Focal Points

Published in On Landscape, Vol. 200.

Notice that autumn is more the season of the soul than of nature.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Every Autumn, in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere, deciduous trees undergo a radical transformation, climaxing in an explosion of color before shedding their leaves and becoming dormant during winter, preparing to start the cycle all over again in Spring.  It is a miracle of Nature brought about by seasonal changes in diurnal light cycle, temperature and prior rainfall that halt production of green chlorophyll and allow yellows, reds, oranges and purples to show through.

We all know this story, which for all its splendor also is so predictable and commonplace that it is easy to miss as we go about our daily lives.  Mired down in work and domestic responsibilities, the Fall color change can happen without our notice.   And if that happens, we lament that we missed it.  We examine ourselves and ask why and how we drifted away from Nature, why we dont look up at the stars on a clear night anymore, why we didnt notice the scent of sage this year.  

One morning, in the Autumn of 1994, I took a shortcut across a field in Connecticut, hurrying to get to my destination, when I looked down to ascertain why my shoes were soaked through to the socks.  The answer halted me.  The ground was covered with richly colored, dew soaked leaves made even more saturated by the soft, lightbox effect of cirrus clouds high overhead.  Luckily, I had my camera with me loaded with Velvia.  The beauty caused me to pause long enough to marvel at Nature and to record that feeling on film.  

That's what photography is to me, an effort to record a feeling - really, an emotion - that I can share and recall.  I often read or hear photographers talk about the importance of having something to say through our work, but I've rarely felt that I had something to say.  I don't even really know what that means.  It's the landscape that is speaking to me.  On the rare occasion that I do reportage I have a story to tell, but mostly I am not trying to say anything.  Usually, I am trying to listen.

Ever since that day in the field in New England, Autumn has been a favorite time for photography because Autumn is more than a visually spectacular color change.  Autumn is Mother Nature singing, with all her heart and soul, her song that we can hear if we remember to notice.  But how can we not notice such a loud phenomenon?

Whereas the solstices are subtle and slip by unnoticed, the autumnal equinox is a time of great upheaval, a beautiful death throe before the cold stillness of Winter.  The shedding of leaves is a great entropic event that deposits countless tons of biomass back onto ground, to be recycled by worms, insects and bacteria into basic nutrients that will, once again, climb the cambium layer of the very tree from which they fell to grow new leaves.

In Nature, Spring is a time of birth and childhood, of newness and learning, of adolescence and maturation.  Summer is the important and necessary time of production, like the prime of our adulthood.  Make hay while the sun shines.  Autumn is a time of fulfillment and harvest, when Nature rejoices her accomplishments by showing off all her resplendent colors as she prepares for Winter.  

That's me.  I am at the autumnal equinox of my life.  Strong and virile for the past 64 years I now find myself changing, even failing in certain ways.  I've always loved the colors of Autumn but now I identify with them.  I am them.  Autumn is a whole new level of maturation.  Autumn is a time for appreciation of life, for reflection on accomplishments as well as failures, a time to rejoice in the bounty, and a time for peaceful resignation and preparation before the inevitable.  

The challenge is to recognize it and enjoy it to the fullest.  Just as we miss the Fall colors if we don't look up in our busy lives, we can miss the Autumn of our lives if we don't make an effort to fully live it, to be fully in it.  It is a time to reflect, but it also is a time to live in the moment, to make the most of each day, to appreciate the beauty around us in Nature and in our friends and family.  A time to get outside with our cameras and listen. 



Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.

Edgar Degas

There seems to be, and has been for a long time, two camps in landscape photography: those who want to represent Nature in her truest form, and those who want to use captured images of Nature to express themselves.  

It goes back to Adams vs. Mortensen, or possibly earlier than that, when you consider Emerson's discussion in Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art, which he later contradicted.  (see my essay in On Landscape, Vol. 205, page 110)

I just read an article in Medium Format Magazine (Sept 2020) by Michael E. Gordon who said, 

"The representational photographer depicts physical appearances as found and doesn't typically interfere with the subject or the light. In contrast, the fine art photograph may be entirely the result of interferenceThe finished print might scarcely resemble the found state."

