A look back at twenty five years of image making

I began to get serious about my photography back in 1991 or 1992. Those early years were a time of learning and discovery and lots and lots of slide film. Some of you may remember slide film.

When I decided to get serious about my photography I took some adult ed classes at the local community college taught by a guy named Bob Stahl. Bob had worked for National Geographic, among others, was (still is) a good teacher, and is a fine photographer. It was in Bob's classes that I first was introduced to the work of John Shaw. That lead to taking a workshop with John and meeting David Middleton in 1993. Since then I've co-led many workshops with David, co-authored a book with him, and consider him a good friend.

Before meeting John and David I also took some weekend classes from an Olympic peninsula photographer named Ross Hamilton. There used to be a magazine titled "Peninsula Magazine" and Ross usually had the cover picture. Invariably it was a shot taken from the interior of Olympic National Park and, as often some place I'd visited while backpacking. I learned a lot from Ross. In fact, my first published image came out of one of those weekend workshops with him. An image that came about because of feedback I'd gotten on another image during the workshop.

Many images have come and gone since then and a few of them have survived as personal favorites for a variety of reasons.

In no particular order...


Lupine field with Mt. Olympus in the background, Hurricane Ridge.

This is the above mentioned first published image. The night before, in a critique session, I showed a picture of Royal Lake, which is in the back country of Olympic National Park. The picture had scraggly bushes in the foreground, a really boring sky, and was split in half. Ross kindly mentioned all this. The next day I made this image along the Obstruction Point Road on Hurricane Ridge. It's not really among what I consider my best, but it represents a quantum leap in my photographic progression and for that reason will always be a favorite.



Frost on wild strawberry leaves, Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park, WA

This picture represents what I felt was my first truly "professional" picture. Not that I was a professional at the time, far from it. It's just that I had taken all I had been learning and I put it to use. I framed the leaves to fill the frame, I removed some distracting clutter and I carefully exposed the image. It's still one of my favorites.



Still Waters, Sol Duc River, Olympic National Park, WA

This is yet another from Olympic National Park. I spent much of my early "career" photographing in the park, either on my own or with small weekend workshop groups. This was taken in 1993 during one of those weekend workshops I was taking. It's also another picture where I spent a good amount of time cleaning up the scene. I really liked the smoothness of the rocks and the "spiral" shape they made. The problem was that there were too many sticks in the picture. So I'd climb around to the rocks, remove a stick, go back to the camera, see another. Lather, Rinse, Repeat. As you can see on the far right, I still missed one. I like to think of it as leaving an imperfection since none of us are perfect. That's all BS of course, but I'm sticking with it.

I love the serene feeling of this picture though. It remains near the top of my all time favorites.



Upper Tipsoo Lake and Mt. Rainier, Mt. Rainier National Park.

I love the feeling of this picture: an early summer evening by a lake in the mountains. It certainly wasn't what I was envisioning for this particular visit. I had my mind set on brilliant red clouds and reflections in the lake. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. But my workshop group and I were there for sunset and it was a little too late to go anywhere else so we made the best of it. We climbed up above the lake a bit, and even though I wanted something else, I photographed this scene anyway. And being the nit-picky perfectionist I can sometimes be, I shot it the best I could, using a 2-stop graduated neutral density filter.

I didn't think much more about this picture until I got home and started going through images. I kept coming back to this. And again. I really liked it. And it ended up being my favorite picture of that year.



Round granite rock

One simple round granite rock. Just sitting there on a granite boulder next to a stream. I spent a lot of time moving around this rock, finding different angles. It was next to a stream so didn't I need to include that too? How about the trees behind?

No. It took me awhile, but I finally remembered what drew me to this in the first place: just the round granite rock.



Canola and wheat curve.

I call this one "Canola Curve." It's from my very first trip to the Palouse. Like the granite rock, it took me some time to finally get to this shot. I tried all sorts of focal lengths, walked up and down the road for different angles and worked through about two rolls of film before putting on my 80-200 and ending up with this shot. And after I got it I remembered that this shape was what made me stop in the first place. Sometimes it just takes working through it and not stopping until your satisfied. These days I'm better at recognizing what I like and going straight for that. But sometimes it still takes me awhile. At least the process is pleasant!



