Fear and Loathing in Bushnell, Nebraska

Pine (Bluffs), Wyoming lay at the extreme south-eastern corner of the state, a stone’s throw from Nebraska along the Old Lincoln Highway and I-80. My visit to Pine was late in the year with my dog Henry. Over the course of several months we’d seen Henry begin to slow and knew he’d begun his journey home. Not wanting to miss any opportunities with him I took the Jeep this trip, knowing he’s more comfortable than in the front seat of the Subaru.

Nearly a ghost town, Bushnell, Nebraska sits quietly on the extreme wester edge of Nebraska's panhandle. Though it may appear devoid of life at first glance - it is not.
Though it may appear largely devoid of life at first glance – the sleepy town of Bushnell, on the western edge of Nebraska’s panhandle – is not.

We parked at an I-80 rest area and took an hour-long hike on packed snow and frozen mud to the bluffs overlooking Pine. He labored only slightly, happy and excited to sniff new ground with tail wagging. We climbed back in and continued east along the Lincoln Highway. It was on this trip I was to meet the opposite of the wonderful folks of Nebraska, and catch my first whiff of danger in the region.

Bushnell lay a short drive east of Pine. It was a sunny, pleasant afternoon. The wind had lain down just enough to actually allow Autumn air room to breath. We did a few laps through the small, mostly abandon town and stopped to make some photographs. Henry was content in the back seat as I popped in and out of the car, occasionally opening the back door where he’d slide out into a field, wandering and sniffing as I worked. Getting him back into the Jeep was a little humiliating for him. At close to 100 pounds and not much help to himself he’d look at me, ears lowered, knowing what came next. I encouraged him as I lifted and we managed alright.

Near the end of the day in a remote corner of town I’d stopped along a public, dirt road and climbed out to consider making an image. The light was getting nice and the sky was active. Henry remained in the car, the back window fully down, his head hanging out, watching. About then is when I saw a large, Carhartt-clad figure approaching from the distance. With his head lowered, hands in pockets and a distinct and deliberate gate – I could tell he wasn’t relaxed.  My first thought was to get back in the car and carry on, but not wanting to flee, I resisted.

When two strangers approach on a lonesome stretch of road with no others around and darkness coming, the meeting could go any number of ways. We were both heading for life lesson.

When he got within comfortable speaking distance, the wind still quiet, I offered a casual “how are you today?” It was met with a nod, then a glare.

“What do you think you’re doing,” he asked as he approached to within 3 feet and stopped.

“I’m thinking about making a photograph,” I said. “Hi, my name is John Crane,” and offered my hand. Carhartt spit on the ground, turned his head sideways, raised his chin slightly and closed one eye and said, “Is that supposed mean something to me?”

Right about then several scenarios ran through my head. Part of my greeting was designed to expose his hands, revealing what they held. This failed – with hands remaining buried in his coat pockets. I withdrew my hand and smiled. “Nope,” I said. “Just being polite.”

“Oh, I am not a cordial man,” he replied. Then began a dissertation informing me of his version of Nebraska law; ‘the world according to Bushnell Carhartt.’ I listened without emotion. When he finished he nodded to my Colorado license plate and looked at me with the same, one-eyed squint. Taking half a step towards me said, “we don’t like your kind around here… you’d best just go on home.”

antique gas pumps
Antique gas pumps along the old Lincoln Highway, Pine Bluffs, Wyoming.

Now, we all have different personality traits – things that trigger different responses. Some people are affable, fun-loving, happy-go-lucky types. Others are nervous, high-strung and jittery. I’m pretty easy going and do my best to live in accordance with Biblical principles – but God’s not finished with me yet and the numbers one and two hot button issues with me are bullies and intimidation. Especially when they’re not in possession of the facts – or the truth – and are skewing events to support their mission: to bully and intimidate. I hate bullies, of any size and shape, and won’t stand for it.

Henry knew something was up and I glanced his way. The ears on his large, black head were alert and he was sitting up taller in the front seat. Carhartt’s hands were still in his pockets and I took a step forward and said, “I’m pretty sure I can do what ever I want.”

Carhartt looked up, clearly not expecting that response, and casually took half a step back. “This is a public road,” I continued, and I’m not infringing on anyone’s privacy being here. Is this  your land?” I asked, going on the offensive, nodding to the grain bin along the road.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “You’re not supposed to be here and no one has given you permission to take a picture.”

“I don’t need your permission to make a photograph on public land,” I said, not backing down.

“You’re stealing,” he said, “you’re ‘taking’ something when you ‘take a picture.’ You’d better be careful,” he threatened – now beginning to walk backwards, away from me, hands till in his jacket pocket.

At this a low growl emerged from the Jeep.

The sudden emergence of unmistakable ignorance changes everything. It’s at that point you realize further discussion is pointless and – one way or another – it’s best if the conversation simply ends.

“I’m pretty sure I can do whatever I want,” I repeated, my intonation unequivocally final. By now Henry was half out the Jeep’s window as Carhartt slowly began his retreat.

“Have a wonderful day,” I said, sensing victory.

What happened next has been a source of regret since. Carhartt’s back shown to me, Henry behind me, I added, “Can I make a photograph of you?”

“No you may not,” he said without turning around. I watched him as he strolled back to the mailboxes at the foot of his driveway a few hundred yards away then disappeared towards the shed.

Antique Dealers, Bushnell, Nebraska
Having recently purchased one of the historic, decayed buildings in Bushnell, this husband and wife were beginning the process of renovation.

I was shaking and wanted nothing more than to get out of there. He’d ruined the day. Up until that exchange I’d had a wonderful time, interacting with another couple in town, even making their portrait in the Antique Shop they’d recently purchased and had begun to remodel. It was all gone now because of this guy. I walked back towards the car, replaying the encounter in my head and realized Carhartt never removed his hands from his pockets. He’d probably been holding a gun the whole time. Shaking now, I climbed back into the drivers seat and sat for a moment – but couldn’t leave. Not just yet. He’d have accomplished what he’d set out to do if I didn’t stay long enough to finish my work.

The railroad ran through town, which always makes for interesting subject matter. I spent another half-hour shooting around there, making very certain to remain on public land. When I was finished I packed up and headed out.

