the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Posts tagged “Monterey


Having failed at making this house charming, I then went on to fail at making it sinister and forbidding.

Bad day at the office: having failed at making this house charming, I then went on to also fail at making it sinister and forbidding. I did, however, succeed in making it an unholy mess.


IT’S TV-DOCTOR SHOW CLICHE NUMBER ONE. The frantic ER crew valiantly works upon a patient who is coding, pulling out every tool in a desperate search for a discernible pulse. Then the close-up on the earnest nurse: “He’s gone.” and the final pronouncement by the exhausted resident: “Okay, anyone have the time? I’m calling it….”

That’s pretty much what it’s like to try to rescue a lousy photograph by extraordinary means…tweaking, sweetening, processing, whatever you call the ultimately futile emergency measures. Sometime the unthinkable is obvious: the picture’s a goner…no pulse, no soul, no life.

Cue Bones McCoy: It’s dead, Jim.

I have made my share of ill-advised interventions in the name of “saving” photos that I was unwilling to admit were lifeless, pointless, just a plain waste of time. You’ve done it too, I’m sure. Trying to give some kind of artistic mouth-to-mouth to an image that just wasn’t a contender to begin with. It was a bunch of recorded light patterns, okay, but it damn sure wasn’t a photograph. Smear as much lipstick on a pig as you want….it’s still a pig.

The unremarkable original image.

The unremarkable original image.

The above image shows the worst of this pathology. I wanted to show the charm of an old bed-and-breakfast in the gloriously beautiful little town of Pacific Grove, located just up the peninsula from Monterey in California (see image at left). But everything that could have made the image memorable, or even usable, was absent. The color, a cool buttercup yellow, is common to many town dwellings. In the warm glow of dawn or the late waning, dappled light of late afternoon, it can be charming, even warm. In the mid-day light, weak, withered. Then there was the total lack of a composition. The picture was taken in a second, and looked it.

So, angry at having failed at the “charming” look I had gone for, and unable to make the backlighting on the house work for me, I went into Photomatix (usually a very solid HDR tool) and started, almost angrily, to take revenge on the damned thing. If I can’t make you pretty, I’ll make you magnificently ugly, hahaha…. Seriously, I was pretty far into the journey from “happy little house” to “creepy little twilight creep castle” before realizing there was nothing to be extracted from this picture. No amount of over-glop, taffy-pulling or prayer would magically compensate for a central core concept that just wasn’t there. Like it or not, the pig was always going to show through the lipstick.

Sometimes you just gotta declare the unlucky patient in front of you dead, and try to save the kid on the next gurney over.

This blog was always supposed to be about choices, both good and bad, and how we learn from each. I have shared my failures before, and firmly believe that the only honest conversation comes from admitting that sometimes we make colossal errors in judgement, and that a fair examination of even our “misses” is more important than an endless parade of our “hits”.

Photography is not about consistent genius. It’s about extracting something vital from something flawed.

Being able to identify when we have fallen short is the most important skill, the most essential tool.



In the day, this place is a madness of color and noise. At night, you have its wonders all to yourself. Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey, California. 25 second exposure at f/10, ISO 100, 24mm.


AMERICA IS A LOUD PLACE. IF WE DON’T HEAR NOISE WHEREVER WE GO, WE CREATE OUR OWN. It is a country whose every street rings with a cascade of counterpointed voices, transactions, signals, warnings, all of it borne on the madly flapping wings of sound. There are the obvious things, like car horns, screeching tires, soaring planes, thundering rails, somebody else’s music. And then there are the almost invisible hives of interconnecting lives that tamp vibration and confusion into our ears like a trash compactor.

We no longer even notice the noise of life.

In fact, we are vaguely thrown off-balance when it subsides. We need practice in remembering how to get more out of less.

That’s why I love long night exposures. It allows you to survey a scene after the madding crowd has left. Leaving for their dates, their destinies, their homes, they desert the fuller arenas of day and leave it to breathe, and vibrate, at a more intimate rhythm. Colors are muted. Shadows are lengthened. The sky itself becomes a deep velvet envelope instead of a sun-flooded backdrop.

The noise dies, and the quiet momentarily holds the field.

