Trail Marker – Klipsan Beach, WA

20+ Miles of sandy beach – dunes and grass as far as the eye can see. Where’s the trail you came in on? They all look the same… keep you eye out for a trail marker – and remember which one is yours….



Runes are characters used in early written Nordic languages. This scene, the bent driftwood and the plant near its base, forming a visual ovoid-triangle, remind me of these symbols. It touches something deep in me. Surely our ancestors made tokens just like this 10,000 years ago… when we were still inventing language.

I imagine seeing this long ago, on a North Sea beach, revealing the trail to a Norseman’s home and hearth. And I imagine this marker coming to be identified with the person who set it, their skills (warrior, fisherman, blacksmith, healer) or the place – its image a proto-signature – a proto-word – standing first for a persons name, then their craft, then even the place itself. Thus we see language evolving from the simplest of actions; a person marking their way home.

Making the shot:

This was actually the last shot of a series made on the beach that morning. Even though our trips to the Long Beach Peninsula are usually short, we always try to get out and walk on the beach a bit, even if it’s only for a few minutes. I’d been hoping for a shot of sea grass: see that clump of grass standing to the right of the driftwood’s base? Notice the fountain-swell of the leaves and shadows, and the fine circles traced in the sand by the leaf tips blowing in the breeze…. I’ve been captivated by this form for a long time. One finds the perfect composition when one finds it; the Zen-garden like tracings in the sand are a beauty that just happens, and I haven’t got it right so far. This is a crop of the grass clump from the full-size version of Runes:

sea grass excerpt 

So, I’d been walking on the beach stalking that elusive composition (the plant in the picture didn’t make the cut for a single shot) but at that point I sort of looked up and stepped back and took in the rest of the scene when the composition hit me and resulted in this:


In this, the beach area visually dominates, and within the beach area, the bright region of grasses on the right balances the regions of sand and trail on the left. The color balance is warmer than Runes – emphasis on home and hearth… There is enough beach that I see this as looking AT the trail, not ON the trail.

Cropping it somewhat greatly emphasizes the sky and grass area – and de-emphasizes the grasses on the right so that the shot revolves around the trail and the “there” beyond the edge of the grasses. The view is much more ON the trail.


This bit of crop-comparison also reveals a photo op – including more and more of the beach – maybe next time :-)

In any event, the preceding crop was done at home in Photoshop. But out there, looking at the scene the trail marker that became Runes caught my eye and instantly became a subject in its own right. I didn’t move the tripod – just rotated the camera 90 degrees, zoomed and tweaked to frame and made the shot.

Along with the symbolism mentioned earlier, there is a certain whimsical aspect to Runes that I greatly enjoy: the bent driftwood becomes a fishing pole, the clump of grass a fish on the line, the circles in the sand ripples on the sea. And wouldn’t that make a nice “proto signature”… Not “Dances with wolves”… “Fishes with weeds”…


In the Port of Ilwaco, WA.

Barbed wire waves, St. Elmo’s fire glowing electric in the rigging, the stain of neglect on her bow; run aground on reefs of time: there she sits, high and dry.

My son said, half-jokingly, that he’d like to live on her and fix her up. If only :-)

I suggest viewing this in original size.

Making the Photo:

We were visiting the Port on a Sunday morning, strolling down the unusually quiet quay with my wife, son and his girlfriend, when these day-glow orange floats across the street from the docks snuck into my peripheral vision. They were piled up against a fence next to a holding area filled with boats in various stages of repair or decay. I left the group and walked a bit closer, then spotted the Jeanie O and this composition just jumped into the viewfinder. I spot-metered on the boat’s window under the vertical topaz-colored mast and made this single shot.

Because the contrast ratios were high, I really wanted to shoot this as HDR, but opted not to try it hand-held. So I then walked a few hundred yards back to our car, got my tripod, returned to the scene and set up. Problem was, by the time I went to the car and back, the family had caught up with me and we’d started gabbing, and the “moment” was lost; guess I just broke my concentration. What I got was ok, but I knew I hadn’t duplicated this exact composition again (in the bright light of the location, the camera’s LCD screen was pretty much useless for critical viewing).