I’m not proud of how I responded to this encounter. The drive home offered a lot of time to rehearse more kind, patient replies – that I’ve since forgotten. Later that evening upon arriving home I told my wife and son about the day – all of it – and realized I wasn’t setting the example for my son I’d have liked. This was humbling. I thought briefly about returning the following weekend to his home, knocking on the door and apologizing. I then remembered his hands buried in his pockets and realized I’d actually have to be on his land to do so – and reconsidered.

Interstate 80, Nebraska
Last light on Interstate 80 through Nebraska.

This 111,000 square miles of “The 4042n West” is big land. If and when things go sideways you’d better have a plan. This event began the process of considering a hand gun and concealed weapons permit – only not concealing it. In the future, allowing a weapon to be visible to all who wish to approach and say hello seems a good way of attracting the right kind of folks.

I’ve always been what I’d consider a socially responsible photographer. The last thing I want to do is stick a camera in the face of the unwilling to provoke such a response as was that of Carhartt. That said, no matter how hard you try it simply isn’t possible to anticipate every unpleasant encounter. One could elect to not risk visiting other small towns, but these people don’t just live in small towns. They’re everywhere. The truth is for every unpleasant encounter there are many others of the opposite nature. Allowing one bad apple to unduly influence decisions wouldn’t be right. Images from the day were mediocre, but the lesson grand: pay attention, keep your wits about you and know the law. Having a big, black dog doesn’t hurt, either.

Post Script no.1: Early April the following year Henry went home. He can’t be replaced. But when the time comes to fall in love with a new pooch it’ll most certainly be a large, black, labrador retriever. Maybe then together we’ll revisit Bushnell, Nebraska. And try again.

Post Script no.2: This story was originally published in late 2012, not long after the events transpired, and lay dormant until December, 2014, when the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Bushnell, Nebraska stumbled across it. This individual took it upon himself to personally write to apologize for the events of the day – which, having had absolutely nothing to do with the events himself – made quite an impression. I had all but forgotten the story was even live and visible to others, and offered to remove it if he felt it painted his town in a negative light. Quite the opposite was his response, asking permission to reprint it in the town’s newsletter as a reminder to others that each individual is an ambassador to their community. What followed was an outpouring of support from many living in the surrounding area assuring me this was not indicative of their town; their people – but an anomaly, a unusual and unfortunate exception. These people confirmed the region’s good character I already believed in. I had a few people write insisting this is a fictional account; that no one – especially someone from their town – would ever treat someone like this. I assured them it was not fictional, and really did happen.  

I leave the story up with these two post scripts, and an apology to the gentleman I encountered that fateful afternoon in Bushnell. Everyone has bad days – myself included – and to have one bad day immortalized and preserved, to relive repeatedly – hardly seems fair. I’ve thought again about removing the story for that reason – but for now have elected to leave it up as a reminder: be nice to people. You never know who you’re going to run across.

Little Snake River Valley

The Little Snake River Valley sits along the Colorado/Wyoming state line and follows the Little Snake River as it tumbles out of the western flank of Colorado’s Park Range. The Little Snake is a tributary of the larger Yampa River, meandering westward in and out of Colorado and Wyoming then gradually makes its way south west to hook up with the Yampa west of Maybell and very close to Dinosaur National Park. Perhaps one of the best kept secrets in the state and home to several enormous ranches, Little Snake country is pure Colorado and way, way off the beaten path.

I’ve been wanting to explore the Little Snake River Valley for years. The Little Snake River Valley sits along the Colorado/Wyoming state line and follows the Little Snake River as it tumbles out of the western flank of Colorado’s Park Range. The Little Snake is a tributary of the larger Yampa River, meandering westward in and out of Colorado and Wyoming along the state line then gradually makes its way south west to hook up with the Yampa west of Maybell and very close to Dinosaur National Park.

Evening light along Wyoming-Colorado state boundary (2014)

I was so pleased to have my wife join me on this trip. I’ve spent many hours and miles wandering alone out there and was glad for the company. All I had to do was mention fly fishing along the LSR and she was in. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly how the weekend panned out. What we discovered when we hit the drainage was a whole lot of private land. At first glance, access to the river is all but eliminated by ranch after ranch, private home after private home, and miles and miles of fence line with large signs reading, “POSTED: NO TRESPASSING.” While the fishing thing didn’t materialize quite the way we’d envisioned, as in every first time into an area you learn a lot. Getting a feel for the area and traveling the roads is the first step in getting to know it. Turns out there is BLM land up there and river access – we just couldn’t find it. Some follow up calls to the BLM office and GPS will fix that though. We’ll return next time armed with more, better information.

Evening light on Moffat County Rd.7, Moffat County, Colorado (2014)

With our fishing plans shot, my objective was to return to the “town” of Great Divide, a lonesome outpost along Moffat County Rd.7 in the remote regions of the county. Several years ago I’d stumbled across it returning from the Red Desert. At the time it had been a long few days in the car so I took the opportunity to stop and rest for a bit in Great Divide. From a landscape photography point of view light was poor; a typical, blue bird, cloudless, Colorado high-altitude, sunny day (whom but a photographer would deem those conditions poor?). Regardless, I made a few frames, then began the drive south east towards Craig. It’s difficult to explain why but somehow that stop is one of the things I remember most about that particular trip. For some reason the outpost of Great Divide stayed with me for years. Occasionally I’d google it to see what turned up – virtually nothing. It was almost like it didn’t really exist. For years I’ve wanted to get back to Great Divide, hopefully in better light – and see what happened. Great Divide became our new objective.

Wyoming-Colorado state boundary, Highway 13 looking north towards Baggs, Wyoming (2014)

We hit Highway 13 south out of Baggs, Wyoming, and followed it for a mile or so before hooking up with County Road 4, then headed west. The plan was to hook up with Rd.9 and angle down to hit Great Divide for sunset. Even with a sunset calculator you can’t be absolutely certain when sunset will happen. The light was cooperating beautifully. An active sky was producing doppled clouds that drifted between the sun and earth, slightly diffusing the increasingly gorgeous light as it began to sink towards the horizon. Often times what’ll happen with an active sky is a low band of clouds will prematurely obscure the best light at the critical moment and end things early in a veil of gray. This has happened to me a lot over the years. This day, though – it looked like we had a shot at it.

