A Pretty Good Year, so far

Award of Excellence, Levis Commons Fine Art Festival 2011

Award of Excellence, Levis Commons Fine Art Festival 2011

Looking back on 2011, it’s been a successful year by many standards. In a declining economy, my sales are trending upward (thank you!), and I’ve had better acceptance than ever at art shows. I’ve managed to get into many of the top shows on my bucket list, some of which I would love to get into again, and some of which I’m glad I did, but have no desire to go back. My new work is pleasing not only you, but me as well. And even the theft of the Artanic in Fort Worth turned out to have a silver lining. So lets pray for continued success for the rest of 2011, and into 2012. Show apps are already coming due for the winter season. Fort Myers, Coconut Grove, Gasparilla, Winter Park — all due in the next thirty days or so.

And to top it off, I’ve won a few awards along the way. I got to thinking about it this evening, and realized that I had done NO horn tooting about it since last year’s Barrington ribbon. So, without further ado, here’s the list.

  • Images, New Smyrna Beach :: Award of Merit
  • ArtFest Fort Myers, Fort Myers :: Award of Distinction (1st place in Photography)
  • Gasparilla Festival of the Arts, Tampa :: Selected for Judging (an award in itself!)
  • Winter Park, Winter Park :: Award of Distinction
  • Crosby Festival of the Arts, Toledo :: 1st Place in Photography
  • Glencoe Festival of the Masters, Glencoe :: Award of Outstanding Achievement
  • Levis Commons Fine Art Festival, Perrysburg OH :: Award of Excellence (2d Place in show)

I think that’s it. At least those are the ones that come to mind. Thank you, judges and jurors.

4 Types of artwork, and why I love them all

Last Light, Mt. Robson, Canadian Rockies

I had a thought driving down the road somewhere between Miami and Tampa last week. It occurred to me that there are several different kinds of artwork that people gravitate towards. Each type reinforces positive thought patterns in the viewer, which is why folks buy art in the first place. (I don’t know of many people who buy art that they hate!) And since I’m a photographer, I’m going to talk about three of them, in photographic terms. You can feel free to apply them to your favorite medium as you wish. I’ll get to the fourth in a minute.

Aspirational work — places you’d like to go, things you’d like to do. This type of work is often inspirational as well, providing some incentive to complete a task, or reach a goal. Climbing Mt. Robson, for example, or going to Italy. One of the reasons that the Tuscan photographers do so well on the art show circuit is that many people have strong desires to visit the places that the Italian guys photograph. Images of tall mountain peaks likewise inspire the armchair mountaineer in us all. We may never get to Katmandu, but we enjoy the view all the same. While hanging a picture on the wall is a poor substitute for visiting faraway places, it can provide a strong incentive to save those shekels and go.

Freedom of the Hills

Emotional work — by far, this is the largest category, and the strongest reason for buying a particular piece of artwork. Images that reach out and grab us by the heartstrings, or remind us of a life-changing event. Wedding pictures fall into this group, of course, but so do subtler images of places we’ve been. Conceptual images are also a contender in this arena, and often those pictures that don’t recall a specific place work better than those that do. These images tend to provoke a feeling, as well as recalling memories, and can be very effective as a reminder of  those good times. I often tell people “There’s no better image than the one you shoot yourself.” While my images may be better, if you were there and took the picture, that’s the one that will speak the loudest to you.

Images like “Freedom of the Hills“, on the other hand, don’t speak to a specific place or time, but remind us all of those moments where we were on top of the world, celebrating the joy of living, or the joy of being up high in the mountains.


Meditative artwork goes one step further, and is often abstract in nature. Patterns of natural elements, color fields, motion blurs — these can all conjure up peaceful feelings in the viewer. Sometimes a meditative piece works very well as a focal point in your living room. The non-specific nature of a meditative work can accent a color mood, or enhance a less traditional point of view. Sometimes you just don’t want a picture of the Grand Tetons hovering over your couch!

