Friday, December 12, 2014

Back to Basics

When a friend of mine got a new camera and asked for some pointers, I shared the same projects that were assigned by Tom Turner in my very first black and white photography class back in the early ‘90s. These projects are good exercises to help beginning students better understand the "Exposure Triangle" of Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO. All of these can be performed using Aperture Priority Mode.

1. Minimum Depth of Field. With a wide open aperture setting (~f2.8 or similar), isolate a single subject by blurring out the background/foreground and just leaving the object sharp. Getting close to the subject with a telephoto lens helps. With a wide open aperture you'll have plenty of light and probably won't need a tripod. This image was made while laying on the grass at Point Reyes with a 105mm macro lens, intentionally looking through some foreground iris flowers to emphasize a California Poppy on a windy, hazy day.

2. Maximum Depth of Field. Select a small aperture, f16, and a scene with both near and far subjects that you want to keep in focus. You will find this technique easier with a wide angle lens. A smaller aperture means less light coming through the lens, so you'll have a longer exposure time. A tripod is a good idea, especially in low light. This image of a gnarled bonsai tree in Zion National Park was made with a 70-200mm telephoto lens at f22. I found a location where I could frame the tree in the huge background arch which was about half a mile away. To keep both sharp I used Live View on my Nikon D800E and zoomed in until I could see both tree and background up close, then manually focused to a point where I could keep both sharp.

3. Stopping Action. Find a fast moving object in motion, like a running dog, surfer, jumping skate boarder, etc, and use a fast shutter speed to stop the action. Select a wide open aperture (~f2.8) and fast ISO, 800 or 1600 to freeze the subject at the peak of action. You'll want at least 1/500th of a second if you can get it. Its easier with lots of light. The image here shows Rob McKay jumping across an exposed gap in the ridge while we were climbing the Evolution Traverse in the High Sierra this past summer.

4. Showing Motion. Find a moving subject but this time use a slow shutter speed to blur the image, showing motion. Use a small aperture (~f16) and low ISO, (100) and pan the camera as the subject moves, or use a tripod and let the subject blur through the scene. The slower the subject moves, the longer the shutter speed you will need. Try it in low light for easiest results. For a panning shot of a runner or biker, try using 1/10th of a second. To show moving water in a waterfall use ~1 second exposure or more. The hard part is getting enough of the subject sharp to make a good image.

For advanced users: You can pop the flash to help get the sharp image as well as the blur. Here’s what I did on this image of Brad Parker mountain biking last spring while shooting a new pack for MindShift Gear: Set the flash settings to "Rear" sync. This will let you use a slow shutter speed and the flash will fire at the end of the exposure. If you use "Slow" sync, it will fire at the beginning of the exposure and the effect is bizarre as it looks like the person is jumping out of their body. After the exposure, look at the image on the LCD. If the flash is overpowering the ambient light, turning down the flash exposure compensation. With my SB900 Nikon Speedlight, a setting of -2.3 seems about right.

I hope you find these lessons helpful. We go much more in-depth on these techniques in our photo workshops.

-Jerry Dodrill

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Tunnel View

Snowy sunrise from Tunnel View, Yosemite Valley. 
As I sit here by the warm fire listening to rain on the window, this image seems like the right one to share. It was made almost exactly two years ago when an autumn storm rolled in and blanketed the Sierra with a layer of snow.
#Fivedayblackandwhitechallenge, day 5. I'm throwing out the challenge to Doug Bush, a fine photographer and great friend who was with me on this amazing day in the Valley.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Morning Ritual

For day 4 of the #fivedayblackandwhitechallenge we take a look back to May 30, 2013. After driving all night from Bishop to Moab, Utah, Grant Ordelheide and I pulled into Indian Creek and slept for a few hours in the dirt. We woke up in a primitive campsite occupied by our friends Rob McKay and Brad Parker who were on an epic climbing road trip across the West. While Rob brewed up a fresh cup of communal maté, Brad rolled out his yoga mat and performed his morning ritual. I should have used the time to stretch as well, but instead picked up the camera. 

Brad had been my subject many times before and wasn't shy of the lens. He happily tuned me out and, after a few pictures I turned my focus toward breakfast. This image of his powerful back, arms, and hands, roughened by many days of contact with stone, also emits an essence of his deeply spiritual connection with our planet. After Brad's tragic passing in August, I look at this image now with a very different, contemplative, and inspired set of emotions. It reminds of the mantra that has become widespread amongst our friends: Breathe deep, and B-Rad.

