through the image.

Little girl running through the scene.