My wife and I talked in the beautiful, evening light, heading down Moffat County Rd. 4 in search of the turn off. I told her as we drove, “when we get there, you’re going to think…” and she finished my sentence: “…I know…that it was all worthwhile and I’ll see how beautiful it is, right?”
“No,” I said. “You’re gonna think I’m nuts – that there’s something wrong with me. There’s really nothing there. It’s just this old building, sitting out in the middle of nowhere. I can’t even explain why I’ve had it in my head for so many years – why I need to get back. It doesn’t make any sense.”

After a few miles on 4 we checked the map again and realized we may have missed our turn off. Briefly thinking about doubling back to look again the decision was made instead to press on in case it was still before us. But it was a gamble. Rd.4 continued to Powder Wash, then angled back south east on Rd.7 to Great Divide. If you picture a triangle balanced on its point, with Great Divide the bottom, 9 would have traveled one length direct of the triangle and put us right there. Instead, we missed that turn and had to travel the other two lengths of the triangle to reach the same point. It was a sure thing; getting us there eventually, but the route was twice as far. And it was getting late. Making the decision, I hit the gas instead of the brakes – ready for whatever awaited. It seemed like an eternity but we eventually hit Powder Wash, picked up Rd.7 then angled back down, towards what I hoped was that lonely remnant of a town in the middle of nowhere, waiting for me in beautiful, evening light.

My memory of the road was a little fuzzy and looking again at the Delorem atlas it seemed like we were doing everything right. A few dusty miles clicked off the odometer as stones flew from new tire treads and hit the underside of the wheel well. I glanced at the sky, then the clock. Crap. We’re gonna be cutting it close, I thought. All of a sudden I remembered the date. It was June 20 – the day before the longest day of the year. A smile cracked my lips. “What’s the smile for,” my wife asked. I told her. We laughed, and my foot eased up on the accelerator as the pond came into view.

Great Divide, Colorado (2014)

The cows welcomed us as the car came to a halt at the bottom of the hill. Directly across the road I glanced up to see the sign: Moffat County 9. We’d missed it, but would take it home when we left. Most importantly – though – after all the stressing about light – we’d managed to hit it perfectly. After a few shots of the pond we climbed in the car and headed up the road to the only junction of Great Divide, where the Mercantile waited.

Old Mercantile Store, Great Divide, Colorado (2014)

It was still there and didn’t look a bit different – which was no surprise. After surviving for so many years alone on the high plains, a few more shouldn’t have made any difference. We pulled over across from the Old Mercantile and climbed out of the car into the gorgeous, still evening. Birds fluttered about. Back down by the pond, cows moo’d. It was serene. Still. There was no wind. The sun had continued its path towards the horizon, seeming to pull up at the last minute and wait – leaving just enough for us. I set up the tripod, picked the shots and went to work as my wife wandered Great Divide’s single intersection for the first time.

Why do places remain with us? Why some places and not others? I don’t know. What I did know that evening was, the second time to Great Divide was better than the first. It was made better by the company, the knowledge gained from the first visit, and the light. I’ll look forward with eager anticipation to our next visit to the Little Snake River Valley. And I’ll have my camera and a roll of Portra loaded and ready.

Opening Post

It’s very difficult to write well about an image. The power of the image is how it employs imagination; its ability to transport the viewer to a unique place or moment in time that – for all intents and purposes – is the sum of visual stimulus plus – the unique life experience belonging solely to that individual.

In that moment these two things combine to produce an experience unique to that person, that image, that time. To then sway or guide or influence the viewer with commentary is a little like telling them how to feel about something. To focus excessively on technical details is to pull the curtain back exposing the magic and causing any use of imagination to instantly disappear; like a dream as you wake.

Often times there’s no reason behind an image beyond the simple truth that it elicited a response from the photographer, and that response resulted in the image. Other’s reasons for making an image range from the etherial to pragmatic. Dianne Arbus once said, “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know…” Robert Adams spoke of the decision to make a photograph “as a kind of seduction, and the seduction is worked by light.” And finally William Eggleston frankly states, “You take photographs to see what the world looked like, photographed.

self portrait
Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado (1987)

When I visit a place – especially for the first time – identifying the typical targets is something I avoid. You’ll see exceptions to this; the Maroon Bells for example. This image I’ve waited nearly 30 years to make – despite the 100 other photographers there, sharing the moment with me. Generally speaking, in a earnest attempt to truly get to know a place I’m more apt to be found slowly wandering, alone, seeking the things others may pass by. For me really getting to know a place is a process requiring time, solitude and observation. Wim Wenders once said, “Taking pictures is a very solitary thing, at least for me. That’s why I wouldn’t even want to have an assistant with me, because the very presence of somebody else would make that more important than my relation to the place. And to immerse in a place is strictly only possible when you are on your own. You can fake it and you can pretend to want to listen to a place but as soon as there is someone else there, even if it’s just a bystander looking at what you are doing, it is over. You are no longer in the privileged position of being a listener.

This for me is one of the greatest joys of wandering with a camera; using it as an excuse to be in the world – not just looking, but earnestly listening. This is what I hope Blue Hour Journal does for you: inspires you to get out into the world, listening and discovering. Then be able to share with others upon your return. Please enjoy Blue Hour Journal and use it to fuel your own journey.

Portra Color Negative (C-41) Scanning Workflow

Christmas lights in Gypsy Alley, Santa Fe, New Mexico (2013)
Gypsy Alley, Santa Fe, New Mexico (2013). Kodak Portra 400

One of the greatest things about being a film photographer these days is the ability to create images both on film, then scan that film into the computer and have both analog and a digital versions of the image: a hybrid work flow it’s sometimes called. There are plenty of reasons for doing this which others have articulated so I won’t veer off course here. Being mostly a color film photographer, a number of years ago I realized I was somewhat addicted to the brilliant color and punch of the chrome films. In a sense, chrome film was the low-hanging fruit of the color film shooter’s world – easy to scan because with the slide on the light box you began with a baseline of color to work with. Color negative film was a bit trickier in that regard – not being able to actually see the “right color” before beginning processing. But was it worth really diving in to figure it out? For a bunch of reasons I decided it was, and set about to figure it out. Recently in our Nikon F6 User Group on facebook someone asked about a Color Negative film work flow. I started to respond on facebook but the post got so long I decided to turn it into a blog post. Plus, I haven’t written a blog post in so long I figured it was a good way to break the silence.

