Oak on a Hollister Hillside

Oak on a Hollister Hillside. Available on my sales site.

A few short weeks ago I had the opportunity to spend some time in the backcountry of Hollister, California. I was out here for a few reasons, mostly to spend some time with some of my favorite people. I was also there to explore some subjects that have fascinated me for years. Oaks on rolling California hillsides have a special place in my heart, but I never really thought about why.

To me this is another iconic California scene although maybe overlooked because it’s so common. I love to see twisted backlit trunks on hilltops. Why? Yes they’re naturally beautiful, but why else? I think it’s because I usually see them on some road trip. These signify the beginning and the end of trips east.

Debbie and I had talked about studying these scenes almost always when returning from some epic Yosemite adventure. We recognized that this kind of thing needed time set aside just for the subject. That opportunity arose just a day before another epic Yosemite trip to Tuolumne Meadows and Elizabeth Lake .

We camped here for a couple of days with Debbie’s husband Tom. We also got to hang out with my friend Elizabeth who made sure that our campsite was set aside for us.

We did photograph some other scenes since it was high Milky Way Season. I’ll save that story for another time. Hint: it involves a nest of hornets.

Trees, Granite, and Alpenglow at Elizabeth Lake

Trees, Granite, and Alpenglow at Elizabeth Lake, September 2019

This photograph is available from my sales site at:
https://studiocomradz.smugmug.com/SeanMcLean/i-gWvNp5j/A

I can seem very busy when photographing a scene like this, especially when it took some effort to get there. This is a continuation of photographs made at Elizabeth Lake just outside of Tuolumne Meadows. I had just a few minutes to scout and get ideas for compositions. This photograph was towards the end of the good light just as the sun was dipping behind the ridge to the west, lighting the granite in the photograph with a warm glow.

This is another photograph made using a telephoto lens rather than my typical wide angle. The lens of choice today was my Canon L-series 70-200 f/4. I like that lens for landscapes because it does a fantastic job without being nearly as heavy as my 70-200 f/2.8.

Fun snapshot courtesy Tara Magpusao. There are almost never pictures of me so this is pretty cool 🙂

Elizabeth Lake, Yosemite National Park

Elizabeth Lake, trees, and granite. Available on my sales site

A few days ago I went with a group of friends to meet up with Tara Magpusao in Tuolumne Meadows. She had just completed hiking a big portion of the John Muir Trail on a solo adventure. Debbie and I had hopes of photographing Elizabeth Lake since it was fairly close by and the conditions were absolutely perfect. It was a wonderful surprise that Tara and some of our other friends were willing to keep hiking with us for the next few miles.

The original plan was to get to Elizabeth Lake much earlier, scout around, and wait for the light to be right. A car mishap thwarted that idea hours earlier near Pleasanton, California. I probably knocked this loose somewhere in the Hollister back country on a related trip a couple of days earlier.

The mud plate came loose near Pleasanton, CA. We made a quick trip to a nearby Walmart for tools, some bolts, and yup; zip ties (and some freeze dried ice cream sandwiches). My hands are way too big for some of the work here, so Debbie would take one end of the bolt while I’d thread the other side. As always we made a really great team. The zip ties on the front of my Subaru have resulted in a name change from “Penelope The Little Burro” to “Mr. Whiskers”.

The idea was to get there with enough time to spare so that we could cook some dinner while waiting. It’s only a 4.6 mile hike but with all of the photography gear, dinner, cook kits, etc that meant lugging around something over 25 pounds of gear uphill to about 9500 feet. That’s just 900 feet in elevation from our starting point but I really start feeling the change in altitude once I’m over 9000 feet. (Side note to my friends everywhere else in the world: yes I know “feet”, “miles”, and “pounds” are stupid. I wish we could adequately use the metric system. Funny thing is that when I go running I think in terms of meters for shorter distances.)

I’ve been doing more landscape photography using telephoto lenses recently. They’re very good not only for bringing the subject closer, but also for isolating the subject. In this case the sky above wan’t very interesting, so I planned to crop it out in camera to include more granite and less bland sky above the subject. This was photographed using a Canon 5d Mk III and a Canon 70-200 f/4; f/16 at 200mm. I wanted the trees in the foreground while the granite in the background would have enough detail to be visually interesting. I probably could have done this at f/8 but at the moment I wanted a bit more detail in the background than f/8 would have given me at 200mm.

“Bella And The Umbrella” or “chromatic aberration overdrive”

A beautiful young woman with an umbrella on a rainy day in Santa Cruz, CA

I have a treasured side gig taking pictures for a local magazine here in Santa Cruz. In November of 2014 I needed something for a gallery of photos. Usually that’s a collection of surf photos from some favorite spots. This particular day it was raining and there was nothing going on. I went downtown instead looking for anything interesting. I had a new lens that I was dying to put to use: a Canon 135mm f/2.0 L-series that I bought from Dan Mitchell. This thing is glorious and I rarely get to use it.

While I wandered around I spotted a beautiful young lady under an umbrella walking my direction. A quick decision on my part meant a ISO 800, f/2.0 for 1/500 second. I loved the result. The texture of the rain drops on her umbrella were what captivated me the most. The fact that I couldn’t see her face added to the story.