Maidenhair fern close up.

In case you can't tell yet, I like curves. I also like Maidenhair ferns. The problem with Maidenhairs is that they live next to streams and waterfalls and always seem to be blowing around. I found these in a parking area near Wahkeena Falls in the Columbia River Gorge. And they weren't being blown around!

This is actually two images blended. I wanted sharpness in a couple places in the picture but I didn't want to use a small f-stop since that would give me too much depth of field and make the background too distracting (plus it would make the shutter speed longer, capturing any motion in case the wind came up). So I made two exposures, both at f/2.8, with one focused in on the leaves in the upper center and one on the stem just below the leaves. I didn't care if the stem on the right faded out of focus. I then brought them into Photoshop and used its image stacking/blending capabilities to make the final image.



Rainbow over Sol Duc Falls

One of the most iconic images in Olympic National Park is Sol Duc Falls. In the early summer, if you get there on a clear morning, the sun shines right down the river and creates this amazing rainbow. If you want to try this, go there between mid-May and mid-July.

I never tire of seeing this.



Sun coming through early morning fog, Reflection Lake, Mt. Rainier National Park

Back in Mt. Rainier National Park. You've probably seen the pictures of Mt. Rainier and Reflection Lake. I've got plenty of them, some of them quite good. But this is my all time favorite. And no Mt. Rainier!

Along the shoreline of Reflection Lake there is one really popular spot at the east end. That's where you usually find most people waiting for the sunrise. But at the west end of the lake you can look toward the east and see the trees against the sky reflected in the lake. This is often a good shot to get before the sun comes up and The Mountain action starts. And from this end you can still get good mountain reflection shots too.

Some mornings it can be foggy and I've gotten some nice trees-in-gray-fog pictures from this vantage point. On this particular morning it was foggy again. But the sun was burning its way through, making the trees look as if they were on fire. It was the most spectacular sunrise I've ever had there and my small workshop group benefited from first starting out at the west end and getting this shot. In fact, when the sun did light up Rainier, it was a let down compared to this.

I like this so much that I'm using it as the masthead for both my photography website and my workshops website.



The East Temple, Zion National Park, UT

When this slide hit the light table after a 1997 trip to Zion National Park, my first thought was "Galen Rowell." This shot reminded me of images I'd seen from the late great travel/adventure photographer. This is the East Temple in Zion National Park. I've been back to this exact location probably ten times since this was taken and it's never looked the same. Pine Creek keeps changing. Grass growth and flash flooding can completely change the immediate landscape surrounding the spot where I made this image. Other places in Zion look the same year after year, but near the creeks and rivers, it's always changing.

This was made from the middle of the creek with the camera just inches above the water, and me spread-eagling my arms and legs to look through the viewfinder. It would have been easier and more comfortable just kneeling in the water and getting wet. In fact I think I injured myself taking this shot. The prices we pay.

24mm, f/22, and a three-stop graduated neutral density filter, in case you were interested.



Humpback whale tail with salmon troller in background.

The last couple of years I've been helping out with Crossroads Photographic Workshops, namely at their Sitka workshop. Part of that workshop involves boat trips to photograph fishing vessels, seals, otters, birds, and most exciting of all, humpback whales. It's amazing how close they'll come to the small boat we're in. So close you can almost touch them. You can certainly smell them.



Canola field off of Seabury Road, north of Oaksdale, WA

I've been visiting Washington's Palouse region for over 20 years. One thing I like about it is that it's always changing. Crops rotate and barns collapse and it seems like each time I visit I find something new (like a moose, for instance). During the scouting for my 2014 workshop I was checking out some barns to make sure they were still standing. And really close to those barns was a field filled with canola. I'd never seen canola in that field before and was pretty excited about it. The field was situated so that to photograph it I would need to face east, making this a pretty decent looking sunrise location. We ended up needing to wait for about an hour after sunrise before the clouds let the light through. And then the magic began.