Back at the computer, after deciding to go with this, I processed the RAW file as a pseudo-HDR in Photomatix.  The purpose was to “process the digital negative” to reduce the contrast, particularly to pull the highlights away from being blown. Next the shot was processed for sharpness and noise reduction. Great noise reduction software is a must when processing most pseudo-HDRs; the darker regions tend to get noisy really fast. Then I used Topaz Adjust for post-processing, and the first result was this:


This is a nice “straight” representation of the scene. But when I shot this, what got me about the composition was the sense that the ship was riding up, over the obstacles in front, like a ship rises over waves in the sea. Sitting there looking at the screen, the title phrase “The Wreck of the Jeanie O” sprang into mind… and the clear-cut desire to present this as a dramatic scene – reminiscent of a wreck at sea – swept over me, well, like a wave. So back into Topaz Adjust for post processing (to match my “post visualization”).  The result was this:


I still have some difficulty with “expressive” photography. I was trained to accomplish, and strived to achieve photo realism; non-interpretive rendering. But just as I’ve learned to let the urge to shoot a subject take over (when the urge to shoot hits, I shoot) so I’m learning to let myself alter a photo to tell a tale. The key word is “let”. The urge to go with a bit of “ghost ship” on this was strong, and came straight out of the right brain; it wasn’t planned or considered; I didn’t stop and think about what to do; “maybe I should try this…” No, the right brain had the thought, knew what to do, and did it. I, the left brain, had to shut up and stay out of the way.  After the processing, part of me wanted to start quibbling; “Oh, what about this? And What about that?” And the right brain had to say “Shush. It’s ok… just relax and enjoy it.”

Subject note:

A wreck the Jeanie O is, but she didn’t run aground on the rocks surrounding Cape Disappointment (I love the names Lewis and Clark gave to places on this coast. “Dismal Notch” may be my favorite…). She’d run aground on reefs of neglect, spurred on by the economics of making and keeping her sea worthy.  But the world of “people who go down to the sea in ships” is not a consumer-driven use-it-and-throw-it-away culture. So it wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that someone actually plans to restore the Jeanie O and take her home to the sea. If the hull is sound, the rest can be fixed.

I ran into yet another in my long list of “Doh!” moments after a shoot at the beach last weekend.

Reviewing the shots later, on the computer, I noticed that a whole series of shots were badly lacking in contrast and saturation. The post-storm light on the beach was very bright and flat to begin with, but these shots were much flatter and colorless than I would have expected. Initially, I just wrote it off to the particular combination of camera, subject, and settings.  Turned out I was wrong.

I’m not at all obsessive about cleaning my equipment – but generally, if I use a filter I clean it before putting it away at the end of the day so it’s ready next time. Now, for part of this shoot I’d pulled out a tele-zoom lens I use infrequently, and to cut through glare, attached its matching circular polarizer (which I use even less often).

Later, when getting ready to clean the filter before putting it away I noticed that one side of the filter was covered edge-to-edge with an even grey film – like fog on the inside of a car window! Just looking through it with the naked eye, I realized that this awful haze was why the particular shots appeared so lifeless – I was shooting through self-inflicted “heavy fog!”

Of course I cleaned the filter thoroughly, but I was also a bit confused – the filter was clean when I put it away…. Well, a bit of investigation showed that the filter’s case had a Styrofoam pad in the bottom to keep the filter from banging around inside and cushion it. Best I can figure is that the Styrofoam out-gassed (released tiny amounts of chemical gasses as part of its aging process) and those gasses had deposited themselves all over one side of the filter!

So, a few points emerge:

  • Yeah, I really should have checked the filter before I attached it – assuming it was clean after 6 months in storage turned out to be a bad idea.
  • I checked a couple of other filters and one of those had also been hazed-up!

Considering this further; having Styrofoam as a cushion may be a “good idea” on the face of it – certainly cheap and easy for the manufacturers. But it would be better to replace these with a layer or two of microfiber cloth in each filter box. That would:

  1. Immobilize and cushion the filter;
  2. Reduce or eliminate the risk of outgassing, and;
  3. Provide a convenient way to touch up a filter in the field when you need to get or keep it clean.

Sounds like a perfect rainy winter night mini-project…

Tip: bags of nice microfiber cloths are available cheap in Target’s automotive section.