I don’t pretend to be an expert, but I’ve been at it for a while and like anything else, you make mistakes along the way as you learn what works and what doesn’t. I realized that as others return to shooting film they too may wonder how the heck you get started scanning the negatives into the computer. Someone else asked recently if you print the image then lay the print on a flatbed scanner. This would make the scan a second generation away from the original; less desirable than a first generation scan from the negative. So the answer is no – you always want to scan from the negative. But how? Assuming you already have a computer, you also need a scanner and scanning software. For the latter, this description uses VueScan for the software, and the Nikon Super CoolScan 5000ED (otherwise referred to as the LS-5000) dedicated film scanner.

The first step below is geared towards a Portra work flow, which I find myself shooting more and more. Again, lots of reasons for this – but the key is to over expose it by at least 2/3 of a stop or even a full stop. I’ve found when shooting and scanning all the Portra films, every one of them responds favorably when you give it more light than it thinks it needs. The question is, how much more? That depends on the scene, but some general guidelines are listed below. So with that in mind here’s how I get from a frame of negative film to a digital image in the computer:

Regarding the C41 (Color Negative) workflow, it goes something like this:

1) I almost always over expose color negative film by at least 1/3 a stop. So for Portra 160 I’ll shoot it at 100; for 400 I’ll shoot it at 320; for 800 I’ll shoot it at 640 or more recently 400. It’s not an exact science and your mileage may vary, but I do this because after a lot of experimentation with scanning have seen the most successful scans are on the light side, producing less noise in the shadow areas of the film. And if you’re worried about not getting true blacks, no fear: because you’re digitizing the file, bringing back the blacks is an easy levels adjustment.

Suspension bridge over Little Colorado River, Cameron, Arizona (2013)
Cameron, Arizona (2013). Kodak Portra 160 at ISO100

2) I process straight. No push, no pull. So 160, 400 or 800 are processed at rated speed at the lab. I don’t develop the film myself, but send it to a local lab here in town, Digi-Graphics. They’re great.

3) When the lab process and sleeves, I have them cut the film into strips of 4 to archive in my PrintFile 35-7B sleeves which fit nicely in 3-ring binders. For those reading who don’t know this, the Nikon F6 generates EXIF data for every frame shot and captures it to a .txt file held in the camera’s memory. Unfortunately you need the pretty expensive Nikon MV-1 reader to extract it from the camera to a CF card, then import the tiny, data file into the computer. So I export the Exif data from the camera, load it into the computer, then import the .txt file into an Excel spread sheet. I have the spread sheet set up as a multi-page workbook and save the rolls off in chunks of 25. So one Excel doc will have 25 sheets in it. This streamlines the excel files as the number of rolls grows. Once formatted in Excel I print the sheet, three-hole punch and place it in the binder on top of the two pages of sleeves containing those negatives. Nice and organized, easily findable by walking to the binder on the book shelf, grabbing the right one and opening to the right page.

4) One by one I’ll review each frame of a roll on the light box with a loop to decide which frames I want to scan. My keeper rate varies wildly. But it’s usually higher than my digital photos.

5) Last year I switched to VueScan to run the Nikon LS5000 scanner. It takes a little trial and error at first, but I soon was able to establish consistent settings, allowing the maximum amount of data to be captured during scanning. For me, the magical settings switch between a couple different combinations, depending on the image. Most of the time I use what VueScan calls Auto Levels. In a properly exposed frame it does a good job setting the initial white and black point, and rendering semi accurate colors. Every once in a while, though, I’ll switch to the White Balance setting. I find VueScan’s color settings less than predictable, to be honest – and tend to baseline everything with the intent of working on color in either Lightroom or Photoshop. Because I’m scanning a pretty flat interpretation of the image and it’s 16-bit I know there’s lots of data there to work with.

Old, Wyoming Dodge flatbed, Cowdrey, Colorado (2013)
Cowdrey, Colorado (2013) Kodak Portra 160 at ISO100

6) I’m a believer in doing something once, and doing it right. To that end, I always scan at the maximum resolution knowing that once a master image is created, I’ll not need to scan it and rework it again-unless something unforeseen happens to the digital file. Scanning an image lower resolution, working on color, etc. thinking you can always scan it again later if you need it larger – is a waste of time. Storage is cheap, computers are fast. It’s best to do it once, get the master image exactly how you want it, then down sample versions from it. Down sampling also produces a tighter, cleaner, sharper file. To borrow an analogy, if you were to take a survey amongst 10 people, you would get a data point. If you were to increase the number of people who take the survey to 100, you’ll get a better representation of data. Increase the sample rate to 1,000 and even more so. You get the idea. So if you scan an image in at high resolution, then properly reduce it to a lower resolution, in theory it’s a tighter, more precise representation of the scene because you’re working with more data. So, I scan in 4,000ppi at 100% producing an image approximately 5,633 x 3,679 pixels. I scan right to the edge of the frame with the intent of getting every exposed pixel. The edges of the frame are uneven so I don’t always get every singe pixel, but it’s close. I used to scan into the black borders of an uneven frame, then rotate and crop and clone in Photoshop, but it was too time consuming and I’ve opted instead now to just let the rectangular selection determine the edges of the image. Sometimes I lose a tiny bit, but it doesn’t matter. The point is I don’t crop in scanning – but get the entire image at full resolution. Incidentally, this is one of the reasons I don’t have my chrome (slide) films mounted in slide mounts either. Especially when you’re shooting a camera with such a big, bright, 100% viewfinder like the F6, I like to get the entire frame exposed in the camera.

7) I scan at 4,000ppi because I’ve read in various sources and believe that’s about the maximum, uninterpolated resolution of a 35mm frame. You can scan higher on some scanners, but it may be interpolating or making up data as it scans just to get the higher resolution. I’d rather have pure, clean, raw information to work with than interpolated information. I usually use VueScan’s IR Cleaning filter, which does a great job eliminating the worst dust and scratches. I set it to Light, or occasionally Medium. I almost never use any of the other filter settings, but lately have been experimenting with the sharpening in VueScan vs. the High Pass method mentioned below. I never use Grain Reduction, finding that for me, it removes too much character in the image. One of the reasons I love film is the character the grain introduces – so trying to neutralize it is counter productive. If I need to reduce grain later I’ll do so in Photoshop with Noise Ninja.

