Monthly Archives: December 2011

Sunset Koan

On Christmas Day I calculated that from the summit of Wildcat Peak the sun would set directly behind the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge. This seemed like a great excuse for hiking off some excess holiday indulgence, so in the afternoon I grabbed Julian (my oldest son) and we made for the Inspiration Point trailhead my cameras and tripod in tow.

We had a jolly time on the trail, and there were lots of happy people out and about, mostly with dogs and extended families. But up on Wildcat Peak it seemed that the band of coastal clouds would prevail. The Golden Gate could not be seen.

Stubbornly, we waited for sunset on the off-chance that there would be a brief respite in the weather—preferably just when the sun was setting behind the bridge. One of Julian’s endearing traits, and one that serves him well, is that he is almost never willing to give up on anything, even against all odds.

But the shot I’d prepared for didn’t seem likely. The sun was still above the cloud bank, but it was going down without the bridge being visible.

So I started fooling around with my 70-300mm zoom lens.

Sun Koan by Harold Davis

Sun Koan © Harold Davis

If you’ve ever pointed a lens with telephoto focal lengths at the setting sun and rotated the manual focus ring, you’ll have observed that the closer you focus the more out-of-focus the sun gets—and (this is the interesting part) also the larger the sun gets. This optical phenomenon is particularly true when you are shooting wide open at the maximum aperture of the lens.

I was having fun making the sun into a big orange ball that filled the entire frame by focusing my 300mm to about ten feet when all of a sudden the thought struck me, why not put something in the foreground?

There was no time to be lost. The big round ball at the horizon was setting into the fog bank. I hurried to try to find something interesting and close, and focused on a patch of bare weeds. Then, before I knew it, the sun was gone and the world turned gray and colorless. 

The actual exposure settings for this image were, using my lens set to its maximum 300mm focal length, 1/8000 of a second at f/6.3 and ISO 200, hand held.

Back home, when I showed Julian the finished image, he was perplexed: “You made that photo from that litttle, random weed?!!?” he asked. 

In life, often we go out looking for the dramatic sunset behind the Golden Gate Bridges in our lives. But it may be the little random weeds that really matter.

Somehow, in these days of renewal when the sun starts to come back from its long journey towards apparent oblivion, I find myself looking to photograph the sun, perhaps to assure myself that it is real.

Wave by Harold Davis

Wave © Harold Davis

It always helps to put something in the foreground like the waves shown crashing in their interference patterns at North Beach on Point Reyes, California.

Foregrounds, random weeds, and the return of the sun: the makings of a meditation.

Wave 2 by Harold Davis

Wave 2 © Harold Davis

Posted in Bemusements, Landscape, Photography, Point Reyes, Tilden Park

Workshop Notes

Phyllis and I are pleased and excited to see Photography with Harold Davis so active. After only a few months we are now up to 460 members. We never expected such an immediate and positive response.

We have many exciting events planned for 2012, including a series of free webcasts as well as more free
Walk-and-Talks with Harold Davis and book give-aways. Check out Photography with Harold Davis for details!

I want to call your attention to the Tao of Photography Workshop at Green Dragon Temple and Zen Center in the Marin Headlands in early August. If you register by December 31, 2011 you save $200 over the full price.

Forest Sonata by Harold Davis

Forest Sonata © Harold Davis

Please consider taking advantage of this early-bird special before the price rises on December 31, 2011. Why not send your special photographer friend as a post-Christmas treat, or (better yet!) go with them? This workshop includes accomodations for three nights as well as three scrumptuous organic vegetarian meals each day.

I’ve never been anywhere so apparently remote and beautiful as the Zen Center but also close to a major city (San Francisco). Check out the Tao of Photography Workshop at Green Dragon Temple for more information.


Photographing Flowers by Harold DavisThe Flower Photography Workshop with Harold Davis in early June is now sold out. If there is demand for it I will run this workshop again later in the summer.

If you are interested, please RSVP and add yourself to the waiting list for the June Flower Photography Workshop with Harold Davis. This will help us gauge interest in a second workshop, and I will give those who have are on the RSVP list first “dibbs” on spots in the second workshop.


Please consider the May Full Moon Workshop: Photograph the Golden Gate Bridge Like You Never Have Before.

Golden Gate Panorama

Golden Gate Panorama © Harold Davis

To get an idea what you might expect, check out the comments from the last time we ran this workshop and the photos that participants made! Once again, this is an intimate workshop and places are very limited.

Thanks so much for being part of our photography community, and best wishes for 2012!

