Behind the Image:  Arabian Colt Fleeting Dust Storm and the Pyramids of Giza

Behind the Image: Arabian Colt Fleeting Dust Storm and the Pyramids of Giza

I’d like to be able to tell you that I had planned this particular shot for months. That’s the way it is with most of my images. But the truth is that for this particular image I got lucky. Better to be lucky than good?

I had been scampering about the Pyramids one afternoon in 2015, setting up my camera for different perspectives of these historic structures, when I noticed a dust storm coming. I figured I needed to hurry, get my shot, and get into my vehicle before I became consumed in dust.

Be Ready for the Unexpected

And just as I was setting up for my last shot, I saw this colt running down the road. I knew it could be a once in a lifetime image, but my camera settings were all wrong; I was set up for a long exposure with narrow aperture for good depth of field at low ISO.

What I needed to do was to quickly shift to fast shutter speed to freeze the horse’s motion, which meant I had to quickly raise ISO. But I only had maybe two seconds to get this right before the horse would be in front of me. Could I pull it off?

The result is what you see. In order to get this shot I had to know my camera extremely well, and shift controls “on the fly” in less than two seconds.

Yes, it’s good to be lucky.

But pulling off this shot required me to be both lucky and good. As I say in my Artist’s Statement, if my objective is to capture “the decisive moment” in landscape photography, this one certainly succeeds.

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Behind the Image: A Photographer’s Self-Portrait Against the Milky Way

Behind the Image: A Photographer’s Self-Portrait Against the Milky Way

It was about 2 in the morning,

I was in the ghost town of Bodie, California, and I had been waiting for hours for the Milky Way to get in exactly the right position over this old barn. I wanted to see if I could get an image with the Milky Way matching the slope of the barn’s roof.

The Challenge

Making a shot like this is tricky. At this time of night, and especially in this town, it is pitch black. The good news about modern cameras is that they can almost see in the dark. Boost the ISO high enough and keep the shutter open long enough, and you can go on a SEAL special ops mission. For the Milky Way the shutter stays open for 30 seconds.

After the Milky Way was right where I had hoped it would be, I made about twenty thirty-second shots, and I just couldn’t get the right mix of exposure for the barn and stars.

Then someone turned on a car’s tail lights behind me while my shutter was open. I was furious— I thought this would ruin my shot. Instead, what I got was the shot above, with the added gem of my shadow.

Twenty prior attempts went into the trash. This was the one I kept.

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Behind the Image:  The Milky Way Galaxy and a Bristlecone Pine

Behind the Image: The Milky Way Galaxy and a Bristlecone Pine


n June 2014, I had the opportunity to take a workshop with legendary landscape photographer David Muench.  Of all living landscape photographers, David is perhaps the most influential.  His style has affected an entire generation.

I tend to keep a prioritized list of locations to shoot, and mostly work down that list when choosing my next excursion.  David’s selected shooting location was Mono Lake (perhaps the subject of a future “Behind the Image” article), and the bristlecone pines of the White Mountains, both in California.  Although those locations were nowhere near the top of my shooting location priority list, the opportunity to shoot with David was too good to pass up.

Shooting with David was at times exhilarating and intimidating.  During this trip David gave me what to this day is the best compliment I’ve ever received as a photographer.  There were occasions when he walked up to me as I was setting up for a shot, looked over my shoulder, and suggested a small alteration that significantly improved my composition.  But David had high expectations as well, and could be very demanding.  I remember at one point thinking, “I’ve just been yelled at by a photography legend!”  In each case, I learned something.

And there were other times when he didn’t have to say anything at all.  I would just watch his workflow and thought-process as he set up, and merely by asking myself “Why is he doing that?” I learned a great deal.

Much of our training was conducted at lower elevations, but the “final exam,” as it were, would occur on the peak of a mountain, at about 11,000 feet in elevation, in pitch dark.