Morton Pass, outside Laramie, Wyoming (2013)
Morton Pass, Highway 34, Wyoming (2014). Kodak Portra 800 at ISO400

8) I scan to 16-bit, TIF files, uncompressed, producing about 125Mb file. I’ll then open that file in Photoshop and begin work. Each image receives the following Adjustment Layers, usually (but not always) in this order:

a) Often the first thing I’ll do is duplicate the base image to make a High Pass layer. This effectively sharpens the edges within the image and affects the tones less. The pixel radius setting is resolution dependent so for the full resolution image I’ll often play with between 2 and 3 pixel radius and see which works best, then set the Layer Mode to Overlay. This produces a non-destructive sharpening of the image whose layer opacity can be adjusted independently later on. Unfortunately however, it doubles the size of the file, and at 16-bit you’re now working with a 250mb file. So unless you have a pretty fast computer you may elect to reduce the image to 8 bit at this point. If the High Pass setting is too high it may produce the dreaded white halo effect around objects in the final image so it’s best to be conservative.

a) Levels make sure I have the black point and white point where I want them. To do this, I’ll put my finger on the Option Key (Mac) and drag the black slider in the levels histogram until I begin to see clipping. Sometimes I’ll push into the clipping a bit if I want a darker rendition of the image, other times I’ll just barely touch it. I’ll then do the same thing for the white point: finger on Option Key and drag the white slider in until I begin to see clipping over all, or in various channels. If need be I’ll also adjust the middle slider to work the gamma.

b) Photo filter: sometimes a warming filter to bring up a naturally cooler image, sometimes a cooling filter to bring out the blues. The filter depends on the image. Sometimes LBA, sometimes Warming 85, Cooling 82, LBB, etc.

c) Either a Saturation or a Vibrance layer and work on the color. In most cases I don’t saturate above 15 – 20 points. Just enough to pop the color, but at least on my monitor, not into the garish zone. Sometimes I’ll push a little more.

d) Depending on the image I’ll put a brightness/contrast layer on to work the balance of the final image.

e) Depending on the image, it may require layer masks for any of the above layers or additional adjustment layers – effectively dodging and burning various portions of the frame. I’ll typically use one mask per adjustment layer and set the opacity of my pen tool 33% to 66% ( 1/3 stops) to build up a mask in successive strokes – not just use black. I always use a Wacom tablet and pen, finding a mouse far too cumbersome for such work.

8) I’ll use the Spot Healing brush and clone tool to remove the obvious scratches, film buggers or dust spots that VueScan’s IR cleaning filter missed. The goal for each image is to make the scan appear as close to the original scene as possible. To that end I don’t retouch images beyond simple dust and scratches, and color/levels settings.

Leadville, Colorado (2012)
Leadville, Colorado (2011). Kodak Portra 160VC at ISO100

9) I’ll save off the full-resolution, 16-bit PSD, then create a lower-resolution 16-bit TIF version (with layers intact). For electronic presentation I have a set 3:2 aspect size (1,800 x 1,200 pixels) and like a modest, white border around the image, with small, unobtrusive text containing the location and date of the image below, flush left and right with the edges of the image. I have created frame templates for this basic presentation: one for vertical, one for horizontal. The goal is to have the images appear essentially the same size and shape so it’s the content of the frame the viewer is seeing – and not distracted by the shape of the image. I very much like the 3:2 aspect and stick with it. When I downsample the image I use Photoshop’s Bicubic Sharper setting, seeing a difference in the results over the other methods. For a long time I refused to crop the images at all in this step electing instead to set the dimensions at 1,200 x 1,8XX (whatever the organic width or height was), but have since relaxed that in favor of creating a standard, repeatable and consistent size/shape. In a case where cropping off the 30 or so pixels at the edge of a frame will hurt the image, I’ll leave it.

10) Once the image is at it’s final size (resolution) I’ll sharpen. I used to use the LAB method: convert the RGB image to LAB color space, grab the Lightness Channel, sharpen, then reconvert to RGB. I don’t do this anymore with Photoshop CC because I’m really liking the additional features within the Smart Sharpen filter. With Smart Sharpen often I’ll work the Amount, Radius and Noise sliders to a suitable balance. If I’ve done everything else correctly the settings remain pretty low. If not, here’s where I’ll try to fix it – but abhor overlay sharpened images. Typically the Amount of between 50% and 100%, a radius of .5 pixels and a reduce noise setting anywhere from 10% up to 30% or 40%. Sometimes for Portra 800 I’ve gone up to 50% until the overall effect is smooth and pleasing – without producing a overly de-noised image (at least to me).

11) The PSD is saved to a directory on the HD created before scanning. After much trial and error I’ve settled on specific, unique code for each roll shot. It goes something like this: F6-r0265-POR160 is the directory’s name. F6 identifies the camera. r0265 corresponds with the roll number in the camera-generated EXIF data. This is important when marrying up the individual frame’s shooting data later. POR160 is a 6-character ID capable of identifying the emulsion of the roll. Each image that goes into that directory then begins with this code, then adds an fXX for frame number. So this image is F6-r0265-POR160-f25a.tif. This naming convention allows me to search the entire computer’s 8TB pf storage for a unique, specific image at any time and produce the PSD, the TIF or the JPEG. I can also locate any EXIF data file.

12) I use Lightroom to catalog all images, leaving them in place on the HD and referencing their position. I’ll let LR stack the images so there only appears 1 image in a stack of 3 version. This keeps the overall LR presentation down as much as possible. More lately I’ve been using Lightroom’s excellent processing tools to rework certain images after everything above has been done. I can see perhaps using LR exclusively in the future.

13) When I save off a JPEG for a specific use, sometimes I’ll re-size it. I’ll then throw it away after I’ve uploaded it for its purpose. I don’t like having a bunch of duplicate JPEG’s laying around.

Chugwater, Wyoming (2014)
Chugwater, Wyoming (2014). Kodak Portra 160 at ISO100

That’s it. One image can take anywhere from 5 minutes to 15 or longer, depending on how much fiddling I need to do. The goal always though is to make it as good as it can be in the camera, understanding that the scan usually requires work to realize the images full potential. Some think it’s crazy to spend this time scanning film images in this day of digital everything. I guess I don’t agree with that – but respect the individual’s decision to use whatever means which speaks to them best when it comes to creating art. For me, it’s still film and will be until they stop making it.