A nice lady who often commented on my posts on Google Plus (ahh remember Google Plus?) titled it “Bella And The Umbrella” and the name stuck.

I keep a version of this photograph as a wallpaper on my display at work (ahh that’s right, I don’t do photography full time. I know very few people who do or can). There’s a problem with that version that’s been bothering me since November of 2014. Wes Hardaker pointed out a severe problem with chromatic aberration throughout the photograph. I just had no idea how to fix it because it was so rampant.

I can’t unsee it

Once you see it you can’t unsee it. You start seeing it everywhere. Look at the high contrast areas. There is a green and purple fringe where light meets dark. And it’s everywhere in the picture.

Chromatic aberration detail – look at the high contrast areas.

Tonight I had some time and decided to tackle the chromatic aberration monster that tried eating my photograph. Lightroom alone is not enough in this instance. Helping this one meant opening the image in Photoshop.

  • Duplicate the layer
  • apply a Gaussian blur enough so that the edges are blurry but you can still identify the main subject
  • set that layer’s mode to “color”
  • The chromatic aberration mostly vanishes

Here’s where I get fiddly with it (that’s another term for “detail oriented” or some would say “anal retentive”… your call really). I don’t like how applying the color mode dulls the color throughout the image. I want this to be selective to the problem areas.

  • Create a black layer mask for the layer mentioned above
  • using a fairly small brush paint white on the outlines of the problem areas just in the black layer mask
See the layer named “Background copy”. Yeah clever name, I know. Shaddap.

This takes a lot of time but it’s worth the effort. It’s not perfect, but to quote The Cult Of Done Manifesto

“Laugh at perfection. It’s boring and keeps you from being done.”

The Cult Of Done Manifesto

That’s a pretty cool quote. In this case please ignore #3 just for me. Just this once. Please. This is photography; I edit everything. Even the line to the left about editing things. I edited that. Twice. No shit.

There is no editing stage.

The Cult Of Done Manifesto

June Lake, Black and White

June Lake, California. October 2015

This photograph is available in different sizes and print methods on my sales site. Contact me if you’d like something customized.

Debbie and I visited June Lake at sunrise in October, 2015. This trip was so full of wonder and surprises. California was in the midst of a long drought and the water in the lake was low. We got here just before sunrise and it was cool but not freezing.

Thoughts about the process at the time

There are a lot of choices I made for this photograph, many that I “past me” and “present me” wouldn’t really agree on. For example the aperture I chose was f/20. I don’t think that was necessary and it had an undesirable result with focus. I was using my Canon 7D Mk II. It’s not a bad camera but today I understand how depth of field is different on a crop sensor than with a full frame sensor. The lens used was a Sigma 17-50mm. It’s not a bad lens, but it’s nowhere near the quality of a Sigma Art series or a Canon L series. I had my reasons for using the Sigma, mostly because I was looking for the highest quality I could get on a strict budget. The body/lens combination worked very well for me for a few years until the lens fell apart. No really, that lens fell apart. A screw came loose inside and it would no longer focus.

What would I do differently today?

I’d definitely use my 5d Mk III (a fairly new addition to my toolset and a L-Series lens). I might use an aperture more like f/16 and possibly stack exposures with different focus points. I’d also probably take it less seriously. I’d probably work less hard at it and enjoy the moment more.

Processing the photograph

I’ve been thinking about my next trip into the Sierra for the past couple of days. I went through my Lightroom library for photographs of June Lake that I could process differently. The color version has a slight glow to the mountains. The lake reflects the sky as a deep blue. That was nice but I really wanted a dramatic black and white. I fuss over my black and whites at length and I love doing it like that. No one-click filters, no one-size-fits-all approach. Each one is different. I dialed down the blues to a near black. I brought down the highlights to recover some details in the clouds. A slight s-curve was added to the midtones selectively to bring out some detail in the foreground rocks. A high pass filter and a layer mask helped with selective sharpening (note, different print processes will have very different results. I keep this as a layer so it can be disabled if it utterly doesn’t work in a print. Finally a vignette was added as an organic shape to draw the viewer’s eye around the photograph.

There are a lot more details to this longer story, but I’ll break that up into smaller posts. It’s only been 4 years, why not draw it out a little longer? Spoiler alert: this trip was legendary.

Challenges

There’s a lot of things on my mind tonight. My friends know that I’ve had a lot of challenges to deal with over the past several months. Some of those challenges involved taking a leap of faith, firmly believing that a new adventure would improve the lives of individual people. Then I had to face the reality of that idealism collapsing. Do I regret that? No. Can I go into details? (Reads over the NDA again) No. (spoiler alert: that nightmare is nearly over).

I’ve had to answer the questions: what have you been doing for the past few months? I rested. I got angry. I climbed some stuff. I lifted more, ran more, challenged myself more. This has been a rough time but I promised that I’d stay true to myself.

Duh.

Actually that’s kind of stupid because that’s how I’m wired. “…stay true to myself”… snrrrk, anybody who knows me knows that anything else is unthinkable.