We had breakfast this morning in a little cafe in Ocean Park, down along the beach access road. Anyway, I walked out after a last cup of coffee and spotted the distant suff down the road and in a flash this shot jumped into my head – I even tried to describe it to my wife.

To my wife’s consternation, I drove my Honda Civic out onto the sand (we usually bring our Subaru Outback) and parked it close to the edge beyond which two driven wheels would not be enough. I’d known from the first instant that I wanted – needed – as flat a perspective as I could get, so I threw on my 70-300mm, mounted the camera on a tripod, extended it out to 300mm and started framing.

Making the photo: What I was seeking was a confluence of waves and wind where all the random bits would come together in a dynamic whole. Yeah, right – just like that… I’ve spent lots of time with cameras on tripods all framed up and ready to shoot when the perfect waves roll by, but usually I’m waiting for a line of waves to match the other elements in the overall design. This had an added twist: there was nothing to frame in reference to – other than ocean – it was all waves. I picked a patch based on a bit of watching the overall wave patterns and the sun and clouds and hoped I was pointing at (or at least near) a spot that would give me what I wanted (ok, the camera wasn’t that rigidly fixed; the ball head was set to allow some slight panning to follow wave patterns, but you get what I mean). Basically: wait as sets of rollers comes through then combine “critical moment” timing with occasional high-speed shooting bursts and go for the best.

This is very similar to shooting sporting events where you try to position yourself, plan the shot and then start shooting as the critical moments come and go. Shooting waves is unlike shooting sports in that you can know pretty much where a runner’s feet will fall or where a jumpers shadow will pass. Not so with waves, so they’re harder to get just right. Accordingly, unless you are incredibly patient, lucky, or skilled, you will be cropping the image to a greater or lesser degree. That was certainly the case here.

The hardest part of cropping is knowing what to crop – and when shooting something as chaotic as waves it isn’t always easy – not for me at least – to spot a fragment of order amid the chaos. The “subject” isn’t just sitting there – a duck on a pond so to speak. It is camouflaged by all the surrounding action. Cropping amounts to paring away everything that isn’t “the shot”.

As a consequence, on the beach I didn’t know for sure that I had “the shot” until later, back on the computer, scanning through all the images. This was on the third to last shot out of a couple of dozen exposures; I can only wonder if subconsciously I knew this pattern had flickered in front of my eye during the shoot, causing me to stop. 

A problem shooting material in stormy conditions is that the scene, while begging for drama, tends to be rather flat; the contrasts are mostly of texture and shape, not light and dark. Nature co-operated here, throwing a Flickr of weak sun across a portion of the scene for just a few seconds, giving the white froth a bit of added brightness to capitalize on. Even so, the overall contrast didn’t exceed 4 or 5 stops, if that. Photoshop curves set the white and black points giving the scene contrast it lacked in nature. But the small textures, little micro waves and ripples, while interesting and accurate, seemed like noise, distracting from the design, so I used Topaz adjust on a duplicate base layer to smooth the smaller details, then blended the original and smoothed layers to strike a balance between texture/detail and shapes.  The final step was some judicious burning and dodging, mostly to punch up the highlights.

This “subject” invites repeat attempts; no one version will ever be definitive – a be all, end all. Each attempt will generate moments of crystallized chaos – raw material to mold into finished images. Great fun :-)

Oak Knoll – Redux

Originally uploaded by chris_rutkowski


I posted the original version of this photograph on Flickr my very first day; about a year and a half ago.

Yup. It’s a repost. “But wait!” the spry of memory among your might say, “I remember something quite different.” And you would be quite right. Though born of the same .NEF file(s), they are very different images. But what really changed was me.

Have I mentioned that I’m still learning how to see? Oh yeah, that’s the name of the blog….  That’s the point: what changed most between the two images is me, the photographer.