For this image I tried two techniques. The first was the tried and true 2-stop neutral density filter to tame the sky. The other was taking two shots quickly in succession, one exposed for the sky and one for the foreground. In this case I had better success with the one image taken with the grad nd filter. Blending the two others just didn't work out well.



Atlantic Puffin

There's nothing technically difficult about this. It's just cute. This was from my 2012 trip to Iceland. It was after the tour and my wife Tracy (who joined us for the last day of the tour) and I (and a couple of friends who stayed on) chartered a driver for the day and he took us to a place of puffins. He didn't even tell us there were going to be puffins there, he just surprised us with them. He must have loved the looks on our faces. Much like the awesome face on this puffin I imagine.



Aurora above Prosperous Lake

I saw my first auroras in 2014. They are addicting. They are also a challenge to photograph at first. This is because you're standing dumbfounded by what you see. But you get used to it (well, you never get "used" to it). But you get acclimated to the point that you can manage to take pictures. The aurora storms are the most difficult. You're torn between standing in utter amazement and thinking that you need, need, need to photograph. Sometimes you just have to stop and look up in wonder.

This was not  an aurora storm. In fact this was a pretty quiet moment. You get a lot of these while waiting. but this is also one of my favorite aurora pictures. I can't quite say why other than it feels peaceful and elegant.



Aurora above Prosperous Lake

This was from an aurora storm. I'm not really sure how I managed to capture it. Things were moving fast and my jaw was on the ground. But I got it. Thankfully, focusing is not much of an issue. Just use a really wide angle lens (14mm in this case) and pre-focus ahead of time in the daylight. Exposures get to be easy too; you get a feel for what needs to be done and you rely on your histogram.

If you want an inkling of what an overhead storm looks like, take a look at the multi-frame gif I made from my last Yellowknife auroras tour.



Last surviving building from the town of Wilcox.

Just a simple old building in the Palouse. This image has sold as a print numerous times and has been used for cards and in a calendar. But that's not why I like it. Sure I like the warm feeling and the late light on the wood. But this image, also from my very first trip to the Palouse, is one of the first where I found a location in the flat light of mid-day, and, using my compass, figured out that it just might make a decent sunset location. So I came back that evening and sure enough, it was a great location. Using my compass to forecast the location of the sun at the edges of the day has proven fruitful time and time again.

Now every year I go back I make the turn off the main road leading to Colfax to go see if my old friend is still standing.



Alaska Brown Bear hunting salmon in small stream, early September. Geographic Harbor, Katmai National Park, AK

Back in 2000 Tracy and I had a chance to visit a photographer friend of mine who lives in Kodiak, AK. On one of the days we were visiting she had a pilot friend of hers fly us to Geographic Harbor in Katmai National Park. The pilot led us on shore near a stream where we got to see up close Brown bears feeding on salmon. And I mean up close. So close that if we'd taken a slightly different route on our walk we would have interrupted the nap of someone big and furry.

A few days later we came back with my friend, her son, and her husband on her husband's crab boat and spent two or three nights at Geographic Harbor. A couple of times each day we'd take the skiff to shore to photograph bears. For the most part, the weather was overcast or rainy. But the clouds would thin out here and there providing some nice light. I don't remember how many rolls of film I shot, but I got only a handful of images of bears in decent light. All the others were just dull, dull, dull. But the experience was anything but.



South Falls, Silver Falls State Park, OR

When I was shooting 35mm slide film, my favorite lens was my 24mm wide angle. I loved making wide angle landscape images with close foregrounds. And I got really good at using that lens; I saw the world through 24mm eyes.

Then digital came along and my first digital slr was the Nikon D100. Those early digital cameras all had sensors smaller than a piece of 35mm film: the DX sensors. This meant that my beloved 24mm wide angle was now essentially like using a 36mm lens. So no more wide angle shooting with that lens. Instead I bought a Tokina 12-24 f/4 and that served me well. I even came around to the benefits of a wide angle zoom lens. But still, I missed using my 24.

Then I got my first full-frame camera, the Nikon D810, and was able to reunite with my trusty 24mm. I was surprised by how good it felt.

And that's what makes this image special to me. It was the first wide angle landscape shot taken with my 24mm since giving up film.