So what have I been doing in the meantime? I read. I did a ton of soul searching and learned some things. I took a class. I got even more exercise than when I worked for the Well Known Fitness Brand. I toughened up some. I loved more deeply. I hiked a lot. I got better at portrait photography. I did some more freelance photography. I got paid to go to a music festival. I finally did that yard work I had been unable to get to. And I completely ignored the complete disaster that is my desk and studio.

No, really. “Clean desk” has been on my To-Do list for the past 4 years. I even have a book about removing clutter… under a pile of clutter on my desk. That’s how much I hated the idea of cleaning up my desk. I have a couple of weeks, I may still get there. I’ll share a picture if it really gets done. Update 5/31/2019: I cleaned my desk. I can see the desktop surface. It’s terrifying.

I caught the sunset at Taft Point with my daughter B last night. I couldn’t possibly have asked for more. #yosemite #taftpoint #sunset #2018 #canon5dmkiii #neverstopexploring #thisiswhyfitness

I spent some more time in Yosemite. I shared a special spot there with my beloved daughter. I climbed up a snowy non-trail with a buddy. I did a ton of day hikes with friends around the Big Sur and the Santa Cruz Mountains.

I also trusted. I trusted my wife Lisa to hang in there with me. She did in her grand and spectacular way. I trusted my savings to hold out. I trusted my closest allies to advocate for me when times were tough. All that came through and I will never, ever let them down. And they know it.

I also forgave.

That’s part of being The Grownup In The Room. Not everybody was that steadfast friend. What now? Forgive and move on. Trust? No, that needs to be earned back. Retaliate? That’s a stupid question; of course not. Move forward a little wiser? Yes.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for coming back.

Not rocks and water.

A lot of my photos are along the coast. That’s not a big surprise really since the Pacific Ocean has been part of my life for pretty much every day except for maybe 2 years when I lived in Las Vegas. I often hike among the tall redwoods here in the Santa Cruz Mountains. They are difficult to photograph and almost impossible to relay their size without some point of reference. These enormous trees can be hundreds… thousands of years old. Here’s a sad surprise: these ones are probably less than 100 years old. Much of this area was clear cut to build around San Francisco after the earthquake and devastating fire in 1906. Much of the area is only now starting to recover from the logging. In recent decades responsible lumber harvesting came into practice, and now large areas are thriving again.

I don’t recall for sure but this photo was probably hand held on a hike around Big Basin Redwoods State park. I often hike or run along these trails.
Anyway, thanks for reading. I know I rambled a bit here.

“By The Wind Sailors” at Refugio State Beach

A few days ago I spent the night at Refugio State Beach, Santa Barbara, CA. I haven’t been here since I was a little boy, so getting a camp site here was pure joy. I was greeted by dozens of these little Velella (“by the wind sailor”) . I’ve seen them along the beaches from San Francisco to Santa Cruz before, but I haven’t personally seen them this far south before. I think that says more about my travel habits than theirs though.

This photograph is on my sales site with my good friends at Studio Comradz.

2019 Do It Ourselves Festival

This weekend was the 2019 Do It Ourselves festival (DIO, no not as in Ronny James). I had the incredibly fun assignment of gathering pictures of… oh everything really. Here’s the gallery in no particular order. Keeping with the spirit of the Do It Ourselves festival, these photos are free for your personal use (maybe check The Fine Print at the bottom). Enjoy!

The Fine Print

  • The Event Imagery can be used only for the poster’s personal use and not for any other purpose.
  • The Event Imagery may be downloaded or copied only in accordance with one of three Creative Commons’ licenses that prohibit the licensee from using the Event Imagery for commercial purposes, including CC BY-NC, CC BY-NC-SA, and CC BY-NC-ND (available at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/)
  • I will not license any Event Imagery that contains any nudity or partial nudity (including any imagery in which bare breasts, bare buttocks, genitals, or genital areas are visible) (ahem, there’s none of that on this page folks)
  • If DIO notifies me that any such images must be removed, for any reason whatsoever in DIO’s sole discretion, I will promptly remove or cause to be removed those images. DIO, as joint copyright holder, reserves all rights to revoke any Creative Commons license that was erroneously placed on Event Imagery in violation of these Terms and may cause the removal of such Event Imagery on any webpage on which it is displayed. I understand that use of the Creative Commons’ licenses approved herein does not supersede these Terms and Conditions, nor my responsibility as the photographer or videographer to obtain all necessary permissions from subjects and artists as appropriate.

2019 Santa Cruz Waves Swellies Awards

This year Tyler Fox asked me if I’d help shoot the awards for his magazine’s Swellies event. This is always so much fun, there was just no way I’d say no. What I love about shooting events like this is that my job isn’t just to take pictures but to really engage with everybody and to be part of the life of the party. I can be ridiculously social so it’s not hard for me to get people to put on their best selves for my camera.

The Gallery

A ton of pictures will be available on the Santa Cruz Waves website and maybe in an upcoming print edition. In the meantime here is a gallery of smaller pictures. Please consider purchasing a higher quality version by following the link to my sales site. Ask me about shooting your next event, portraits, and headshots.