What sparked this was a consolidation project; I had photo stuff on two servers, four computers, and two or three virtualized backups of old computers. A couple of weeks back I set out on the unenviable task of collecting the stuff all together and imposing some sort of order upon it; like cleaning the digital garage. Somewhere along the way I happened upon the folder containing these negatives, and scanning through it in Adobe Bridge, I first recognized the jpg I’d posted to Flickr, then it dawned on me that I had made a 5-shot bracket

Back then, I didn’t make 5-shot brackets intending to do HDR; it was just plain old-fashioned “insurance” shooting. Back in the ol’ days I’d learned to bracket whenever possible. That rule was right up there with getting an “insurance” shot – second exposures “just in case”. These rules harken back to the days of sheet film and plate cameras with dark slides and contraptions to move film about. There were plenty of things to go wrong, so “insurance shots” were a very good idea if you could afford the time and film. These days, with digital cameras and massive image storage capacities, the practical barriers to routinely bracketing – when conditions permit -  grow smaller all the time.

So, I shot a bracket of this; perhaps just to see which exposure was best. Regardless, I chose the middle exposure, did very minimal processing and posted it to share with my daughter who lives in LA.



In the note accompanying the post I wrote :”This picture and a few others in the series need a bit of work; they don’t  ‘read’ right – yet.”

This was pretty much the straight jpg. The subject, framing, positioning, exposure, etc. are all decent. And I’d gotten my digital workflow sorted out sufficiently that what was on the monitor was pretty close to what you see on the print. Fine. But I knew this wasn’t the look I wanted – this isn’t what I wanted to show you…

Now, turn the clock forward a year an a half:



This is much more what I had in mind when I snapped the shutter that day.

That oak – the pater familias I think thoroughly dominated the scene; I wanted it just a touch surreal – the clouds too loud, the shimmer of movement in the foreground grasses (about knee high), the clouds throwing winter’s last gasp against the spring…

Right now this is my favorite version; others are possible. I wonder what it will look like if I redo it again another year and a half down the road?

Tools are what we humans use to chip away at the limits of imagination.

Sometimes change occurs as a paradigm shift, more often, it’s just one piece of a grand jig-saw puzzle dropping into place. I experienced one of the latter yesterday.

My friend Clay Wells, made a comment about about the preceding post, Making NJ Farmland-Redux, that really set off a cascade of mental sparks for me, and I wanted to share them with you.

Clay said “When I looked at this I got the feeling of riding in the back seat of the car looking out the window.”

I read this and it was for me like “DING! DING! DING!” going off in my head and I said to myself “Yeah, that’s exactly what it is – what I was seeing was the view out the window on those rides my Grandfather used to take the family on,” and with a little pause, “and so is the picture of the lake, and so is the picture of the diner…” 

We’d pile into Granddad’s Oldsmobile and he’d hit every country road in every area he could think of – mostly trying to get my Grandmother lost, I suspect. That field shot in NJ Farmland? Just the type we’d see; soybeans as a rotation crop – they’d be a big draw for pheasants too – come hunting season.

Often as not, we’d stop at some lake or stream somewhere – maybe wet a line, catch some sunnies or catfish, or maybe try to coax a bass to hit a plug as the shadows grew longer. And while I was on the ride where the photos were made I just happened to stop by a lake. Just happened? It’s like I know how to do this “ride in the country” thing – I was taught by a master; automatic water-seeking is part of the program.

So, I “just happened” to strike up a conversation with a guy on the dock in the photo. He thanked me, by the way, for announcing myself from shore before disturbing his reverie while reading. He explained that most fishermen would just walk out and stand a few feet from where he sat and start fishing without saying a word. In the light of self recognition, once upon a time I would have been a kid tagging along, and my dad or granddad would be the ones there striking up that conversation, and respecting the rights of another. And likely as not, the various mom’s would all be back in that cavernous car enjoying the view and the company, just as my mom did on that day.

To complete the metaphor, what then would have been more natural on one of Granddad’s rides than to stop some place for dinner on the way home? This ride with mom happened to stop at one of the landmark modern diners in central NJ.

So, what I was doing was documenting a “ride in the country”. Funny, that. I guess anyone out on a journey; a vacation, business trip, excursion, or a walk to a neighborhood market, who stops along the way to photograph things is in effect making a documentary – making little story-boards for the movie about the event that plays in our heads when those particular photos come to mind. Moreover, I really enjoy telling stories with photos – photojournalism. Look and Life Magazines from the fifties are seared into my consciousness. My work as a pro when I was very young was all of this sort.  So, I guess, why should I be surprised to learn that’s what I intuitively and automatically do today? However, my goals for individual images is infinitely more expressive than utilitarian.

