Seeking silence

There’s been so much going on that I’ll start with the most recent and work backwards. Life has been busy. New job, new adventures, new family things, new thoughts. I’ve found myself in a familiar place — so busy and so noisy that stillness and silence are prized commodities. Let’s just start with last night.

Southern sunsets

Late autumn and winter is when the sun is setting earlier and towards the south. The sky is usually far more interesting than summer months. This is a great combination in Santa Cruz since our part of the bay faces mostly south. I had some ideas involving the setting sun over the SS Palo Alto at Seacliff State Beach. What I didn’t plan on was the glorious sunset that followed. The photograph below is available for custom prints or at my SmugMug site

Moments after sundown at Seacliff State Beach, Aptos, California

The idea was to use my longest lens and force the setting in into a giant ball of fire. There was plenty of time to setup and enjoy. I called my friend Jon Kahn and asked if he’d like to join me. We sat quietly for a bit, talked about friends, family, work stuff, new camera stuff. Seriously this was the best part.

Where ya been Sean?

It’s been my habit to share photographs on Facebook, etc on a nearly daily basis. I don’t like Facebook. Not at all. For now I’ll spare you the details but let me say this — I hate being part of the problem. I have a lot of thoughts on this and they’re still forming. For the moment I want to sit Facebook out aside from the groups I run. I still kind of like Instagram but there are serious problems on that too. Deadly serious problems. This article by Don Giannatti hit me hard. He says “Never build your house on someone else’s land.” I encourage you to read it.

Castle Rock Scenes

Sunset from Goat Rock

Recently I went hiking with a friend at Castle Rock State Park. I had some compositions in mind ahead of time and of course there were opportunities along the way.

View  from Goat Rock in Black And White
Tree and rock formations in black and white
Sunset from Goat Rock, Castle Rock State Park.
The big winner for the day

I don’t have a lot to say in this post. The experience itself was quiet and contemplative.

Backlit Oaks, Castle Rock State Park
Backlit Oaks
Hiking with a friend and enjoying the views at Castle Rock State Park
Snapshot with a friend.
The sun shines through clouds at Castle Rock State Park
Rays of sunlight peering through the clouds

Compositions at Fall Creek Unit

We got a break between storms so I took the opportunity to look for appealing compositions at the Fall Creek Unit within Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.

My favorite composition of the day

Rocks and Water

There’s something appealing about rocks and water but not all compositions are especially compelling. The rains brought plenty of water that’s still flowing down the creeks towards the ocean. Each scene has its charm but I passed by many possibilities. Essentially most were too busy. A cascade over this, a pool within that, but nothing tying it together.

This composition spoke to me. No not literally, that would be weird. This scene presented elements that were different and when combined presented something more compelling. The rocks in the foreground led to the small cascade. This cascade was different because it was at a diagonal which leads the viewer into to frame up and to the right to the center. The eye then travels left along the rocks in the middle of the frame or along the fallen tree branch covered in bright green moss. Either way works well for me because they lead to the upper horizontal cascade creating a loop. This photograph is available on my sales site. Please contact me for licensing information.

Another composition along the creek

Other compositions were plentiful although not quite as compelling as the first. I’ll explore this one more later. There’s probably an element worth isolating with a telephoto here.
This photograph is also on my sales site.

Coming or going?

The creek flowing away from my point of view

Something I thought of was that most of my photographs of creeks involve water flowing towards my position. I purposely turned around and explored compositions involving the creek flowing away from me. This has a lot of elements that I like and one that I don’t. I like the way the composition is anchored by the rocks in the foreground. I like the relative bright vertical portion of the forest in the background surrounded by darker trees on either side. I don’t like the brighter flow of water at camera left. This is distracting, but it was worth exploring for future visits.

Canon RP

I used my Canon RP for this photograph. I bought this camera in December and it’s been a nice addition to my toolkit. The Viltrox lens adapter works well enough to use my EF mount lenses. The lack of internal image stabilization doesn’t bother me since it’s a feature I rarely use anyway. So far it’s a lot like a Canon 6d Mk II, just simplified a little. I absolutely love the articulating LCD and focus peaking features. It hasn’t replaced my Canon 5d Mk III, but it’s getting close. There are clearly times when this is the tool for the job. I used my favorite carbon fiber Manfrotto tripod which provided stability and shock absorption when in the flowing water. I didn’t mind the relative weight for this short hike. For something longer I’d bring my aluminum travel tripod.