The Bristlecones

You see David loves bristlecone pines.  He spent much of his life chasing them down.  The oldest living species on earth, one particular tree in the White Mountains of California has been alive for more than 5000 years.  Most of the trees we would be shooting were already ancient when Christ was born.  As difficult as it is to get your mind around this, it’s even more difficult to get to see them for real.

Bristlecones only live at very high elevations, high above the regular mountain tree-line.  Seeing them usually involves driving as high as roads will allow, and then hiking up steep, rocky terrain another several hundred feet or more.  Our objective was to take a photo of a Bristlecone at night, with the Milky Way galaxy in the shot.  Doing so in the complete pitch black of night, outfitted fully with backpack, camera, and tripod, is particularly treacherous.  And as hard as it is climbing up, climbing down the steep, slippery, rocky terrain is even harder!

As I did this I kept thinking “I’m too old for this,” but watching David pull this off in his 70s was quite a spectacle.  Not to be outdone by someone more than 20 years my senior, I was determined to make this worth my while.

The Challenge

We climbed the mountain when there was still a bit of good light, giving us an opportunity to reconnoiter and pick out “our tree.”  The idea was to wait until the sun set, the Milky Way rose, and get the tree and the Milky Way in the same shot.  To plan for a shot like this, I make use of an iPhone app called “The Photographer’s Ephemeris.”  Back in my college days during my astronomy studies, we made great use of an ephemeris to identify and map out stars.  Little did I know that decades later I would be using one to precisely plan individual photos.

The app gave me a pretty good idea on what axis the Milky Way would rise.  What was left for me then was to pick out an interesting-looking tree with clear sky behind it, get downhill from the tree so I had a clear shot-line, and then wait until the sky darkened and the Milky Way rose.  That would happen around midnight.  So we had several hours of waiting on a steep, slippery slope, trying our best not allow our boredom during the wait to cause us to do something silly that would cause us to fall off the mountain.

An hour or so after sunset it became very clear that night on this mountain would be very, very dark.  So dark, in fact, that although we could see stars very well (they shone with great intensity that far away from a major city), and although we could even see the glow on the horizon from the lights of Los Angeles more than 300 miles distant, what we could not see the one thing that was supposed to be the very subject of our visit— the bristlecone trees themselves!

This presented a challenge.  It meant we were going to have to somehow light the tree in order for it to be visible to the camera.  There is a technique in photography called “light painting,” but it’s difficult to pull off without having the photograph look contrived.  What you do is use very dim light to illuminate the subject of the photo while you have the shutter open.  In this case, my headlamp filtered through my fingers would have to do the trick.

The Objective

Normally to capture the milky way you have to keep the shutter open somewhere between 20 and 30 seconds.  If you keep the shutter open for too short a time, the Milky Way won’t be bright enough to register on your camera’s sensor.  More than 30 seconds and stars will actually move so much while the shutter is open that they will look like small blurs in your image rather than the single points of light you would like.  A shutter speed somewhere between 20 and 30 seconds is just about right.

Because we had a couple of hours between sunset and the Milky Way rising, we had time to practice our light painting techniques.  There are several problems involved:  if you use too much light, the tree will be so bright it will “blow out” the Milky Way behind it.  Not enough, and you won’t see the tree at all.  Using a small, spot-beam of light also presented the problem of difficulty producing an evenly illuminated image across the tree.  Without proper technique, you would produce “hot spots” on your tree, where some areas were significantly brighter than others.

Fortunately, I had done light painting several times before, and figured it wouldn’t take many tries for me to get it right.  Indeed, my test images were coming out pretty good just as the Milky Way began to rise into view behind the tree.

The tree I had chosen possessed a unique feature:  it had branches that stretched out laterally towards another tree, and that tree seemed to be reaching towards the first one, as if the two trees were reaching out towards each other.  As I watched this feature, and as I monitored the Milky Way’s rise behind it, I was reminded of one of my visits to the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican.  Something was familiar about this scene.  Then it occurred to me:  it was Michelangelo’s famous painting, “Adam’s Creation,” where God is reaching his finger out to touch life into Adam.