Functional art is the last category, and while photography falls outside of this boundary, many people like artwork that serves a purpose. Ceramics, glass vessels, wearables, jewelry — these are all examples of functional artwork. I know I like my everyday items to be designed well and to be beautiful to look at as well as serving the purpose for which they were designed. While you can’t hang functional work on the wall, it falls into a whole ‘nother category.

Personally, I produce all three kinds of work, for different reasons. I started my photographic career shooting pictures of landmarks in national parks, and have since moved away from what I call “drive by shootings”. Drive-bys are easy to do, common viewpoints that everyone sees, and everyone shoots — not too emotionally involving. I love pictures that tell a story without being “place speicific”: my recent ghost town work works on two levels, that of collective memory, as well as documentary of places in slow decay. I’ve recently started working on some abstract color fields that intrigue me and push me in a whole different direction — you can see these meditative pieces here. How about you? What kinds of artwork do you prefer? Drop me a line or leave me a comment.

Photoshop’s new HDR Pro — Gimmick or blessing?

Assay Laboratory, Vulture Mine

HDR image, Assay Laboratory, Vulture Mine

I’ve not been a huge fan of HDR (High Dynamic Range photographs) up until now. I toyed with Photomatix, and the bundled plug-in with previous versions of Photoshop, but was less than impressed. However, the newest version of Adobe’s Photoshop (CS5) includes a brand-spanking new plug-in that is worth the price of the upgrade: the aptly named HDR Pro. Almost an application in its own right, HDR Pro will take multiple exposures and extract the highest possible dynamic range from them, while merging them to a new image file. I’ve been playing around with a couple of image from Vulture City, and I was impressed with the new plug-in. Previous versions of Photoshop were pretty lacking in the amount of control you had over the end file, but the latest version allows granular exposure, gamma and saturation control. There’s also a feature that will try to eliminate ghosting from moving grass, clouds or water. While I haven’t tested it on tough subjects on a windy day, it works well on static subjects with small amounts of camera shake.

Each of these examples was made with three exposures, one over, one under and one one the money. The camera was held steady on a tripod to minimize shake and ghosting. Files are shot in RAW, and imported into Lightroom for minor color correction. I made sure to apply the same amount of color and white balance to all three exposures before importing into Photoshop for the conversion to HDR.

After playing with these images, I’m a convert to HDR for certain subjects. The amount of range and level of detail that you can pull out of a photograph is nothing short of amazing. While this isn’t intended as a full review of HDR Pro, or  Photoshop CS5, you can see that it offers expanded creative possibilities for your photographs. I vote for blessing. What do you think?

Kitchen still life, HDR image

Assay Manager's Residence, Vulture Mine

Printer calibration image

Many times it’s hard to tell if your inkjet printer is spitting out exactly the color it’s supposed to. Having a test image that represents the full gamut of the color spectrum may help to check that. You can make your own, download them from various color labs, or use the one I’ve used for landscape work over the years. Accurate color chips representing all the major inks, their combinations and a grayscale ramp are good to include in your calibration image. Flesh tones are also helpful if you do a lot of portrait work.

Basically you open the file in your printing application, set your printer driver the way you normally do for making prints, and send the test file to the printer. If it looks like the image on the screen, your workflow is calibrated. If it’s off, well, something’s off in your setup. I’ll leave that thorny issue for another post.

Here’s what my image looks like. To download a full-size 8×10 printing image, click it to open in another window, and right-click it.

Calibration image

All images ©James W. Parker, 2010

Some tips for backpacking with a camera

Sunrise at Floe Lake, Canadian Rockies

Floe Lake, Kootenay, British Columbia

I’ve done a lot of packing with cameras and gear over the years, and every year I carry less and less. This past summer I went on a three day trip with nothing but a Canon G11, instead of carrying my 5D and lenses. Once I got used to the limitations of the G11, it was a joy not to lug an additional 10 pounds of camera gear over rocky trail-less terrain. I often scramble around in the rocks, and do some climbing, so lighter is generally better.