The above image is of Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf, one of the key tourist destinations in California, a state with an embarrassment of visual riches. During the day, it is a mash of voices, birdcalls, the deep croak of harbor seals, and the boardwalk come-ons of pitchmen hawking samples of chowder along the wharf’s clustered row of seafood joints. It is a colorful cacophony, but the serenity that descends just after dark on cold or inclement nights is worth seeking out as well.

Setting up a tripod and trying to capture the light patterns on the marina, I was stacking up a bunch of near misses. I had to turn my autofocus off, since dark subjects send it weaving all over the road, desperately searching for something to lock onto. I am also convinced that the vibration reduction should be off during night shots as well, since….and this is counter-intuitive….it creates the look of camera shake when it can’t naturally find it. Ow, my brain hurts.

The biggest problem I had was that, for exposures nearing thirty seconds in length, the gentle roll of the water, nearly imperceptible to the naked eye, was consistently blurring many of the boats in the frame, since I was actually capturing half a minute of their movement at a time. I couldn’t get an evenly sharp frame, and the cold was starting to make me wish I’d packed in a jacket. ¬†Then, out of desperation, I rotated the tripod about 180 degrees, and reframed to include the main cluster of shops along the raised dock near the marina. Suddenly, I had a composition,¬†its lines drawing the eye from the front to the back of the shot.

More importantly, I got a record of the wharf’s nerve center in a rare moment of calm. People had taken their noise home, and what was left was allowed to be charming.

And I was there, for both my ear and my eye to “hear” it.




Looking south down Oceanview Boulevard to Monterey from Pacific Grove’s “Lover’s Point” Park. A three-exposure HDR with an average shutter speed of 1/250, f/11, ISO 100, 45mm.

“Ooh, nice. Looks just like a post card!”—98% of everyone who looks at your pictures

MUCH AS I WOULD LOVE TO BE SEEN AS A “SERIOUS” PHOTOGRAPHER (whatever that means), I am, basically, always seeking beauty and some way to freeze it in time.

Come to think of it, that seems pretty “serious” too, although there are schools of thought that seem to profess that making pretty pictures is somehow as insubstantial as crocheting tea cozies or writing haikus about clouds.


My visual sense actually developed along two fairly exclusive tracks. There was the reportorial photography of Life, which reliably came to our house each week chock full of amazing portraiture, riveting war coverage and contentious social issues. That’s the “serious” track. And then there was my early and abiding love for the travel destinations in the illuminated Kodachrome of my View-Master reels, stunning forays into color crafted mostly by unknown shooters working for scale, many of whom sold the company’s “scenic” packets to photo dealers for their real paychecks. These eye-popping tours of France, The Grand Canyon, New York City, and the Holy Land held me spellbound in a way none of VM’s kiddie titles could. Their beauty was their justification. They deserved to be, just because they were a celebration of symmetry, shape, scale, mystery, history.

Canopy and Carpet: Eerily majestic cypresses and manzanita ground cover, just inland of the coastline at Pacific Grove, California. Two-exposure HDR shot at f/11, ISO 100, 45mm.

Since my childhood I have seemed to toggle between taking pictures that “matter” (another meaningless distinction) and images that merely delight me because I was able to grab a sliver of something larger than myself, a souvenir that I myself helped create. And, much as I hate the generic and dismissive “looks like a post card” remark I often get on some kinds of photos, it is the iconic view of the iconic object that I consciously go for, attempting to put my own stamp on something even as I realize that creating the image is way above my pay grade or skill set.


There are times to be a reporter, and there are times to gawk and gape in awe. Anytime I have any chance to be anywhere near the Monterey Peninsula, I vault onto the plane like a ’49-er who heard they just found gold at Sutter’s Mill. The stunning mix of coastal terrain, local botany and color that floods the eye at every turn in Monterey, Pacific Grove and Carmel blows me right out of “documentary” mode and makes my romantic heart beat faster.

Patron Santa Rosaria watches over the”Fisherman’s Wharf” district of Monterey Bay. A three-shot HDR at f/9, ISO 100, 18mm.

I am going postal, as in postal card. I want the ooh-ahh moment. Later on, I’ll get back to shooting urban decay and despair. Right now, we’re making the ultimate View-Master reel.

“Seven More Wonders Of The World!” So ran the wording on the paper envelopes that held those little 3-d wheels.

Seven more wonders.

That’s all I need.