-Jerry Dodrill

Monday, November 10, 2014

Wild Mustangs

#fivedayblackandwhitechallenge Day 3.
This summer I was out in the middle of Nevada experiencing what at first seemed to be an overwhelmingly vast emptiness. The place was frustrating, with a silence was so deep it rang in my ears. But as I slowed down and got in tune with the large scale and slow pace of time, realized that it is not so much empty as it is open. I had to let go of expectations and become more present. 
While driving dirt roads for hours, exploring the landscape, we saw occasional glimpses of wildlife; Deer, pronghorn antelope, coyote, and wild mustangs. We crested a small hill and startled this group of horses. While the mares darted off through the sage brush, the stallion stopped and stared us down. Luckily I had the camera ready with a long lens and snapped a few exposures before they disappeared in a dusty mirage. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Homage to John Sexton

For day 2 of the #5dayblackandwhitechallenge I'm reaching back in the archives again to my early days of shooting exclusively black and white film. John Sexton, master print maker and assistant to Ansel Adams, was one of my early inspirations. A visit to his studio during a 1996 college field trip reinforced the need for a high attention to detail during the entirety of the photographic process. While there I obtained a copy of his book Quiet Light which had a stunning image of a Sierra corn lily on the cover. The next summer while backpacking with my sister I happened upon a patch of young lilies and spent some time exploring the same subject. While I'm no John Sexton, the image at the time was a study of shape and form in that beautiful flat, luminous light that occurs during quiet moments at the ends of the day.

Unfortunately, the negative which was most appealing had an artifact on it which could not be fixed in the wet darkroom, so it sat in the files for many years before being drum scanned and corrected by Bob Cornelis at Color Folio
Nomination for today goes out to Bob Cornelis, who has been making some incredible platinum prints in his studio. Looking forward to seeing what he shares!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Yosemite Junction Hotel

My friends Gary Crabbe and Dean Fleming nominated me for the latest fad in social media, the #5dayblackandwhitechallenge. 
For Day 1, I'm going back in the archives to an early piece I shot in 1994 on Kodak T-Max 100 film. This is an architectural detail at the old Yosemite Junction Hotel that sat on the corner of 108 and 120. 

The hotel was in ruins for many years before being torn down. I drove by it many times during college as we blasted to and from the Valley on weekend climbing trips. At the time I was an art student at Pacific Union College, and it was during this period that I realised photography was the medium that best suited my lifestyle. This image was included in a body of work that I entered in a contest in 1996, where Galen Rowell, Ruth Burnhard, and others awarded it a second place finish. The work was exhibited in the Mumm Napa Valley winery with the judges and other winners. The exhibit resulted in an internship and ultimately a job with Mountain Light that was the foundation of my career. I only made a few darkroom prints of this image, but it is one that holds a special place in my personal collection. While much of my work focused on pristine natural environments, this was one of my first looks at how nature fights back to reclaim that which man has built. Today the lot where this hotel once stood is a pretty open field, and you'd never guess that it had been "developed".

The rules of the 5-day challenge state that I am to nominate another person each day to join the fun, so I'll start with my friend Grant Ordelheide because I know he will post some impressive work.

-Jerry Dodrill

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

This Side of Paradise

In January of 2006 I walked out to the Bardini Boulders near Bishop, CA, to take some photos of Kevin Jorgeson doing the 3rd ascent of a very challenging boulder problem called "This Side of Paradise" (V10). He needed a bunch of crash pads to do this with relative safety, so we rallied together a few friends to help. Brad Parker was a close friend of ours and was then the resident host of a dirtbag climber camp called "The Pit." He had a lot of pads, or knew people who did, so he became a key player in making the mission happen. Kevin had been working out the moves and by the time he was finally ready to start the climb we were all anxiously chewing our fingernails.
The crux is up high, and even if you do have a foot of foam below you, you don't want to blow it. He finally got psyched up and began pulling on holds with the precision of a finely tuned machine. A spotter wasn't really going to help if you fell from the crux, and I didn't want anyone in the photos except Kevin. At a certain point Brad was supposed to run in and rearrange the pads, then get out of the way so if Kevin fell he didn't drive him into the ground like a nail. He did his job perfectly but as he started to walk away Kevin yelled nervously down: "Spot Me!" So there was Brad, reaching up, hoping he wouldn't have to pluck Kevin out of the sky.
Looking back nearly nine years later, I can see the metaphor in this image. In one way or another, Brad was always spotting people when they were run out and in epic situations on the rock and in life. He surrounded himself with a community of reliable people who were able to achieve more than they ever thought possible, and would be ready and able to catch a falling friend. With Brad's strength beneath him, Kevin felt confident enough to fire through the crux. His success on this scenic climb was inspiring and we all stepped up to achieve even bigger dreams and goals. So it is with great disbelief and sadness that we come to terms with the fact that Brad left this Earth in the Yosemite Highcountry this past summer. He fell while soloing the easy South-North Traverse on Matthes Crest. Though his strong hands will never again reach for our backs, we will forever hold him in our hearts.