Save the dates. We have two exciting weekend workshops planned (but not formally announced), both under the aegis of the Point Reyes Field Insititute:

  • Friday June 1 – Sunday June 3, 2012: Macros, Close-Ups, and Flowers
  • Friday August 17 – Monday August 20, 2012: Ancient Bristlecone Pine Night Photography
Posted in Workshops

The Role of the Artist

Court jester or social conscience? You’ll find successful artists whose work falls into both these categories. For example, Jeff Koons is an intellectual light-weight who subcontracts out the actual construction of his work, and whose work exists as jokes to tillitate the ruling classes.

On the other hand, The Disasters of War by Goya show us, and leads us to deplore, the horrors of war. Diego Rivera’s murals speak of his radical political beliefs, while Sebastian Salgado’s photos show us exploited workers in places we will likely never visit—with the unspoken moral that this exploitation is a consequence of lifestyle choices made by those of us fortunate enough to live in a wealthy society.

Tomales Bay by Harold Davis

Tomales Bay © Harold Davis

Artists can also side-step the idea of contextual meaning. It’s possible to create work that is neither self-referential and joking trivia nor imbued with the gravitas of political tragedy.

Art has a middle space between buffoonery and finger-wagging morality.

There’s no social content or post-modernist wink-and-nod in the paintings of Vincent van Gogh or the photos of Edward Weston. These images are about beauty, line, form, shape and light—pure and simple. They may have been revolutionary in technique or the subject depicted—van Gogh’s brush strokes and Weston’s elegant images of toilets—but there’s absolutely no hint of social commentary or art world post-modernist games in the work of these great artists.

Real artists are not always social critics, nor are they twits.

Drakes Bay by Moonlight by Harold Davis

Drakes Bay by Moonlight © Harold Davis

Another question related to the role of the artist is where the artist fits into society. While early 21rst century United States is not the most rigidly class-bound society the world has ever seen—by any stretch of the imagination—it is clearly becoming more stratified into “haves” and “have nots.”

This is the basis for the rhetorical statements about the 1% (the haves) and the 99% (the have nots).

More realistically, this division should be between the .01% and the 99.99% rest of us.

In any case, for many people in many professions it is clear where they fit into the class heirarchy. Not so, for the artist who is even moderately successful.

I find that what goes with the territory is an ability to find value on a shoestring, and at the same time to be able to converse with successful professionals and top executives.

In other words, the artist is outside the normal class system, and perhaps can see the world more clearly than people who are stuck within it.

I reject utterly the role of court jester, working to enrich the art establishment and for the amusement of a few of the 1%. I also don’t feel the need to put my art in the service of my social conscience—unless by doing so I am creating better art.

But this doesn’t mean I can ignore the circumstances of the world anymore than anyone else. It’s really nothing to do with art or one’s profession. As best I can I need to live my life to help exemplify and promote the world I would like to see.

About the images: I shot these two images during a recent workshop I conducted at the Point Reyes Field Institute, in Point Reyes National Seashore, California. In both cases, my idea was to press the boundaries of photography—in Tomales Bay by creating an image that looks like a drypoint etching, and in Drakes Bay by Moonlight by echoing a 19th century seascape painting—without leaving the formal boundaries of digital photography.

Tomales Bay is toned as a conventional monochromatic photo. In other words, the color information in this image is no longer relevant. Drakes Bay by Moonlight is a subdued color image—and I resisted the temptation to add varnish and impasto painting effects to it in post-production.

Posted in Writing

Paperwhite Waterdrops

The Paperwhite, Narcissus papyraceus, is a small white flower related to the Daffodil. Grown from a bulb, the plant is originally from the Mediterranean basin. It’s commonly thought of as a house plant—and “forced” to bloom indoors for the winter holidays.

By the way, forcing a bulb is a process that to some extent negates the old saw that you can’t fool Mother Nature. The idea is to convince a bulb that it has slept through winter and come into spring—and that now is the time to send forth flowers. This psychological manipulation of the bulb is accomplished by cooling it in a dark place for some time and then putting it someplace warm, such as a sunny window, to experience virtual spring. A prisoner in a dark cell can have their sense of time totally warped in the interests of their captors, and the same thing is true when it comes to bulbs.

Paperwhite Waterdrops by Harold Davis

Paperwhite Waterdrops © Harold Davis

But I digress, a common thing for me when it comes to flowers. It seems that I have Paperwhites growing without being forced in my garden, and blooming this time of year. I don’t remember intentionally planting them. I think we must have been given a forced Paperwhite in a pot. After it was finished blooming I must have popped the bulb out of its pot and into the garden and forgotten about it, and, voilà, this little Narcissus papyraceus patch in December was the result. How cool is that?

Vector by Harold Davis

Vector © Harold Davis

In fact, it does not get very cold in my garden. It rarely gets any cooler than 45 degrees Farenheit here in the hills of Berkeley, California—cool enough for the Paperwhites, and temperate enough for me to stay warm even though the garden was wet from a light rain when I photographed these flowers the other morning. 