The Vision

This was the “decisive moment” I was looking for.  I would wait until the Milky Way was directly in line with the two trees, as if the trees were reaching out to touch the Milky Way.  

A new, different, “moment of creation.” 

So there I was at about 11,000 feet altitude, with the temperature hovering near 30 degrees Fahrenheit, shivering, trying not to fall off this mountain, waiting hours for my shot, and I couldn’t be happier.  I was pretty sure I would shortly be making one of my “shots of a lifetime.”

And as you can see above, I got it— exactly as I had hoped to.  The light painting on the tree is even and not too “hot,” the Milky Way is right where I wanted it to be, the exposure, focus, and composition are just right.  

The Outcome

One of my most challenging shots to get, and one of which I am very proud.

When I was telling this story to an art marketing person I met, he said to me, “Why did you go through all that trouble?  You know Milky Way shots don’t have much demand.  It will be hard to sell!”

He’s right.  I don’t get a lot of demand for that shot.  But it still hangs on my wall at home.  

Sometimes it’s necessary to do art that sells.  But sometimes you have to do it because the art itself is driving you.  In other words, you can’t find a way to not do it.

This is one such photo.  Knowing more about it now, I hope you come to enjoy it as much as I do.  

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Behind the Image:  Manarola at Sunrise (Cinque Terre, Italy)

Behind the Image: Manarola at Sunrise (Cinque Terre, Italy)

In the Cinque Terre region of Italy there are these five coastal villages; not too long ago they were only accessible by boat. Cinque Terre means “five lands” in Italian, and the region received this name because it was very much like five separate land-locked islands with five separate villages separated by very rugged terrain and sea.  It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

While many people have heard of Cinque Terre, very few have heard the name of the village of Manarola, one of those five “lands,” the one depicted in this photograph.

I had been aware of Manarola for quite some time.  Because of my Italian heritage, it was on my list of places to visit even before I was a photographer.  But becoming a photographer caused this village to move from my “places I’d like to see” list, to my “places I must see as soon as possible” list.

Like Nothing You’ve Ever Seen Before

When you look at the photo above you will realize this an iconic (and idyllic) scene.  The villagers paint their houses in a rainbow of colors so individuals could easily pick out their own home from a distance while at sea.  Although many of the villagers still make their living on and from the sea, as you can imagine, tourism has been added to their sources of income.

When I arrived I expected to be greeted by dozens, perhaps hundreds, of “hungry” photographers (read my earlier Yosemite post).  Much to my delight, that didn’t happen.  There were tourists taking the occasional snap, but the first morning I was there, as I got up before sunrise (leaving my wife and son to sleep) to trudge down the long series of staircases to the outcropping where I could take this photo (Cinque Terre could be more aptly named “Mille Scale” or “a thousand staircases”), I was greeted by a photographer’s paradise.

When I got to the outlook (with my friend and guide Paolo), absolutely nobody was there.  No teeming busloads of tourists, no platoons of photographers tripping over themselves to get the perfect composition, no squadrons of selfie-snappers leaning over the rail for the best narcissistic image, nothing!   This was anti-Yosemite!  Not only was it stunningly beautiful, here was the solitude I was hoping for.

The Capture

Making the image was perhaps the most fun I’ve ever had in photography.  I could set up, move around, take my time, change lens filters, go for a longer exposure to get the water effect I wanted, move again, try different exposures, try different compositions, whatever I needed to get my shot.

It’s been almost three years since I made that image and I’ve never had the kind of time and conditions I had on that morning in Italy.  And the image remains one of my most popular.

Golfers keep going because the game teases them into believing that their next game might be their best.  In some ways, photography does the same thing.  As I go around and find places to shoot, I’m always hoping I’m “that close” to another Manarola.