To me, the epitome of fine art landscape photography is when the final print depicts the physical appearances of the found object as interpreted by the photographic artist.  

Photographers who are able to accomplish this include Charlie Waite, William Neill, Charlotte Gibb, Carr Clifton, David Ward, Guy Tal, etc.  Ernst Haas fit this category beautifully because he was able to photograph things in the world surrealistically on 35mm Kodachrome, where there was no post-processing or manipulation.  His images certainly rise to the level of fine art.

Charlie Waite's things are recognizable, many of Haas' are not. Haas was able to find that thing in the thing that realistically described it in a way that was unrecognizable. 

Other contemporary landscape photographers can take an (admittedly) mediocre image and transform it into something fantastic, like a movie poster or a Robert Kincaid painting.  These often resemble the found object, say for example the Dolomites, while being significantly altered and romanticized.  It can be an amazing demonstration of software talent and creativity.  It might not seem like "fine art" to me, but I'm sure it does to some, including the creators.

We can do anything we want with photography, that's the beauty of it. And no one way is right or wrong.  There is no final arbiter on what constitutes fine art.  The main thing is to have fun with it. For me, this is when it all comes together as if I am using Kodachrome, when the finished image is both artistic and realistic, and may or may not be recognizable.

You don't take a photograph, you make it.

Ansel Adams

There is an unresolved debate in photography about whether you take or make a photograph.  I think it's both.

You take a picture, and by that I mean you cause the camera shutter to open for a specified amount of time to allow photons that have bounced off your subject to enter the camera, through the lens, and strike the film or the sensor.  You captured those photons.  You took that picture.  It might have been a simple process or it might have been arduous, but at this point it is simply photon harvesting.

But then you use the energy transmitted by those photons to silver halide crystals or to photo cells to make a photograph.  For digital photography it might be as simple as passing that information through a few devices, like the memory card and the hard drive, and then output them with some software to a screen from which people can look at new photons, modified or not by you, and generated by the device.

Or you could just take that roll of film to Walgreens and ask them to give you little pieces of paper that have ink laid down on them.  It used to be silver, but now it's ink.

But to really make a photograph, you need to take the energy on that image storage media, be it film or digital, and create a photograph that means something to you, and which you hope will mean something to others.  That process can take place in a darkroom, or on a computer with software, or a hybrid of both.  But it is the completion of the entire creative process.

So, as far as the image is concerned, I think you take a picture but you make a photograph.

However, I believe that there is more to it than that.  Every time I come across a scene that I think is extraordinary I say a small prayer of thanks, because I think it was given to me.  By whom or what I don't know, but I suspect my mother had her hand in it.  Buff and I went to Europe for our 35th wedding anniversary and it seemed to me on that trip that there were just too many wonderful pictures to be just random events.  One example on that trip was Oksana kissing her husband in Venice.  Another was the dolphins leaping beside our boat in Croatia.  Another was the tired cook in Lyon.

Photography lives beyond the technology, the camera, the sensor, the lens.  Photography is an open mind and open heart.  


Style has no formula, but it has a secret key.

It is the extension of your personality.

Ernst Haas

A few years back a friend told me that she instantly recognized a picture as mine on her Instagram feed before looking at the name.  I was flattered, because I have often heard (especially in the past decade) how important it is that we develop a style.  I honestly didn't know that I had a style, and I was feeling a little insecure about that, until she essentially told me that I did.  I concluded that I had arrived.

Many photographers I admire have recognizable styles.  I recognize the monochrome work of Colin Templeton immediately.  I can pick out a Michael Kenna from across the room.  And I can tell a Peter Turnley picture with my eyes closed.  In fact, after seeing some pictures on Megan Kwasniak's website I concluded that she had taken a workshop with Peter.  Turns out she had taken two.  