Least Popular Posts: I’ve added a neat widget to my blog that displays the least popular posts I’ve ever written. You can see these neglected stories listed about half way down the Masthead on the right, just below Recent Posts. I thought these stories were dead and buried deep. There’s a certain morbid fascination in watching them rise from the blog post grave like the Undead—until some poor, hapless visitor to my blog clicks on them. By the very act of opening one of these stories they become more popular than their peers, and escape off the Undead Blog Story list!

Posted in Flowers, Photography, Water Drops

The eye believes what it thinks it sees

The eye believes what it thinks it sees. This allows us to enjoy magic shows, movies, and two-dimensional art such as painting and photography. Any two-dimensional representation of three dimensions is of course an illusion.

Problems begin when the brain gets into the act. The brain thinks it is the smart one, and doesn’t like playing the sap. If the first impression of reality isn’t utterly convincing then everything is subject to analysis—to the detriment of the viewing experience. In the writing trade, when this happens it is said that disbelief is no longer suspended.

In other words, we look at art to start with “willing suspension of disbelief.” As long as the artist doesn’t wantonly offend apparent reality this suspension of disbelief allows one to get away with murder.

Like trust, once belief is gone it is hard to earn it back. The best tactic is not to lose it in the first place.

The good news is that the brain isn’t as smart as it thinks it is. Whether belief is suspended or not, every time the brain will go for the simplest explanation—even when cursory observation will reveal that an image is the result of complexity and artifice.

Black Glass by Harold Davis

Black Glass © Harold Davis

Case in point: Black Glass (shown above) seems to be a photo of glassware captured on a mirror that reflects a perfectly black background. However, this is by no means the case. The composition was shot using a mirror with a white background, as you can see here (the image is shown as shot towards the bottom of the HDR is Technique, Not Style article).
Given that the image was shot on a white background, how did I achieve this version? Answer: In post-production I swapped the luminosity information. A little more technically, in Photoshop I converted to the LAB color space, selected the L-channel, and applied an Invert adjustment.
The interesting thing is that this inverted the glass itself as well as the background. So, in the image above, the eye thinks it is seeing glassware. But if you compare this version to the original you’ll see that it is actually rendering the negative space created by the outlines of the glassware rather than the glass itself!
Here’s another example: take this shot of a wave I made on Point Reyes, California during a workshop I was leading:
Splash by Harold Davis

Splash © Harold Davis

At a casual glance, this photo looks simply like a breaking wave.  If you look a little longer, though, the sense of scale becomes extremely peculiar because the line in the foreground appears to be a perfectly normal wave. If the foreground wave is normal size, then just how huge is the crashing, splashing wave that is the main subject of the photo?
The answer, of course, has to do with photographic perspective, and the illusion of perspective. I shot this photo with a long telephoto lens (450mm in 35mm terms) lying down in the sand on the beach. But that is not what the eye sees, and in this case it is what the eye doesn’t see that makes the image both perplexing and interesting.
Related story: Impossible Images.
Posted in Bemusements, Photography, Writing

Self-Portrait in Faucet

We’ve had a spate of minor—but surprisingly expensive—plumbing repairs recently. I took advantage of one of these to shoot our new kitchen faucet with my 200mm macro lens. Who knew I’d end up with a self-portrait?

Self-portrait in faucet by Harold Davis

Self-Portrait in Faucet © Harold Davis

Probably all artists have some degree of narcissism, although I do try to keep mine in check. The kids work well to counterbalance any such tendencies. But I do enjoy making self-portraits—here’s my Self-Portrait with Moustache, to some extent in homage to Dali.

Getting back to plumbing, it’s amazing what one can find in one’s fixtures besides oneself. In this image, Darth Vador seems to have made an unexpected appearance. May the faucet be with you!

Darth in my Faucet

Darth in My Faucet © Harold Davis

Related images: for a different take on plumbing (not ours!) see  Plumbing, and Couch (plumbing image at the bottom of the story); you also might like an image of a Swim Ladder that is both HDR and hyperfocal.

Posted in Bemusements, Photography

Berkeley Pier in HDR

This is an HDR image of the Berkeley Pier, the site of the Free Walk-and-Talk with Harold Davis on Saturday, December 17 at 4:00PM. Please consider joining us.

Berkeley Pier by Harold Davis
Berkeley Pier © Harold Davis

Exposure data: 90mm, seven exposures at shutter speeds from 1/250 of a second to 1.6 seconds; each exposure at f/11 and ISO 200, tripod mounted; exposures combined in Photoshop using Nik HDR Efex Pro and hand-layering.