I still have my 24mm but I also now have the Nikon 16-35. It's a good lens and it covers a range such that it replaces two lenses. So when I need to go light, it's the one I bring. But I still see the world through 24mm eyes and I still reach for my old 24mm whenever I can.



View from Steptoe Butte at sunrise. HDR image.

Steptoe Butte in the Palouse is THE PLACE for sunrise and sunset. During my workshops we go there for at least one of each. Sometimes more.

This particular year we had rain for much of the trip. We still found good light on occasion and plenty to photograph. But on the last morning of the workshop the sky was supposed to clear out and I was hoping we might get some mist over the land surrounding Steptoe. And boy, did we. We used telephoto lenses to isolate ethereal abstracts of mist between low hills and wider lenses to capture the whole scene.

This image, taken with an 80-200 lens on my Nikon D300, is an HDR (High Dynamic Range) blend of five shots that captures the range of light that morning and conveys what I was seeing.



Sandstone wall striations in Lower Antelope Canyon, Page, AZ

You may have seen images of Arizona's slot canyons. There certainly are a lot of them out there now. This image was taken during my very first visit to Lower Antelope Canyon near Page, AZ and it remains my personal favorite. I've got a lot of others with impressive light beams, remarkable reflected light, and sinuous shapes, but this is the one I always come back to.



Adirondack chairs in from of the Lake Crescent Lodge, Olympic National Park, WA

Have I mentioned I like Olympic National Park? This image will probably be the only one in this collection made with my iPhone. For me it captures the feeling of being at Lake Crescent, one of the most peaceful places I've been.



Snail in moss atop a fallen log in the Hoh rainforest. Hall of Mosses trail, Olympic National Park, WA

This one also goes into the "cute" category. Just a snail on a downed log in the Hoh rain forest. These little guys mover faster than you think when you're trying to photograph them.



Raccoon in a Douglas fir tree

One New Year's day our dog Bailey alerted us to an intruder that was in one of her trees. Never mind that this guy was in the neighbor's tree behind us. All the trees are Bailey's. I quickly got out my camera and popped on my 300 f/4 and 1.4x teleconverter, grabbed my tripod and set up on our back deck. This raccoon was nice and cooperative but didn't seem to be giving Bailey the respect I'm sure she felt she deserved.



Silhouette of cottonwood in the Court of the Patriarchs. Mt. Moroni in background.

Zion is one of my favorite national parks. This was taken early one morning in the Court of the Patriarchs area. Just a simple shot of a tree silhouette overarching a peak in the background. But it's illustrative of some of the kinds of shots I really like to take: those that simply show something I've found. It looks simple enough but it took some work getting into the right place so that the tree didn't interfere with the mountain and that the branches filled the corners. And also so that the areas of negative space (the black parts) were balanced in the image. I can't tell you how to figure that out, it's just a feeling. When it feels right, then take the shot. I will tell you a trick that will make it easier: set a high aperture number (you don't have to shoot at this number) and press your depth of field preview button. Or simply squint your eyes.
What this does is make everything in the viewfinder darker, removing all the details and leaving you with light and dark areas: shapes and graphics. This makes it much easier to arrange things in the viewfinder because you're just working with shapes. Give it a try.



Fall color in Zion National Park, UT

Might as well stay in Zion. This is from my most recent workshop in October of 2016. When framing this up I knew I would want to crop it into more of a square. The bushes and trees to the right didn't really have anything to do with what I liked about this scene. And including more on the left just posed the same problem: it wouldn't support what I was trying to share. So a square crop it is!

This is from the east side of Zion National Park. On this side of the park you'll find more of the Box Elders (part of the maple family) and in the fall they become a beautifully deep red.

The light was moving in and out and the challenge was to not overexpose the highlights on the rock in the middle of the frame. Exposing for the light there meant that much of the rest of the picture would be dark. But that's ok. Digital cameras these days have a lot of dynamic range and it's pretty easy to lighten up dark areas while still preserving detail and color. It's really pretty amazing how far we've come.