Style is important because it signifies maturity in our photography.  A photographer seldom starts out with a style, although there are exceptional people who have.  

Be careful, though.  Although style imparts a predictable consistency in our work, when we promote our style it becomes our brand.  A brand is especially important for commercial photographers because clients can know ahead of time what they're getting when they hire someone.  In fact, they are really hiring the style rather than the person, and it's the brand that tells them that.

But, do we really want to be branded?  Once branded, a cow is part of a specific herd and belongs to a certain ranch, until that rancher decides to sell or kill it.  I don't want to be a dead cow.  A dead cow can't improve, change or move forward.  A dead cow is just, well…dead.  Until it becomes a hamburger in a paper bag.

Once you become branded, you cannot stray from the ranch.  People come to expect a certain type of photograph.  In portrait photography, this can boil down to a certain light setup, focal length and facial expression.  Think Peter Hurley.  That's a strong brand with very rigid criteria.

Your style, on the other hand, is your subtle signature.  That little hint of your essence that you leave on your work.  It's the way you see things.  It's you.

While an argument can be made for branding in some commercial genres of photography, should a fine art photographer even try to develop a brand?  A brand connotes a lack of imagination and forward momentum on the part of the photographer.  It constrains the photographer into a creative rut.

Photographic style appears to come from within and the bad news is you may have no control over it. Edward Weston observed that his early photographs made in adolescence bore a strong resemblance in style to his latter work, even though he moved from pictorialism to straight photography and his subject material varied greatly, dependent on geography and carnal lust.

The important thing is, don't try to pick a style by emulating someone you admire.  The gift of one Peter Turnley is enough for this world.  Even his identical twin has a distinct, albeit related, style.  

And don't fall into the trap of actively trying to develop your style.  That will just stunt your growth and maturation as a photographer. Your style is within you and you should not try to control it.  In fact, you might be the last person to recognize it because it is so much a part of you.  

You can't see self without a mirror, and then it's reversed. 


It's not what you look at that matters, but what you see.

Henry David Thoreau


As photographers, we are told how important it is that we have something to say in our photographs.  Exemplars from Alfred Steiglitz through Brooks Jensen have reinforced this basic art tenet in photography.  Convention holds it as fundamental to the craft and some would argue it is essential to each picture we make.

Having something to say in our photography, about a subject or an idea, places the importance of any statement squarely on us, the photographer.  In other words, it is not the thing that is speaking, but rather the photographer.  If the photographer is speaking, then the focus is on the photographer, not the subject. 

Some would argue that this is the essence of art: the personal expression of the artist.  And that may well be true if the point of art is to celebrate the artist.  

However, perhaps another role of the photographer is to convey to the world that which the object has to say.  To do so it is imperative that the photographer listen to the object, not merely hear it.  That requires empathy for the object, which means the artist first must let go of self and become the object.

How often have we seen two photographers by a stream at the base of a mountain.  One arrives early and looks around before setting up her camera and tripod.  Likely, it is not her first time at this location.  She instinctively checks the light values, sets her aperture, frames her composition and waits.  All the while she continues to immerse herself in the scene, blocking out all thoughts of anything else, communing with the wind, the light and the mountains.

The second photographer walks into her frame, possibly steps on the flowers in her foreground, fires off a series of shots at different focal lengths on the zoom lens, chimps the back of the camera, then wanders off to the next viewpoint.  (This actually happened to me recently.)

The latter photographer had something to say to his Instagram audience after a few tweaks in Snapseed.  Look at these hasty, heavily-processed shots I took 10 minutes ago with my fully automated, image-stabilized camera with focus and exposure bracketing.  See what a great photographer I am.

The former photographer had something to convey.  Listen through my lens to the mountains speak of their magnificence, power and strength.  See how great they are.  Observe the life generated in the valley by the water streaming down from its frozen reservoir in these mountains.  Listen to the story it tells of the genesis of life.  