-Jerry Dodrill

To learn about the Brad Parker Memorial Fund, visit:

Follow Kevin Jorgeson and his massive Dawn Wall project here:

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

On The Land at Jenner Headlands

The padlock dropped, clanking on its chain against the post. Ingrid had spun the brass dials to a secret code and was pushing the gate open wide. She jumped in as Todd pressed the gas peddle and led a caravan of SUVs up the steep dirt road amongst swirling mists. Up! up! up... into the coastal prairie wonderland that is the Jenner Headlands Preserve
(click the images for a slideshow)

Perhaps it was a bit risky to run an evening photo tour this time of year at the 5,360 acre property, where the Russian River and Pacific Ocean meet. During August the inland heat draws cool ocean air inland and the possibility of impenetrably thick fog is a daily reality. But the chances were also high that we could use the vertiginous hillside topography to our favor, rising into the magical transitional light just above the clouds as the sun reached the horizon.

Todd Pickering and I were working pro-bono, leading twenty five valued members of the Sonoma Land Trust on an excursion to photograph “On The Land” as part of a membership benefit program organized by Ingrid Spetz. It was in part due to the generous donations of members that allowed the Land Trust to purchase the land in 2009.

The acquisition was a result of a dedicated four-year partnership between the Sonoma Land Trust, the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, and Five other funding sources (the California Coastal Conservancy, the California Wildlife Conservation Board, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and Forest Legacy Program). The Wildlands Conservancy loaned and guaranteed loans totaling $10.6 million to insure this acquisition when funding was threatened. It is the single largest conservation land acquisition in Sonoma County history. 

In September 2013, Sonoma Land Trust transferred the fee title of the property to The Wildlands Conservancy to manage as a preserve governed by consensus management decisions between TWC and Sonoma Land Trust. 

Our tires crawled up the slope out of the fog into a landscape that could be a Salvador Dali painting. The dirt track wound through ancient grasslands, around stone outcrops, and entered a forest of live oak, bay, fir and redwood. We parked in the woodland and walked back down the lane toward the light. Two days earlier we had scouted the location and determined that if the same weather persisted, conditions high up the hill would be ideal. California weather is amazingly reliable, and as luck would have it, the predictions were correct.

The group spread out across the terrain as Todd and I helped people understand their equipment and make decisions about how to portray a sense of this place. Story telling was emphasized, because if you know what you want to communicate, many of the technical photographic decisions needed to achieve that effect are made by default.

Fog licked at our feet and thin clouds stretched like wings across the sky as the sun dipped to the west. I was immersed in the scene and looked across to see people just standing in wonder behind their tripods, gazing at the grandeur of nature. A thousand clicks of the shutter were heard that night, but in the end the best images were those recorded in our memories, of a wonderful evening spent “On The Land.”

For more information about the Sonoma Land Trust and opportunities to visit the Jenner Headlands, Please visit these sites:

Also, be sure to sign up for my mailing list in the side bar and visit my site to learn about upcoming photo workshops:

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Eureka Dunes, Death Valley Trip Report

The suspension on my wife's VW Jetta was getting a real stress test as I bouncing through brain-jarring wash board on Eureka Valley road in Death Valley National Park. The rocky ten mile long track is known for shredding tires and is probably best suited to 4x4 trucks. I'll probably be in trouble when she reads this, because before leaving I had promised I wouldn't leave the pavement.

