Today’s image is of one of the Mono Lake tufas taken at dawn in 2014 during a photo workshop I took with photographer Michael Frye. I cannot recommend his workshops highly enough, both for the locations he takes you to and his tutoring and mentoring during the workshop. This was his fall foliage workshop that’s based out of Lee Vining in the Sierras.

One aspect of Michael’s work that really impresses me and which was part of the reason I workshopped with him is that while most landscape photographers have a strong bias towards very wide angle landscapes, he does most of his work with a 70-200 lens. Talking with him about this and working on it during the workshop and after, I’ve found I really like that style, and that’s one reason you’ll see today that I’m a lot more likely to take create a stitched panorama of 70mm verticals over trying to make a 24mm lens work. At the same time, it’s a technique I’m still don’t feel like I’ve mastered, but is well worth exploring. Definitely something landscape photographers ought to be considering more than I see them doing…

Making this image

Sunrise at South Tufas, Mono Lake

This image, in a way, defines nature photography. We got up well before dawn, drove over to Mono Lake and hiked out to the tufas in the dark. I’m carrying 35 pounds of gear and we’re hiking unpaved trails by flashlight. The altitude is kicking my butt. Of course, I catch a root and find the best possible thorny bush to fall into. Michael’s co-host on the shop was trailing the group (meaning me) on the way to the shooting area and scurried over to haul me out of the bush. It wasn’t until later I realized my scalp was bleeding from multiple scrapes, but other than that, all I’d damaged was my dignity.

So, cussing and pissed, I hiked out to the shooting area, last one in. That meant the rest of the workshop had their positions. I immediately saw what I wanted to shoot, which was this tufa. It had three workshoppers on the far side of it shooting out across the lake. There was no way to get a good shot without them in it, so I shot it anyway and I cloned them out later. It’s one of the few times I’ve ever manipulated a landscape shot that extensively, but if you look at the results, totally worth it.

The other thing about this shot? We got up around 4:30 for this shoot, were on site before 6AM, and this shot was taken around 6:45, and we were on the site about 90 minutes total. Of that time, that sky color you see? It existed for about 10 minutes. The rest of the time, it looked like this:

Sunrise at South Tufas, Mono Lake

Which isn’t bad, but… It’s not epic. And that is nature photography in a nutshell: you spend four hours at a location and everything happens in 15 minutes of crazy, if it happens at all. And then someone says you must have a really great camera. In fact, yes, but I also have hand warmers, gloves, a heavy coat and winter hat, and lots and lots of patience and hope and planning… and the reason your vacation photos don’t look like this is because you see a spot and you take a few shots and you move on. This is all about the preparation to be at the right place at the right time and the patience to make it pay off. I have locations I’ve been working on for years and still don’t have the shot I want, and may never…

A digression: working your collection

The other story about this image: Over the weekend I started a project to work on some of the older images in the collection. This project had two aspects.

The first is that I went and evaluated images with less than 2000 pixels on the short side that I’d flagged as portfolio worthy. In my rating system, I rate my “best of breed” images 5 stars, my portfolio quality 4 stars, and all images I consider usable and published to my SmugMug site 3 stars (2 stars are “retired”, technically competent but not interesting enough or different enough from other images to publish; I hold onto them for 6-9 months, re-evaluate them for winners I might have missed, and then delete them forever. 1 star images are “work files” like pieces of a stitched panorama or HDR, print masters and other copies of the master image, etc).

Over time I find as my skills improve my idea of what a “4 star” or “5 star” image should be changes and I get tougher. I also believe there are two ways to improve the quality of your image collection: one is to go out and take more, better images and add them in, but the other is to cull out the weakest images and get them out of the way. That’s what I did here. By looking at images with lower resolution, it showed me older images, images where I was cropping too tightly, and images shot on less capable camera bodies.

For what it’s worth, my “5 star” images are about 2% of my collection, and my “4 star” about 11%. I don’t consciously edit to those percentages but I have found they tend to stay about the same over time.

When I was done, I decided 6 images weren’t 4 star quality any more and so I re-rated them to 3 stars. My portfolio quality images is a bit smaller, but I think it’s stronger. None of the images were flawed enough to be retired and deleted outright, they’ve just been downgraded to “spear carrier” status. If you’re curious what I downgraded, you can see them in this gallery.

I’d say the biggest flaw they have in common is they’re pretty generic and don’t really have anything distinct or say anything special. They’re just images.

The other story: locked in time

Which leads me back to that image. The other project I’ve started is to look at images that I processed in the past that involved using processing plug-ins or photoshop. I’m finding with the modern version of lightroom needing these external tools to process an image are almost never necessary, especially since Lightroom CC added panorama stiching and HDR tone mapping features that create a new RAW master.

So I found all of my images where I had created a TIFF file of the final image and started looking at reprocessing them all in Lightroom. This tufa image was one of them. And I found out as I went looking that somewhere along the way the RAW file of this image is gone. Lost. Poof. Since it’s been 2+ years since I’ve touched it it’s not on any of my current backups, and if it’s on a backup disk somewhere, I haven’t found it.

Oops. Fortunately, from some checking in the collection, so far it’s the only one where the original RAW is missing.

The good news is I look at that TIFF file and I don’t see anything that makes me feel it needs reprocessing, other than it’s a TIFF and I’d rather have the final images in my collect have all of the edits in the RAW file (because, among other things, the more files you have tied to an image, the more chances you might, oh, delete the wrong one while working on things). And it’s a pretty good image as is — but if I ever wanted to go back and revisit it in any substantive way, now I can.

Which makes me a bit grumpy, but if there was ever a file to lose the RAW on, I think this is a nice choice, because there’s no real need to go back to the RAW and start over. I won’t make a noticably better image from doing it (which is not true of many of the others that I’m finding and reprocessing; if you follow my twitter feed, you’ll have seen over the weekend I’m unhappy with my 2013 me and his fascination with bad HDR techniques…)

This project is allowing me to clean up some organizational problems in my Lightroom collection along the way, which makes me happy. I find investing some time in revisiting and sometimes improving your older images is a good way to take stock of what you’re doing and how your skills and vision have changed, and along the way improve your portfolio by culling weaker images or fixing ones that could be better because you’re better at all of this now. You have to be careful because you can end up putting all of your time into tweaking the past and stop creating new material, but as processing tools improve and as your skill in using them improves, there’s value in going back and putting some effort into upgrading your images.

There’s also value in having a good, clean and simple organizational strategy. One reason I lost that RAW file was because I didn’t have that at the time; I’m now fixing that in the older images. And because of that, it was easy to hit the wrong button on the wrong image and not notice until two years later, when it was too late to undo. I think the organization setup I have now makes that close to impossible, which makes me happy. But talking about that will wait for some other time.

For what it’s worth, while that tufa image is the one most people go “ooh” over, it’s not my favorite image from the workshop. I think this one is, and if you click through it’ll take you to all of the images I took on that trip during the workshop.

Mono Lake Sunset