As photographers, are we speakers or listeners?  Do we exploit the subject, or experience it?  Is the photograph about the amazing artist, or the sublime subject? 

The truth is, we can have it both ways.  Sometimes the object speaks through our camera, and sometimes we use the object to express ourselves, to say something.  That is the real beauty of photography.  There are no rules and anyone can do anything with their camera without fear of moral turpitude as long as we don't take ourselves too seriously.  

But please don't step on the flowers!

Leica SL2: A Brief Field Review


Leica were kind enough to grant me the privilege of Beta testing the Leica SL2.  I have been a Beta tester for M and SL firmware for a few years, so I guess they figured I could be trusted.  I had the camera for two weeks during which time I used it extensively in the field. I also made comparison tests to the Leica SL and the Hasselblad X1D.  The review was conducted with a prototype camera and firmware so my observations may differ from the production model.

The introduction of the SL was one of those rare moments that produced a true quantum leap in camera design and manufacture.  The SL is a full-frame mirrorless camera with a revolutionary EVF and elegant user interface (UI).  It was a logical next step in the evolution of the discontinued R series of single lens reflex (SLR) cameras.

My uses for the SL mostly are landscape, wildlife and reportage/documentary.  It is also well suited for sports photography (which I do not do), portraiture, travel and general use. 

[Disclaimer.  I have no relationship with Leica other than the NDA that accompanied the loaner camera.  I receive no remuneration in any form from Leica.  This review is kept brief on purpose and is done from a user perspective.  I did not perform any technical tests on the camera.  This review is not exhaustive.  If I did not mention something that interests you, it's either because I did not test it or it does not interest me.  For example, I did not test nor am I interested in video function of the camera. Finally, we (Beta testers) did not receive a manual for the camera so I may have made some assumptions that will be either inaccurate or untrue in the final camera.]

What are the Big Changes?

   47 MP sensor

  Option to use multishot mode to combine 8 captures into one large file

   In body image stabilization (IBIS)

   Option to turn on/off long exposure noise reduction (LENR)

   Simplified, M-like button layout

   Higher resolution EVF with faster refresh rate

   Slightly larger LCD with twice the resolution

   USB charging option

What it Doesn't Have

   GPS - this will be done through FOTOS

Overall Design

The Leica SLR cameras went through several design iterations, including a collaboration with Minolta, until the radical design departure of the R8 and R9 cameras.  The R9, with the digital module, hinted at the future design of its successor, the S2.

The SL2 has retained the basic design of the SL, with some refinements.  The edges have been chamfered smooth.  The surface of the metal elements has a slight texture to it. The rubber covering appears to be the same, or very similar.    

The Details

The leap to 47 MP seems to have happened without any significant loss of image quality, ie, noise.  Final opinion on this will have to wait for analysis by others, such as DXO Mark and Sean Reid, however I printed identical exposures of the identical subject using both the SL and the SL2 to 36 x 54 inches at ISO 3200 and could not discern any significant noise in either image.  The print from the SL2 file was sharper and had more detail in the shadows, but again, I did not quantify this.  The resulting file sizes are in the range of 83 to 86 MB.

It is now possible to use Multishot mode to combine 8 image captures into a single high-resolution file.

Leica did not tell us that the camera has IBIS, but I knew something was up when I tried taking hand held macro photos at 1/30 sec at dusk.  None of my files had any motion blur at 90mm.  These delicate flowers are about 8mm in diameter:

IBIS was later confirmed by Leica, which is a huge improvement that should make many people very happy.  It is now possible to hand hold the camera at slower shutter speeds with multiple lenses, although I did not analyze how many stops this affords.  When in the On position, and using either the 24-90 vario or the 90-280 vario, I do not know if both image stabilization systems work, or just the lens or just the camera.  There is no option to turn off lens stabilization in the menu, only an On/Off function for Image Stabilization.  IBIS functions with the other SL, M and R lenses.  I did not test other brands.

I compared images made in dim light with and without LENR, however I had the camera around the time of a full moon so I could not get a star-filled sky.  The low noise made this camera very good for astrophotography.