Sunrise and cloud formations from Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park, WA

And finally (for now) I go back to Olympic National Park. I can't tell you how many times I've been to Hurricane Ridge for sunrise. If there are no clouds in the sky it can get rather boring after a decade or two of visiting.

For me, the most interesting mornings are the foggy or even rainy mornings. You just don't know what might happen. The Hurricane Ridge road leading from Port Angeles can often hold the best scenes, especially just as you near the top. The fog flowing over the ridge can be ethereal.

This particular morning my workshop group drove up in fog. When we got to the parking lot you could barely see the front of the car. I thought we might climb the trail that leads up to Klahane Ridge and thereby getting above the fog, but as soon as we stepped out of the cars the fog dropped, leaving a sea of clouds leading to the Olympic peaks in the distance. It was amazing. And then it got spectacularly unreal. The sun came up and the fog began glowing orange. We ran back and forth along the parking lot road as the scenes changed from one end to the other. The fog rose and fell and ebbed and flowed. It was remarkable and one of the most exciting mornings I've ever had there.


So there you have it. A look back at some of my favorite images of the last 25 years. There are a lot more so I may just do this again!

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12 responses to “A look back at twenty five years of image making

  1. Connie Rowley says:

    Rod, beautiful images that capture a vision that most of us can only enjoy thru the visions of the photograph &
    The eyes of the photographer. Thank you for sharing your remarks that so beautifully describe the scene. I’m so proud of you, my son-in-law.
    Connie Rowley

  2. Awesome collection of images Rod, and the stories to go along with them make them even more interesting. Now you’ve given me the idea to go back and look through my images and do the same. Thanks!


  3. Great shots! I love seeing the beauty you capture and share! Happy New Year to you and, yes- GO HAWKS!

  4. Hi Rod,
    Loved looking at your images! What a talented guy, and so much fun too. I’ve been to a few of those places with you.
    Sorry….Go Green Bay!!!!

    • I like Green Bay too. Unless they’re playing the Hawks. I was glad to see them beat Detroit (easier game for us, in my opinion). And they can beat Dallas too, if they get past the Giants.

  5. A very nice set of images and a great narrative. I really enjoyed how you put this together.

  6. Rod,

    I was going to tell you which one or two shots were my favorites, but there were so many that I gave up. I do like the round rock on the granite. The simplicity of that shot was one of the things I came away with from the workshop we did in Vermont – many moons ago. That workshop is a highlight of my amateur photographic experience. Thanks for sharing so much detail here. My take away (your theme song I know) is slow down, keep looking and keep adjusting to tell a simple story. I just wish my career had followed in your footsteps.

    Robin Bartlett

  7. Tracy Rowley says:

    Tracy here! I met Rod (not Ron, Rob or Rott folks) in March 2000 through the Mountainers Photograhy club in Seattle. At the time I was living on Mercer Island. One afternoon I was looking out my window facing NW at the water. It was a couldy day with the sun peeking in and out of clouds racing across the sky. I experienced one of the most beautiful moments of light and knew I wanted to learn how to capture that emotion/experience. That surreal moment led me to photography, which led me to Rod. Photography takes a lot of practice, attending many workshops, asking questions and understanding the logistics of your equipment. It’s almost like a golf swing. So much thought, practice and the right conditions go into producing an image worth looking at. I’ll be the first to tell you it isn’t as easy as you think. I have sat through countless hours observing Rod capturing images in nature and I am in awe of what it takes to execute a decent photo. It’s not as easy as it looks folks. Thanks to Rod I am continually learning how to critique a scene before I photograph it but still working on the “nerd” aspect of photography. It’s not about pushing the button on a camera to capture an image. It’s about everything that comes before pushing that camera button. I’ll be working on that part the rest of my life and I hope Rod is next to me every step of the way. I need his nerd gene because unfortunately I don’t have one of my own. I’ll have to rely on Rod for that one.

  8. Hi Rod,

    I just stumbled over this look back and I really like both the pictures and the memories. The pictures speak for themselves already. But your stories also make clear that you are one of those who often have an early idea of the picture as it should be and then invest into getting close to this idea in a process. A process that includes listening to the opinion of others als well as listening to oneself. I wish you many more years to travel and create many more beautiful photos.


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