Peace, JBC

Yesterday in Grover, Colorado

I’ve been wanting to visit Grover since discovering the small, prairie town hiding on a map a few months ago. Located in Eastern Colorado’s Weld County, Grover sits quietly off the more heavily traveled – but still inconspicuous – State Highway 14. If you find yourself in Grover it’s because you’ve chosen to be there. Leaving Fort Collins sometime around 6:30 and doing the math to sunset (around 8:30) I figured I had time to wander out, take a look around in nice light and see what happens.

Images like this are why soon I’ll need new brakes on the car. I’ve learned to drive about 10 miles an hour under the speed limit. Not only does it help save the brakes during sudden stops, it helps avoid animals suddenly appearing in the road. Small animals like birds or jack rabbits will always lose in a confrontation with a car. But antelope – and these guys – well, that’s a different matter. Driving slowly can annoy those behind me who are in a hurry – but I smile and wave as they finally get a dotted yellow line and zoom by. On the county roads leading to Grover there’s no one in the rear view mirror when I look.

Once again, quality of light wins the day. I’ve been thinking a lot about light lately as I’m pouring through hundreds – thousands – of images for 4042n Project. The image above is a great example. An hour earlier this is a completely different scene. An hour later – even more different. I used to stress out about this. I’d wander around with a low-grade anxiety about where I was, and when. Once you understand how subtle shifts in light either enhance or detract from an image there’s no going back to just settling – you’r always looking for that perfect light. But trying to orchestrate every image in perfect light simply isn’t possible.

While out wandering scenes often present themselves in poor light forcing a decision – which needs to be processed immediately: is the subject matter strong enough to survive in poor light? What time is it? Is this a strong enough scene I’m willing to stop and wait for great light? Is it worth circling back for later? Would black and white film make this image better? How about filtering? Is the scene 90° (or there about) to the sun’s direction and could a polarizer salvage the sky? Would an ND Grad help or hurt this image? A warming filter? Will the subject still be there when I stop – or will sudden activity scare whatever I’m hoping to photograph away? Is it safe? Does that matter? What lens would create the best composition (I probably will only have one shot at it)? Will a tripod be necessary or can it be hand held? What speed film is loaded into which back? Or – is this one of those images never created as the mind quickly considers these variables at 40 mph and – as a result – the foot never hits the brake pedal. In the case above, the car grinds to a halt in the middle of an otherwise serene, empty, Weld County evening and the dice are rolled.

Pump jacks in late afternoon haze kicked up by truck traffic, Grover Oil Fields

Often times I have the camera in the front seat, loaded and ready. This time it’s in the back of the car requiring I get out (1 door open and thud – closed), open the hatch back (a second thud in the otherwise serene evening) and by now the bison have stopped eating and are looking at me, beginning to reposition themselves. The light is strong but has begun to diffuse, well en route towards the horizon but sill high enough above to produce the gorgeous quality only it can. Haze hovering above rural lands to the west spreads and colors the light just enough to prevent the harsh, glaring, high-altitude blast so common here in Colorado. It’s just about the perfect time of day for a late-June image here in northern Colorado: between 7:30 and 8:30pm. The bison are curious when I approach as close as I dare. Both arc their tails – a sign of something I’m sure, but I don’t know what. I thought they were going to pee – but thankfully they didn’t (I didn’t want to have to Photoshop that out). I focus the stout RZ67 hand held, and go for broke. Thunk. The bison are now in motion, away (thankfully) as I advance and try two more frames – a bust as the bison march west, towards the light. As the camera swings with them the sky lightens as the brighter, western sky begins to encroach on the viewfinder and I know it’s over. But I think the first frame was a good one.

As I packed up and headed into town light quality improved even more. This oil and gas field just out of town was a fascinating site. As far as the eye could see, a fine layer of dust – kicked up by heavy tanker-truck activity along the dirt roads – hovered above the ground. At fist it appeared as a morning dew might; a light haze clinging close to the ground producing an intriguing effect on everything it came to rest on. Then another tanker truck passed and I watched the flow of dust it displaced off the road. It was airborne briefly, drifted a bit in the stillness of the evening, and settled out in the field. When I looked at this image I first thought the foreground “stripes” were caused by banding – a digital artifact created when the tones of the image are compressed too much. Then I checked the negative (this is a medium format film image, not a digitally made image) and saw the foreground stripes in the negative are really rows of dirt lined up in the foreground with dandelion heads.

Tanks and flame, Weld County west of Grover

As the sky darkened I watched the flame at the small, nearby tank farm and thought how nice it looked against the darkening blue. Back out came the tripod, cable release and camera, and “thunk,” one more frame is made. Learning how to relax and enjoy the moment happened once I accepted the following: finding oneself in great light in an improbable location – one you’d never have planned – is a good way to produce some beautiful, naturally lit spontaneous images. At best, blessed if the world opens itself up revealing an image to me. At worst, the day being a wonderful outing in Colorado’s natural beauty; what I learned perhaps valuable to some future engagement. Just being “out there” is its own reward. The images are a bonus.

That was my day in – and my introduction to – Grover, Colorado.


Blue Hour, Soapstone Prairie Open Space, Northern Colorado (Kodak Portra 160)

I went on one of my 4042n jaunts last Saturday, this time to SoapStone Prairie Open Space, a relatively new area at the extreme edge of Colorado. You can cross into Wyoming on one of the short backcountry trails. Having decided the goal for the day was to record honest images, I headed out with a pack full of Portra 160, some Ektar, some Delta and of course Tri-X.

Soapstone Prairie Morning, Extreme Northern Colorado (Kodak Portra 160)

What do I mean by honest images. I mean images of an area that don’t happen for a split second once a month, then are gone. An honest image is an unpretentious image. An honest image represents what an area looks like 99.9% of the time, not .1% of the time, deceiving viewers into believing every minute of every day looks like magic hour. An honest image means heading out when nothing’s flowering, nothing’s blooming and nothing’s having babies. An honest image is two does and a buck watching you work your way up the trail in grey-blue hour, wondering if you’re there to kill them, and deciding your not.

North of Wellington, Larimer County, Colorado (Kodak Portra 160)

The honest image means a natural color film. Not a digital camera. Not Velvia (though I do think honest images can be made on Velvia). The temptation with Velvia is to force it into the dishonest realm – to compromise it. Juice it. An honest image means no Photoshop monkey business. It means no pano’s, no stitching, and for the love of all things good and right in the world, no HDR. An honest image means being intentional about the media you choose to record a scene that’s chosen you. An honest image means no black and white conversions. It means no cropping your way to a good image. It means thinking in series, or working for the stand-alone, solitary shot that needs no caption, no tag line.