I tested the autofocus and continuous modes with a unicorn pulling two fairies and two children (true story, see photo).  

There are now 4 choices for continuous mode: low, medium, high and very high speed.  Very high speed uses the electronic shutter. In the fast mode I did not run out the buffer and was able to spend several minutes churning through bursts of 5 to 7 shots for a total of about 200 shots without buffering or heating.  Full Disclosure, I normally make photos like a sniper - a single, well-considered shot - so motor-drive has not been my thing for a while.  But this system will not allow much to be missed during fast action. 

The new menu is a huge improvement, in my opinion.  I use the M camera a lot so I sometimes forgot the functions I had assigned to all the SL function buttons.  It usually took a while to review which button did what.  The first time you press the menu button on the SL2 a dashboard (as Jono calls it) appears with most of the functions that you probably will use most of the time.  A second press of the button brings you to the Favorites menu, which you design entirely.  A third press will bring you to 6 menu sheets with all possible options.  There are now 6 definable User functions.  The overall flow of the menu system is more intuitive than the SL, which was very good to begin with.  It didn't take more than a few minutes to feel very comfortable with it and know where absolutely everything was.

It has an APS-C mode, but the files are the same size (~83-86 MP) as the full frame files, so it appears that the camera retains all the information it captures, but presents you with a cropped view.  One drawback to the higher pixel count is that the file sizes are huge, and for everyday photos that never will be enlarged to giant sizes the large files are impractical.  But that's where the beauty of the APS-C comes in, if the file sizes can be proportionately small.  If the APS-C files can be commensurate with their dimensions then the SL2 would be a great general use camera with a Vario-T 18-56mm lens.

Autofocus seemed to be snappier with the SL2, but again, caveat, I did not quantify this.  AF in all modes was plenty fast with minimal searching.  However, the SL2 now has Autofocus Profiles for such subjects as children/pets, wildlife, sports, etc.  The user is able to fine-tune the settings to respond differently to 3 behaviors -  Depth Sensitivity, Field Movement and Shift in Direction - by assigning a value from -2 to +2.  Jono discusses this in detail and I recommend reading his review.

Sky, a Captive Bald Eagle at the Peregrine Fund Center in Idaho

The face-recognition works well with people, horses and dogs.  I did not test with any other animals other than Sky, the female Bald Eagle at the Peregrine Fund World Center for Birds of Prey near my home.  She didn't move much, but for fast moving dogs and ponies the tracking feature kept greater than 95% of my images sharp.

Eye of Sky, Peregrin Center, Idaho


The grip has a different cross-section and now has a recessed area for your fingertips to increase grasp, decrease fatigue and provide better comfort.  Overall ergonomics are improved compared to the SL.

Other than the improved grip, the overall feel, weight, dimensions, ergonomics and aesthetics are very similar to its predecessor.  Missing is the GPS module on the top plate (now through FOTOS) and the recessed strap lugs, which now protrude.

The baseplate has changed only slightly, but just enough that I cannot use my Really Right Stuff baseplate without modifying it.  

Un-Scientific Conclusions

I honestly did not want to like this camera, because I have felt very happy with what I have, without "gear acquisition syndrome" for several years.  However, this might be the perfect camera - for me, for most situations.  For travel, landscape, wildlife and general picture making it is difficult to imagine a more perfect camera.

Leica took an extraordinary camera and made it much better.  The SL2 has significant improvements under the hood of an exterior that is refined but not significantly changed from the original model.   All that is needed is a long lens, although with the APS-C mode the 90-280 is extended to 420mm and the ISO performance will easily allow excellent images at least up to 6400.  The higher resolution will please landscape and commercial photographers.

IBIS, 47MP and LENR are welcome additions to the SL2.  As we find out more about processor speed, dynamic range, and other technical details I am sure the camera will impress even more.  

For more erudite reviews I recommend you read both Jono Slack's review and Sean Reid's review.