2020 Ten Favorites

I never get around to sharing my top ten favorite photos for the year. This time I got on it early. I don’t think anybody is going to look back on 2020 fondly but pandemic, disasters, and conspiracy theory whackadoodles aside, this may have been one of my most creative years. Here are my favorite photographs of the year in somewhat chronological order.

Santa Cruz Surfing Museum Sunset – Landscape

The sun sets framing the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum

This photograph of the sun setting behind the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum is a favorite for a couple of reasons. I love the iconic Big Sun Setting Behind Something look because it reminds me of Endless Summer. The other reason is that I shot this a couple weeks before COVID-19 showed up in California. This was my last COVID-free image of the year.

Isabella’s Graduation – Portrait


I was hired for a special portrait session for Isabella, a recent college graduate. It was early August and the pandemic meant that our shoot was going to be at her parents’ home rather than at Syracuse, New York. I did a considerable amount of planning to create a special session just for her. To capture the height of the trees I lay down on the ground and used a wide angle lens. I had been working with some new radio triggers that allowed me to adjust my strobes from remote so we could keep a safe distance.

Amber – Portrait


Funny thing, this year most of my favorite photographs are portraits. Amber is an entrepreneur, dating coach, portrait and event photographer from New York. She had recently moved to the Santa Cruz Mountains and we got to be friends.

Wildfire – Landscape / Photojournalism

Burned Tree – CZU Lightning Complex Fire

Things got bad in the middle of August. A dry lightning storm rolled through the Santa Cruz Mountains and ignited a series of fires in Bonny Doon. Those fires merged into a monster. Hundreds of homes were destroyed and thousands of us had to evacuate for weeks. I photographed the area around Big Basin Redwoods State Park with a guide and a local reporter shortly after the evacuation orders were lifted.

Air Attack – Photojournalism

A CalFire helicopter drops water on a spot fire.

Fires were still popping up for weeks after the main fires of the CZU Lightning Complex wildfires were under control. Just before evacuation orders were lifted I captured a series of CalFire helicopters dropping water on a spot fire across the valley. I wrote about the fire experience on Photofocus.

Alexis – Portrait

My favorite portrait of Alexis in 2020

Life settled down a little and things were almost routine again by October. Alexis and I coordinated a fun shoot at a spot I had been scouting much earlier. I used a combination of ambient light and strobes to get this portrait how I had in mind.

Capitola By The Sea – Landscape

Capitola Village and Soquel Creek Long Exposure

I’ve photographed this scene before. This time I had some new ideas for composing and processing the image. I saw this set of clouds rolling in and knew what I wanted to capture and how to do it.

Rohanna – Portrait

Rohanna in Red

Rohanna is a dear friend and a favorite local model. This area was untouched by the wildfires so I scouted for portrait settings. Rohanna brought this stunning outfit and some of my earlier ideas sprung to life.

Davenport – Landscape

Davenport Beach Long Exposure

The sun had set to my right, the tide was rising, and a mist was forming. I waited for the waves to rush up against me for this image. Yeah, I wrecked a perfectly good pair of shoes for this but I’m delighted with the results.

Danielle – Portrait

Danielle and Fall Colors Bokeh

I can’t pass up an opportunity to photograph Danielle Crook. Actor, musician, singer and glorious personality.

Exploring the Canon RP Part Two, or parts shouldn’t be made of cracker

Recently I tried using the Canon RP in a studio setting with off-camera flash. This isn’t that story. During the setup for that session a critical part of the Viltrox lens adapter snapped off. This is that part of the story.

I pulled the camera out of the bag. It nudged the edges of the bag. The lever that allows attachment/detachment of the lens snapped off. It snapped off like it was made from a rice cracker.

Oh that’s cool.

Getting this sucker off of the camera wasn’t hard. It took a little screwdriver to push that pin out of the way. I don’t think I’m asking a lot for it not to break after maybe 4 days of light use.

I found the plastic lever piece in my camera bag.

The problem was easily resolved with a call to Amazon. They offered to replace it free of charge, however I’m still going to contact Viltrox to voice my annoyance.

Exploring the Canon RP Part One, or “That’s not an eye”

Recently I bought a Canon RP.

I put a lot of thought into buying new camera gear. This is especially true of camera bodies. I ask myself a series of questions.

Will this make me a better photographer?

The answer is always no, but I ask as kind of a mental reset. If somehow I’m leaning towards “yes” then the answer is really to seek training. Better yet realize that it’s a temporary emotional thing and not a real need.

What problem am I trying to solve?