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Behind the Image: Serpentine Vapors at Yosemite

Behind the Image: Serpentine Vapors at Yosemite

Serpentine Vapors at Yosemite:  Image made April 8th, 2013

I was pleased to award William Toti the first place award for Serpentine Vapors at Yosemite in Feb. 2017. There have been countless photos taken of Tunnel View in Yosemite, but William’s transcends the rest by it’s exceptional quality of light, mood and strong composition.

Carla Steckley

Judge, ArtSpace Fine Art Photography Contest

Yosemite had been on my “places to shoot” list for a while because every photographer covets perfect, elusive Yosemite National Park photos, particularly a Tunnel View shot, made famous by Ansel Adams’ “A Clearing Winter Storm.”

I had scheduled a trip there to do a shoot, then had to reschedule, then reschedule again, until I began to wonder if I would ever get there.  I decided to nail the trip down by hiring a guide.  (I often hire a guide since, logistically, that is the most efficient way to get to as many photo locations as possible in the least amount of time.)

When I did finally go (April, 2013), I brought both my wife and my brand new Nikon D800.  This would be the first trip with that incredible 36 megapixel camera.

Breathtaking Boredom

Initially, Yosemite was, well Yosemite.  Overwhelming beauty, matched by overwhelming crowds.  Part of the appeal of landscape photography is, for me, the opportunity to spend some time with nature, just me, my wife, and maybe one more person.  That is not Yosemite.  Yosemite is busloads of tourists from all over the world who are rushed from site to site without the real opportunity to enjoy any of it, taking snapshots with their iPads that will look nothing like what they remember.  Yosemite is what happens when you allow unregulated and un-metered access to fragile and pristine places.  As long as this continues, Yosemite will continue to be endangered.

Bustling Boredom?

But from the photography point of view, those masses of people meant there were very few locations I could shoot that didn’t include several dozen human beings in the shot.  Add to that the fact that my Hawaii-raised wife frequently expressed her innate fear of bears, which was all the more amusing since no sane bear would come anywhere near this mass of humanity.  Her fear of bears did at one point prompt me to purchase a stuffed black bear and set it on our bed (“Don’t go in there– there’s a bear in our room!”), which I worried would be the most exciting thing to happen to us on the trip.

Beautiful, bustling, capital-beltway-like Yosemite

And Then the Surprise!

Then on the morning that we were scheduled to leave, we woke to an incredible sight: snow!

Calling an audible (as is often necessary), we decided to skip breakfast and head up to the famous spot known as “Tunnel View,” made famous by Ansel Adams’ “Clearing Winter Storm” photograph.

Here we had a spring storm, one that was sure to clear even quicker than Ansel’s.  We had no time to waste; we hurried to the Tunnel View parking lot, found absolutely nobody there (a first for this trip!), save for a lone coyote.  Having never encountered a coyote on one of my shoots before, I took a couple of snaps of that guy (I considered it a good omen), then headed over to the overlook.

This was one of the most amazing scenes I had ever encountered.  My wife heard me scream when I saw this– very out of character for this old Navy man.  But I knew this was a spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime moment.

Serpentine Vapors

As I expected, the spring day warmed and the snow quickly  began sublimating from solid to vapor.  The vapor began creating this serpentine, meandering form in the valley, something like a white smoke monster from the TV show “Lost.”  To the right of the valley, an updraft from Bridalveil Falls was causing the vapor to lift into the sky, then swirl around in an airborne eddy current.  The sun was just coming up behind Half Dome, creating a nearly horizontal “God’s Ray” into the valley, lighting up the vapor in a remarkable fashion.

The only thing left to do was to not screw it up as I captured the image on my new D800.

The shot at the top of this page was the result.  My most popular image, and my most awarded.  This image resulted in the great David Muench giving me the best compliment I have ever received as a photographer (“Better than Ansel’s.) Another great photographer, Carla Steckel said, “There have been countless photos taken of Tunnel View in Yosemite, but William’s transcends the rest by it’s exceptional quality of light, mood and strong composition.”  Perhaps that’s why it’s had over a million views on social media.

And to this day, it’s perhaps the image of which I am most proud.

And of course, it got me this.

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