I’ve almost never carried a full size tripod into the backcountry. I use mini-pods at times, and sometimes a monopod adapter atop a walking staff. I don’t use long telephoto lenses in the backcountry, either. Most of my backcountry work is shot with one or two lenses — a 24-85 or 24-105, a 16-35 and very occasionally, a 70-200mm or 70-300mm. And since I’ve moved to Canon L-series lenses, I probably wouldn’t take the 70-300mm into the backcountry. Just too damn heavy to carry unless there was a serious reason. Unless you are planning to do a lot of early/late shooting in golden light (admittedly a good reason to go into the backcountry), you may never need a full size tripod.

Numa Peak and Mt. Foster, Canadian Rockies

Numa Pass & Mt. Foster in the Canadian Rockies

The best strategy for carrying professional camera equipment into the wild is to pare your gear down to the bare essentials. And that includes the camera kit. On my first backpacking trip to the Canadian Rockies, I carried a SLR body, a 24-85mm lens, a 70-300mm lens, a full complement of graduated filters, polarizers, a bunch of film, and a small compact tripod. I also carried my own stove, tent, food, water and way too much clothing. All told, my load was close to 60 pounds for four days, and 20% of that was camera gear. Since then, I’ve gotten  the load pared down, and I can get along with about 25 pounds for a long weekend, with an additional 5-6 pounds of camera gear. Tailor the load to the assignment. If you plan to shoot golden light landscapes, leave the long zoom in the car. If you plan to shoot wildlife, leave the ultra wide lenses behind. It’s hard to stay focussed if you are too tired to lift the camera at the end of the day from carrying a sixty or seventy pound load up 4000′ of vertical trail. You may miss some shots if you don’t have the proper lens, but you will miss more shots wasting energy carrying gear you may only use once.

That said, to carry more than a single lens and a tripod into the backcountry, you will want a backpack that has good size wand pockets and lash spots or side compression straps to carry the tripod on the outside. Keeping the load centered is ideal, but a tripod cantilevered on the back of your pack will definitely tip you backwards. Carrying the lenses and cameras so they are accessible is another big issue. A good sized top pocket is usually the best option, but will make the pack top heavy and awkward to maneuver. Best thing is to experiment and find what works best for you. Take your gear into the store when trying out backpacks, and see what works.

One option is to carry the camera and working lens outside the pack, in shooting position. I have used a Zing case, but with today’s large glass, my old case doesn’t fit my camera. Anything that will relieve weight on your neck and keep the camera close to your chest for shooting will work.

Last Light, Mt. Robson, Canadian Rockies

Last Light, Mt. Robson and Berg Lake, Canadian Rockies

If you are an experienced backpacker, you’ll know how to size a pack for your anticipated itinerary, stamina and load. If not, Gregory and Osprey are great places to start. Backpacks have gotten lighter and stronger, and internal frame packs carry much more compactly than the old-style external frames. OTOH, external packs are very forgiving in the way that they are packed, and can carry huge loads. If you really want to carry a ton of weight, the Kelty external frame packs are tried and true.

Osprey makes very good packs, and my current weekender is a climbing pack with very few bells and whistles. It carries enough for a three day trek if you pack light, but it leaves very little room for camera gear. And it only weights a kilogram.

Look at the Kelty Tioga series for a great example of a classic external frame backpack. While I favor the internal frame style, this pack has stood the test of time, and is highly recommended by many people. If you are planning to carry heavy loads, this may be a better option for you. Try both and see.

One piece of gear that I’ve found incredibly helpful is the Cotton Carrier system. Basically a camera harness, it allows me to carry one or two cameras without the load hanging completely off the neck strap. Great for climbing, or any activity like backpacking where you need to have your hands free and the camera secured for part of the time, the Cotton Carrier holds the camera close to your body until you need it. This is a bulky piece of gear, but worth the extra load in certain situations. Backpacking with a full size DSLR and a heavy lens would be one of them. The Zing Action cases use the same idea — a strap that goes around your waist to keep the camera from swinging forward or from side to side as you walk.