I also remind myself that the name of this blog is “Still Learning How to See”, and this posting is a case in point. I learned a little bit more about me, and seeing oneself a bit more clearly, understanding why I’m making a photograph, helps clarify my vision. Which iterates the most basic point of technique: the most important component in your camera system is you.

So thanks Clay, for the comment that got me thinking… :-) 

NJ Farmland – Redux

Originally uploaded by chris_rutkowski

I uploaded the contrast corrected version of the original then decided to experiment with the B&W a bit as Jeff suggested. Found that a medium-strong Rose filter effect supports the composition without getting overly dramatic. Yellow filter makes this sci-fi… This version "reads" right; that is the perceived brightnesses are similar between the two versions. This has a nice dimensional effect, which a touch of trapezoidal edge burning enhanced.


Comment Thread from Flickr

Other very minor thread topics have been excised for clarity.

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Jeff Engelhardt   says:

define "overly dramatic" . . . . ?

Not looking for black skies? :). I suppose they do have their place. I do like this as black and white, definitely, but surprised you didn’t push it a little bit further . . for example, I see no "true blacks" here – which a normal levels adjustment is used to accomplish. I’m guessing, perhaps, the intent was more of a "light" feel?

I’m curious along this line, because the clouds in the sky hint at drama, and often good skyscapes over farmland tend to be dramatic (but that’s just how "everybody" tends to do it) – can you talk more about your intent with the picture? Curious the inner workings of your mind (I love to unpack the photographic process) . . . please discourse, and I’ll return soon to see . .

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chris_rutkowski   says:

Actually you hit the nail pretty much upside the head: the intent was indeed more of a "light" feel. Specifically, this is New Jersey. New Jersey has a very different sky than the West: lower, brighter, glarier… (not smog for the sarcastic wits out there. Well, not always). That “very-bright but low-contrast” feel is the NJ I grew up in: this is the early fall when the muggy air of summer has not yet been fully vanquished by the crisp cool air masses that will spill down out of Canada in the coming weeks.

One problem is “scale effect”. What looks good small may not look so good large, and vice-versa. In this case, in smaller versions the tiny amount of black is rapidly lost. If you look at the original size you can about see small black areas of shade in the tree-line and around the house. They are very small. But in a 16×24 print – they’d be pointillist pepper to spice things up and make the tree-line look real.

This rose filter choice was done viewing side-by-side with the color version and homing in on a translation that felt “the same”.

It was in that context that “overly dramatic” came to mind. Effects that would turn the sky black would come by and I’d be saying “no, no, no, no, no…” Definitely not for this piece of New Jersey I’m showing in this shot.

I also admit to a bit of deliberate avoidance. Black skies can be (are?) a cliché – a visual crutch, so I sometimes set up rules for myself like “no black skies” just to make it more interesting. I also sometimes avoid certain places: while on a trip to NM this time last year: no photos of either the St. Francis church or the Taos Pueblo. No Yosemite. No Brice canyon. But a piece of flat land in NJ… sure. At least I can say with some certainty that this is the best photo ever made of this spot :-)

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chris_rutkowski   says:

Mental ruminations:

Subject: Overly Dramatic:

Postulate: All perception is a result of contrast.

Hypothesis: Contrast exists within and/or between 4 visual domains (brightness, shape, color, texture) and 2 emotional domains (content, context).

Dramatic = Strong contrasts among and/or between domains.

Overly = Strong contrast for the sake of strong contrast – any effect for the sake of the effect. Specifically as it relates to the intent of the shot.

Appropriately: No effect is inherently wrong. Even an "effect for the sake of an effect" if that’s the point.

This is based on a "making and viewing photos" rubric I’ve been working on – thinking about – for a while. Initial thoughts on the model?

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chris_rutkowski   says:

This version adds that bit of contrast – Photoshop curves layer with Black input set to 8 and white input set to 249. Crisper, brighter. but it didn’t feel like what I had in mind.

Is this a left over trace of "straight photographer" principles, or a cop out? Giving up before the best possible picture – the strongest visual statement – is achieved? Is it valid to use a single shot to produce multiple visual images which tell a different tale? My brain says yes, but my heart achieves "maybe" at best.

In the spirit of stepping out of my comfort zone (my favorite admonition to others) a "black sky" version will be forthcoming