Evolution of a front range sunset, no.3, Fort Collins, Colorado (Kodak Ektar)

An honest image means medium format, 120 fine-grained, color negative film to capture every bit of nuance, every slight tonal variation, every bit of every square inch of everything in front of your fixed, focal-length (non-zooming) lens as you stand behind the tripod with the cable release in hand and trip the shutter. An honest image means waiting. It means looking intently for composition and it means missing. It means seeing a shot and not being able to frame it properly and passing it by, but allowing it to burn into your brain for next time.

Rawhide Power Plant, Northern Larimer County, Colorado (Kodak Portra 160)

An honest image means it fits the subject matter. Northern Colorado and southern Wyoming aren’t Disneyland. The land is muted, earthen hues. Greens, mauves, ochres, tans, cobalt blues, cadmium reds, burnt sienna’s; big skies, small plants, ugly rocks and lots of wind. It’s bright, sunny, high-altitude light out of dynamic range praying for a cloud to drift between the sun and the earth to make a shot. An honest image means driving for hours and stopping in the middle of an unmarked county dirt road to turn around to make a shot that you pray you can make before a car comes over the hill and… because with the wind blowing and the hood on your Carhartt up you can’t hear anything more than 3 feet away. An honest image means getting dusty and dirty kneeling down in the the ditch. It means chasing your hat across the prairie when the wind takes it.

Near Red Mountain Open Space, Northern Larimer County, Colorado (Kodak Portra 160)

An honest image means no trespassing. It means closing gates behind you and honoring the mandate to stay on the trail – and missing the shot you want because you did. An honest image begins an hour before sun up and ends an hour after sun down. It means a last tilt of the thermos of tepid, too-strong coffee for something to drink at the end of the day. An honest image means washboard roads, AM talk radio, bugs in the radiator and chipped windscreens. It means nearly running out of fuel and paying too much a gallon at the nearly closed, sporting good-convenient store-fast-food chain-delicatessen-truck stop-fuel mart that smells like burnt coffee and is out of TP.

An honest image means – above all else – joy. Peace. Solitude. Creative immersion. It means Discovery. An honest image is a very, very good thing.

The New Kodak Portra (again)

Today I received back from the lab my two rolls of Portra 160 shot over the weekend. The more I shoot this film, the more I like it. I know, I know… I’m in love with every film when it comes back from the lab and I get lucky with a shot turning out as hoped. But I’m beginning to see real benefits in sticking with an emulsion over a period of time to learn how to best anticipate how it responds in any situation. As is often the case with 36 frames, subject matter was varied. First, this post will concentrate on Portra for Landscape (and other) applications.

This first shot was made on the way home from a family event on Sunday, just north of highway 66 in Longmont, Colorado. This truck has been sitting in this field for as many years as I’ve been driving back and forth between Longmont and Fort Collins (many years), and I’ve always thought it a little unusual. This past Sunday the light was perfect. Dark skies always catch my eye, and the strong, Colorado sun was hitting the old, dilapidated siding just right. I pulled over, scrambled down the irrigation ditch and hopped what was left of the old, pushed-down barbed wire fence to get my shadow out of the shot. As usual, the F6 Matrix metered everything perfectly and Portra held the highlights in the sun-drenched western wall. As large and cumbersome as the Nikkor 28-70 is, it’s sure a functional lens. Stop it down to ƒ8-11 and you almost can’t make a bad image with it. But what really sets this image apart for me is the sky. There’s real, subtle intrigue in the sky – and much of that is Portra. It’s organic; somehow alive. And the greens in the foreground give the image something earthy. Portra handled all of it.

Here’s another Portra image made last summer:

When I uploaded the first image into my F6 gallery, I immediately thought of this shot as a likely predecessor in succession. These two are good examples of where I’m heading. The obvious visual tie-ins are the green foreground, low horizon, dramatic sky… vehicle(s). What really links them, though, again is Portra’s color balance, natural bias’s and grain structure. The image immediately above is Portra 400 (at rated 400). The color is – to me and my eyes – wonderful. It’s subdued, not bombastic and garish. It’s much more “real” than say, Velvia or Ektachrome 100VS (we’ll get to that wonderful emulsion in a later post). Portra carries with it – again, to me – a sense of America. I don’t know what it is, exactly – but it’s there. Add to it the organic quality of the 160 grain and you’ve got something that’s authentic. Touchable.

Here’s another one, made in Pine, Wyoming late last year. This is 120 film made with the Mamiya. You can see the same tendencies, the same look and feel:

Pine (Bluffs), Wyoming (2011)
So Portra for landscapes – despite the overwhelming preponderance of the high-saturation, high-contrast chrome films – is becoming much more appealing to me. As Kodak mentions in their on-line literature, Portra scans very well. Kodak surmised that today’s film shooter is more than probably scanning their frames more often then using enlargers. With this in mind, they specially formulated Portra for scanning. I can see a difference between it, and the old NC/VC frames. Kodak also claims it has a saturation level more balanced toward the older NC (Natural Color) as opposed to the Vivid Color (VC) strain. I’ll say, however, that it is more saturation latitude to my eye than NC and not quite as much as VC. Here’s a VC frame from last year:

This was 160VC shot at 100, which I’m pretty convinced is a good idea. While Portra has tons of latitude in exposure, like every other digitally processed image noise can always find a way in if permitted – especially at the under exposed areas of the image. I’m of the opinion that if you provide lots of light for ample exposure, then set good black and white points in processing, you’ll get a higher quality final print. I think this image has more punch to it than straight up Portra would provide. But that’s OK. For the occasions when that’s desired, Kodak’s Ektar is a good choice.