Overloaded backpacker with loads both front and back

What NOT to do when backpacking! Byron Johnson attempts to load the back half of his 80 pounds.

Some tips for traveling light:

  1. Carry less water. With the exception of the desert, you can probably tank up at stream crossings, little ponds and seeps. Water is just about the heaviest thing you can carry, weighing in at 8 pounds/gallon. You can use Gatorade bottles instead of Nalgenes if you want to save an extra ounce or two. I like to use a hydration bladder so that I don’t have constantly fumble for the bottle while walking.
  2. Carry a lightweight filtration system instead of a pump. For years I carried a PUR Hiker filter, which added bulk and about a pound to my pack. Ultraviolet purifiers, such as the SteriPEN, can render water safe to drink, and take up way less space in the pack. Or you can resort to the tried and true iodine tablets.
  3. Carry the lightest backpack, tent, sleeping bag that you can for the conditions you anticipate. For more on ultralight backpacking in general, head over to backpacking.net.
  4. Learn how long your camera batteries will last. Carry only enough spares that you won’t run short. Nothing worse than having your batteries go dead right at sunset.
  5. Carry only dehydrated food on longer trips. The lightest food is the Backpacker’s Pantry type, although I personally prefer to cook gourmet style when on longer trips. But you pay a price in weight. General rule of thumb: 2 pounds a day is more than enough food to replace calories burned on long-distance walks. Energy bars, oatmeal, rice, pasta, dried fruit, nuts will keep you going. Consider a few packs of Emergen-C mixed with water to replenish electrolytes. And with careful planning, you may be able to carry less per day.
  6. Learn how to steady a camera without a tripod. With the exception of long exposures, you can make use of rocks, trees, even a trekking pole to steady the camera. Consider whether you will need a tripod for your shots, and balance the weight over the number of days you will be in the field. before adding it to your backpacking load.
  7. Don’t attempt to carry more weight than you have trained to carry! I can’t stress this enough. There is nothing worse than planning the trip of a lifetime, and then cursing the load on your back every step of the way. Practice gear triage. Before your trip, lay it all out, and eliminate everything that doesn’t have a definite use, or multiple uses. I have used an excel spreadsheet and a postal scale to weigh every single piece of gear, and to calculate to the ounce what I will be carrying “from the skin out”. FTSO refers to everything in your pack, plus your boots, clothing that you are wearing, and yes, that camera around your neck. 20%-30% of your body weight should be comfortable if you are in shape; 35% is not. Strive for less is more.

Happy Trails!

“Bacon in the Sun” — A different kind of landscape

Bacon in the Sun

Bacon in the Sun

Completely created in the studio, this photograph was the brainchild of some raucous behavior back in 2009. Somehow, at one of our shows, our friend Wendy Baxter had commented on how hot it was and said she was bakin’ in the sun. That morphed into her nickname — Bacon, and that in turn spawned this concept. I found the little pig at a toy store after meeting up with them in Chicago for Wendy’s 40th birthday last December, and assembled the rest of the props piecemeal. Wanting to give them something memorable for their upcoming wedding this past weekend, I set up this shot in the studio.

Using just three Speedlites to light the scene, I used Peter Gregg’s better bounce card for the key light, and a second speedlight way up in the air to the right to simulate the sun. The second light was zoomed to the longest length and gelled with a full CTO to warm up the light.

Bacon in the Sun - studio setup

Bacon in the Sun - studio setup

I printed a sky background from an existing photograph and hung it from a background standard, lit with a third Speedlite gelled blue from the lower left side, below the set. Exposure was about f16 at 1/200 of a second, at ISO 200, using a Canon 5D and a 24-105 L-series lens.