There has to be a very good reason for this purchase. My 7d did its job, but just barely. My 7d Mk II did its job very well, but had some limitations. My 5d Mk III is outstanding and it’s still my preferred workhorse. What would the new camera do that these others can’t? Is there a workaround?

Are there higher priorities?

This is the really big question. What else is going on in life right now? This should seem obvious but man, 2020 has been a whopper of a year. Is now really the time to part with precious resources to acquire more stuff? Really?

The problem to solve

I’ve been doing a lot of portraiture over the past year.

The 7d Mk II does a good job, my only real complaint is the crop sensor; and that’s not a very big complaint. The dual pixel autofocus system is outstanding and achieves focus even in poor light. The crop sensor however does introduce some limitations since now I need a lot more space. This becomes a real problem in a small studio. The number of focus points is pretty good, but also creates some limitations in composition. This camera is still great for most things although the dynamic range of the sensor is, to be generous, poor. It’s still my choice for most outdoor sports. Aside from the high quality construction the original 7d isn’t worth discussing.

My 5d Mk III is an old camera now, but it’s still outstanding and my go-to for almost everything. Great for landscapes, great for indoor and outdoor portraits, good dynamic range, plenty of pixels to work with. Outstanding build quality. It’s got the same number of autofocus points which I find a bit limiting. The downside: It’s a contrast-based autofocus system which results in poor autofocus in low light. In most low-light portrait situations it’s almost unusable. Ouch.

The problems to solve:

  1. Autofocus in low light
  2. More focus points
  3. Compatibility with my current EF lenses

Other attractive features

  1. Eye Detection AF
  2. Articulating rear display
  3. I got one hell of a good deal. If it wasn’t for the exceptional price on a refurbished Canon RP I might have waited until I wore out my 5d Mk III.

Taking the RP out for a test drive with Rohanna

I outfitted the RP with a Viltrox lens adapter and Rohanna and I wandered downtown Santa Cruz to try out the eye detection autofocus feature. There were problems almost immediately. We work together great and I love her style. Today she arrived with a broad hat, boots, and a long checkered coat.

That’s not an eye!

I know the feature works. I’ve seen the feature work. It would not work in this situation. The feature failed immediately and spectacularly. It would focus on the brim of her hat, her ear rings, and most frustrating of all; Rohanna’s coat. It would misidentify the intersecting pattern of her coat as an eye pupil. The only workaround was to disable the feature and go back to spot autofocus. Lesson learned, some subjects work, a few don’t. At least now I know.

My grumbling “That’s not an eye!” became the running joke for the shoot.

Details worth noting

  1. The camera body is small. I have big hands but I don’t mind the smaller body.
  2. One card slot. This is not ideal for events and is probably a deal breaker for some people.
  3. The body isn’t the same build quality. It’s OK but nothing like the 5d series. I was worried about damaging the lens mount while slinging it around with a heavier lens.
  4. The button layout is minimal and takes a little getting used to.
    1. The touch screen more than makes up for this
  5. What the hell is “FV” mode, how is that different from Program Mode, and why in the world would I care?
  6. There is no built-in image stabilization. This is no secret and not a deal breaker for me. It does mean that the battery wears down faster to power image stabilization built into a lens.
  7. I haven’t found a way to rename the files. My other cameras allow me to rename file sequences like “SCM5D3_” which I find very helpful. With this model I seem to be stuck with “IMG_”. This is a minor annoyance. At least the camera model is in the metadata.
  8. Back button focus. My favorite Canon feature is available on this model.
  9. Frames per second. I shot some surf and I was pleasantly surprised. It’s advertised as getting around 5 shots per second but my experience was better than that. I felt like it had potential to replace my 7d Mk II for sports. That’s probably not entirely true, but it was a really nice surprise.
  10. Video. I’ve read a lot of grumbly reports about the crop needed for decent video. I don’t plan to shoot video with this camera so that’s not a consideration for me.
  11. It looks ridiculous mounted to my longer lenses. I did this just for fun but wound up trying it out later. I was pleasantly surprised how well it worked on a monopod. I wouldn’t want to swing it around carelessly though.
I swear I’m not compensating for something here.

True Story…

In November 2019 I called up my buddy Kevin Foster. I said “Bring your ‘Best Hat’ and your ‘Favorite Hat.’ I know they’re different. I have ideas.” Kevin’s kind of a local legend as that dude who showed up when the community needed a hand and decided it was time to change things for the positive. Then he kept on going with it. Funny thing is that once the pandemic hit the Bay Area and Santa Cruz County one of his photographs started getting shared tens of thousands of times. “Viral” might not be the right word yet, but the image plus the text that Kevin added to the photograph conveyed a badly needed message.