On my previous four wildflower photo trips to Death Valley I had been skunked by drought conditions, and the timing of infrequent storms did not produce good results. My expectations were probably unrealistically high considering that the first two visits to the park were in 1998, and 2005, both of which were "once in a lifetime" El Nino blooms. So when I saw a friend's photos online I knew I had to act immediately. Like a California ice climber, the photographer's best piece of equipment is a fast car. The blooms are ephemeral and won't wait for late comers.

Eureka Dunes, one of the largest in the US, is in the remote northern section of Death Valley and best accessed from Big Pine in the Owens Valley. The drive from where I live in Sonoma County is about ten hours and I only about 36 hours to get there and back. I loaded the car friday evening and left the house first thing Saturday with wife and dog in tow. We had to drop off some prints at Mountain Light Gallery in Bishop, so did that and got a hotel Saturday night. The next morning I got up early and drove alone out to the dunes while Arienne caught up on sleep. I'd only have a couple hours to make images.

The sunrise came and went as I bounced along the road at an agonizingly slow pace. Ga-dunk, ga-dunk, ga-dunk! The drive was tedious but when the fields of flowers began appearing around me I knew it was worthwhile. The desert was alive!

Fortunately there was some cloud cover, so the sun didn't just glare into the scene with a bald sky. This gave some precious time to find a few nice landscapes where the plant densities were most concentrated, and I knew there would be time to shoot closeups after the clouds blew over.

I was frantically wandering around vast fields of flowers, with stunning beauty in every direction. While this may sound blissful, it actually caused a fair a bit of stress because I was short on time and the light was changing fast. I had to tear myself away from some beautiful scenes because it just wasn't possible to take every shot. All too soon the time was up.
The drive back on the terrible road seemed to take even longer now, because I was running late. Finally I hit the pavement and hauled ass back up over the pass, enjoying a magnificent view of the Palisades and Sierra Crest as I sped toward home. This was my first trip to this part of Death Valley and I'm sure I'll be back to spend more time at a less hurried pace.

-Jerry Dodrill

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Salamander Bucket Brigade

Why do salamanders cross the road? Sex, of course. On the first rainy nights of the winter season, California Tiger Salamanders leave their dens (often old gopher tunnels), and meander to nearby ponds where breeding occurs. Near my home here in Sonoma County California, a population of this federally listed endangered specie is faced with a mortal challenge common to many animals. A busy paved road was established between the fields where they live, and the vernal pools where they breed. Luckily for them, there is a community of conservationists who go to great lengths to help the nocturnal amphibians cross the street.
California tiger salamander crossing a busy Sonoma County road in the near Cotati, California
Yesterday evening, while flash flood warnings were in effect and most folks were at home watching the Sochi Olympic Games, a group of concerned citizens donned reflective vests and walked the shoulders of Stoney Point Road looking for salamanders. Carrying buckets, flashlights, and GPS devices, the searchers pick up specimens, document the location, then carry them across the road to continue on their journey without being ground into the asphalt. Normally the peak of this activity would have happened several months ago, but with the drought of 2013/14, the salamanders were on standby until the rain finally arrived and the ponds filled with water. Data collected is used to establish information about population density that may be used to help protect the US Fish and Wildlife Service's 72,000 acre Sonoma County salamander protection zone, and to help de-list the specie from the endangered list once populations increase.
Students from Sonoma State University search for endangered salamanders in pouring rain along Stony Point Road near Cotati, California. 
Protection of the habitat in which the Sonoma County population of Tiger Salamanders lives has been a hot button topic between developers, agriculture, and environmentalists for years. Habitat protection has been an expensive source of litigation that has stalled the development of, among other things, a major casino, a local rock quarry, and expansion of the Sonoma County Airport.
Students from Sonoma State University document California Tiger Salamanders in pouring rain. 
In 2011 a series of low fences was erected at the Stony Point Road site to guide the eight inch long speckled amphibians into specially built tunnels which allow them to safely cross back and forth under the road. The fence and tunnel system seems to be working pretty well, yet because there are still an good number of tiger salamanders killed each rainy night, volunteers show up to safeguard the crossing. (Click here for more info about the tunnels.)
California Tiger Salamander in bucket prior to release.
According to a USFWS proposal: "In Sonoma County, the California tiger salamander is imperiled by a variety of factors including habitat destruction, degradation, and fragmentation due to urban development, hybridization with non-native salamanders, inadequate regulatory mechanisms, disease, and pesticide drift."  

California Tiger Salamander being released into the wild.

If you'd like learn more about this topic, here are a few links:

-Jerry Dodrill