A brief word about color negative film vs. chrome (slide) films:

A look through any of my galleries bares witness to my use of the chrome films. The most common being Velvia, though I’ve briefly rediscovered Ektachrome 100VS – just in time for Kodak to discontinue it. However, I’m finding more often in general shooting situations I’m reaching for color negative films over the chrome films for a few key reasons. 1) Exposure latitude is phenomenal. Negative film, scanned full resolution at 16-bit is an incredible thing. Image features I know would blow or be buried on my digital sensor are right there, even shooting the mighty Nikon D3s which has tons of exposure latitude in its RAW images to begin with. And in a digital workflow, data is king – and negative film carries tons of it. 2) Cost. When you shoot as much film as I do, cost matters. Getting chrome film processed runs between $16-$18 per roll at my favorite lab. They use great E6 equipment and it’s worth it when I need to be sure a roll is processed right. But C41 comes in at $4/roll, $5 if you have the roll cut into strips of 4 – which are easier to store. That’s 3 or 4 rolls of film processed C41 for the cost of one roll of E6. That matters. 3) Full frame. I know I don’t need to have my slides mounted, but I do anyway. It’s how my storage system is set up. And I sure don’t want to mount them myself (I’d rather be out shooting). When slides are mounted they obscure the edges of the frame. When you shoot a camera employing a 100% viewfinder like the Nikon F6 you’re not seeing the same thing in the final image that you saw in your viewfinder. This might seem piddly, but can make a significant difference in the impact of the final image. 4) The slide-mounts also conceal the exif data my F6 writes between frames. Not a huge deal – I have the MV-1 to retrieve the data from the camera and store in an Excel spread sheet. But it can be handy to view on screen in a per-image basis, too. 5) Lastly, I don’t know if it’s old age or what, but I’m finding myself preferring a bit more natural color palette. The Chrome film I’ve been shooting for years will always resonate with me – I love color. But lately there are times that a more natural treatment of what’s before me is preferred, and for that, once again Portra is a wonderful choice. Another benefit is that, for some reason, the image looks less “digital.”

Add it all up, and Portra is an emulsion I’m hoping Kodak keeps around for many years to come. I’m always on the look out for deals to stock pile my freezer with, and Kodak’s new Portra is now at the top of that list.

Next time I’ll cover Portra and how it responds to flash.

KATA E-702 Element Shield

KATA E-702 Element Shield
KATA E-702 Element Shield keeps your DSLR dry but doesn’t impeded functionality.

I picked up the E-702 Element shield in preparation for a trip to Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. It doesn’t rain much in Colorado and I’m trying to stack the deck in my favor. Ironically, the day before, while preparing to shoot football in pouring rain, I ran to the store and picked up a 2-pack of the inexpensive, disposable L-shaped baggies which worked fine stretched over the D3S for the duration of the game. After only a few hours, though, it was clear I needed something more robust to survive the elements of the Pacific Northwest. The KATA looked like a good solution but at $70 retail I decided to do some homework before actually buying one. After viewing their web demo I ran back up and snatched it up before another rain storm caused someone else to do the same thing.

When I got it home I immediately took out the Mamiya RZ67 replete with FE701 Prism finder, and 250APO behemoth lens (in other words, a BIG HONKIN’ CAMERA). You heard me right – this thing will fit my Medium Format rig as well as my DSLR’s. This feature was a main selling point for me: that I can purchase one cover and have it work across multiple systems made it a no brainer. My Nikons are very well sealed cameras to begin with. The Mamiya – having been designed more for the studio shooter – is not. One good dose of rain would effectively kill the RZ. While this article is primarily about the F6, rest assured the KATA works on other systems besides D/SLR’s.

The first thing I noticed when I took it out of the pack was the main, clear material. It’s not the slippery, hard, doomed to crack plastic I’d expected. It’s more of a clear, rubberized vinyl with a supple feel to it. The layout, seams and cuts are generous, providing plenty of room for my average sized hands – even with thin, photo gloves on. Each of the 3 orifices has a toggled draw string, and there is a bottom zippered access which allows mounting the camera – either via attachment to the body, or a foot on a telephotos lens – to a tripod or monopod, then zip the enclosure tight around it. I did borrow my D3s’ rubber hot-shoe cover for the hot-shoe of the F6 to avoid any risk of the sharp metal inadvertently scraping a hole in the top of the cover – the most vulnerable and potentially damaging place for a leak to form.

The E-702 is laid out essentially as a T. At the top cross-bar two orifices accommodate the hands from either side, and are ribbed with a stiffer yet still supple black, nylon material, complete with a draw cord. These nylon “tunnels” of fabric are long enough – and droop down enough – to accommodate the natural entry angle of someone standing behind the camera to reach up to manipulate the controls. Having used the inexpensive ones just a day earlier I immediately appreciated the room the photographer has to interact with the camera – while still maintaining a “fitted” feel and avoiding the excessive ballooning of a dramatically oversized cover. Both primary and secondary command dials are easily spun, buttons easily pushed and of course the shutter is easily accessible as well. There is plenty of room to mount the MC-30 in the front, 10-pin terminal (before inserting the camera), and reach down and interact with VR and Focus controls on the lens. There even appears to be enough room to open the camera back for unloading/reloading film while safe beneath the protection of the plastic.

The descender of the T is where the lens opening is. You are not shooting through plastic – it is open. But there’s a nice, stiff, velcro-enclosed 2-piece collar formed around the lens hood that effectively seals the barrel of the lens from the elements, while having the added bonus of extending the hood against stray weather elements landing on the front lens element. Beneath this velcro tunnel another vinyl skirt lives within the T’s terminus and draws tight against the barrel of the lens, forming a second level of protection. Think fine, blowing sand and dirt in the desert. The only downside experienced here is, when the draw-string is tightened too much against the barrel of an external focus lens, it is not free to move and thereby focus. This seems to affect only external focus barrel lenses, where the length of the lens actually changes with a turn of the focus ring. On internal focus lenses it isn’t an issue.

The only issue I can see having to get used to is looking through the plastic into the viewfinder. I can see this as a bit of a challenge, especially with rain streaking down the plastic, obscuring your vision. In such instances, however, I think simply lifting the plastic up to acquire focus, then lowering to shoot, would solve the problem. In the case of digital cameras, Live View will come in handy, though still prove an impediment to acquiring accurate focus. Especially if you’re using a lens design on which the exterior dimensions change with focus.

The Kata E-702 seems to be a very well thought-through product, and appears to be constructed well. If you’re looking for protection for your DSLR or medium format rigs, take a look at the Kata E-702. It’s designed for tele use up to a fixed 300mm lens but is easily adaptable to something as small as a 50mm 1.4D (with a hood). With the purchase of the KATA E-702, in theory I’ve done my best to prepare my gear against the elements, but the real proof is yet to come. I’ll look forward to putting it through its paces in the rainiest place in the United States and will have a full, detailed field test upon my return.