“Sometimes you have to sit back… Watch, and Observe… People will show you who they are without you saying a word.”

Kevin Foster

Now funny thing for me is that’s probably the photograph I put the least effort into. I mean there’s almost no editing there. I like to fuss. I like to draw out what I see and spend some serious time with a photograph.

This is actually the photograph that I had in mind. This was the “Best Hat”.

After we went through my ideas Kevin had a surprise. He spends a lot of time rescuing animals and developed a love for birds of prey. He brought this magnificent hawk inside and we ran with it.

As you can imagine some unexpected things happened. Actually when I read that I suppose you could say that we expected some unexpected things to happen… making this next moment expected. I think.

They Didn’t Notice The Surf

August, 2015. I was looking for subjects along West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz to photograph. There was no surf. Flat as a proverbial pancake. I setup to photograph a passing boat, carefully set my focus point and waited for just the right arrangement.

This isn’t that arrangement.

Moments later a man and a woman paddled out into the frame. They didn’t seem bothered that there was utterly no swell. Their eyes never left each other. Surfing clearly wasn’t as important as being together. I don’t think they noticed anything else in the world.

The scene changed quickly. The boat kept moving to the right and out of frame. The couple got closer together. The light continued to fade and I had to make a decision. Was I changing my focus away from the boat and to the couple? There just wasn’t time. I kept focus where it was knowing that the couple would be a little blurry. The resulting image still told such a compelling story that I kept it and worked on the photograph again nearly five years later. On close inspection I can see now that they’re even on the same board.

Inspired during “Shelter In Place”

I found myself inspired in early February, 2020. As I was exiting my nearly predictable semi-annual dry period I was invited to participate in a portrait shoot in Illinois. I’ll write about that experience soon. Spoiler alert, it was worth the trip.

The dry spell was smashed to pieces and I was back on fire. Right about then we all started hearing about a mystery illness in China. I’ll bet you’ve heard about that. Shortly after getting home the world I knew went seriously sideways. I wrote about the beginnings of this around me in an earlier post.

Shelter In Place

Like a lot of folks I have a “day job” that, lo and behold, has almost nothing to do with my art degree. The good news is that I’m one of those weirdos who mixes left brain and right brain traits. After the “shelter in place” announcement from the state of California I started seriously wondering if my new found inspiration was in danger. No. No it wasn’t.

Empty Highway 9, Boulder Creek, California
My little town on the first day of “shelter in place”. It was pretty quiet and stayed this way.

Opportunity from necessity

I took this as an opportunity and didn’t slow down. There was a wealth of subject matter under my nose, all I needed was the necessity to explore it. Walks around my rural neighborhood became scouting missions for tiny subjects. As a result I was actively seeking out mundane subjects to create interesting photographs. If anything my creativity accelerated.

California Poppy in monochrome
A Golden California Poppy envisioned as black and white

Selfie Central

Without my muse friends, my interest in off-camera flash became an opportunity for self portraits. I setup a backdrop and a strobe in my home office. Selfie Central was born.

Self portrait in my improvised home studio
A response to a “show me your mug!” challenge. Yes, it’s a chicken. I love my chicken mug.

A little knowledge, a speedlight, and a tiny diffuser became a strip light to create dramatic light for small subjects.

Dramatic lighting on a Hawaiian figure
A tiny keepsake from a trip to Maui, lit for dramatic effect.
Study of a sea shell in dramatic light
A study of a sea shell in dramatic light

This also became an opportunity to encourage friends to create. I know they’re in the same situation, or in a lot of instances recently out of work, stuck and home, and dearly needing something constructive to do. I love to be helpful so I’m glad to support and mentor.

New ideas for my backlog

I also had new ideas for post processing previous work. I have volumes of images and a backlog of portrait projects. This was a golden opportunity to look for gems and reinterpret those with new ideas. This has had the bonus effect of reconnecting and growing friendships with my model friends.

Katie Belle during a swimwear/surfboard shoot.
Katie Belle, aka @umitsonlyme

Opportunities abound

Of course this was also an opportunity to follow up on a contact with the editors of Photofocus from weeks ago. Not only was I inspired to create images, I was inspired to write. I keep using the word “opportunity.” Yeah, things are weird, hard, scary, and for many deeply tragic. Opportunity is there, you have to want to see it.