I thought the birds on the lamps were cool, but one bird was missing so I had to paint it in. Can you tell which one?
Also coming up this week: Free Webcast: Creative Flower Photography on Thursday, December 15 at 10AM PT (sponsored by O’Reilly Media).
Posted in HDR, Photography, San Francisco Area

Tao of Photography Workshop with Harold Davis at Green Dragon Temple Aug 3-6, 2012

Please join Harold Davis for three days of inspirational photography at Green Gulch Farm.

This workshop runs from 5PM Friday August 3, 2012 through 10AM Monday August 6, 2012, and includes three nights of accommodations in the peaceful Lindisfarne guest house, a two-story Japanese-style retreat house that will be exclusively used by the workshop. Wholesome and tasty vegetarian meals each day are included in the price of the workshop.

We expect this unique and unusual workshop to fill quickly, so don’t delay! REGISTER TODAY.

Forest Sonata by Harold Davis

Forest Sonata © Harold Davis

Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, also known as Green Dragon Temple (Soryu-ji), is a Buddhist practice center in the Japanese Soto Zen tradition offering training in Zen meditation and ordinary work.

Green Gulch Farm Conference and Retreat Center is located in a beautiful coastal valley just a short drive north of the Golden Gate Bridge, in Marin County, CA. Surrounded by hundreds of acres of National Parkland and the spectacular heart of the Marin Headlands, its organic farm and gardens will provide a serene environment for our workshop. Muir Beach is just a 20-minute walk away, and the surrounding hills offer miles of trails up and down the coast and into nearby Muir Woods National Monument.

As a traditional Zen Buddhist practice center, Green Gulch also welcomes guests to take advantage of the peaceful feeling and natural rhythms of temple life to support their individual or group retreat. Workshop participants are welcome to join the Green Gulch community for morning and evening meditation, Sunday morning lectures, and in their daily work.

When you arrive at Green Gulch you will feel like you have entered an alternative, more tranquil universe. It is amazing that this Zen retreat is only a short drive away from downtown San Francisco! You can travel much further, but it is hard to find a more magical destination.


Morning in the Hills by Harold Davis

Morning in the Hills © Harold Davis


Harold writes in his bestselling book Creative Landscapes: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques:

Tao (sometimes transliterated “Dao”), is a philosophy with ancient roots that refers to the primordial essence of things, the natural order of existence, and the fundamental aspects of the universe. Traditionally, it is difficult to define Tao or to express it in words, but it is possible to know Tao, and to feel it—and, when the force is with one, to express Tao in art.

One kind of art that has traditionally concerned itself with Tao is Chinese landscape painting, which was often practiced as a spiritual exercise. Mountains and wild scenery were very important in these landscape paintings, and symbolized closeness to raw nature, as well as embodying a source of spiritual energy and life.

This mystical sense of being in-synch with nature is a vital part of what landscape photography means to me, and why this kind of photography is so important to me.

Road Less Travelled by Harold Davis

Road Less Travelled © Harold Davis

In the Tao of Photography workshop we will use the majestic and mystical landscape of the Marin Headlands and the Green Gulch gardens to explore becoming more in touch with the sources of intuition and inspiration in our photography. Besides landscape and flower photography, the workshop will emphasize HDR (High Dynamic Range) processing as a means to create subtle and mystical photos. We will include at least one night photography session in the wilderness of the Headlands.

This workshop runs from 5PM Friday August 3, 2012 through 10AM Monday August 6, 2012, and includes three nights of accommodations in the peaceful Lindisfarne guest house, a two-story Japanese-style retreat house that will be exclusively used by the workshop. Wholesome and tasty vegetarian meals each day are included in the price of the workshop. 

Workshop has a minimum of ten and a maximum of eighteen participants.

Workshop tuition includes three nights room and full board at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center). We’ve tried to keep tuition as low as possible considering that room and board are included. We expect this unique and unusual workshop to fill quickly, so don’t delay! REGISTER TODAY.

Posted in Photography, San Francisco Area, Workshops

Where does inspiration come from?

I’m often asked in workshops I lead where I get my inspiration and ideas for photography. I like to respond that “inspiration is not a tame lion.”

This is a reference to the lion Aslan in the famous Narnia series of books by C.S. Lewis. Aslan, we are told repeatedly, is not a tame lion: you never can tell when he’ll appear, and when he’ll disappear again.

My point is that it is possible to chase inspiration too hard. Sometimes the best photographic ideas happen when you are not trying to come up with an idea.

I spend a great deal of time around my kids, and they come up with all kinds of wonderful and creative ideas. They are not trying to come up with ideas, and they are not worrying about inspiration. They are playing. I like to play, too.

The other day I was looking at a beautiful Japanese maple tree near our house with leaves that had started to change in the autumn. I wasn’t thinking about photography at all—just meditating on the beauty of the tree, the leaves, and our world—a world that is magical and wonderful, sometimes fierce and cruel, and always ephemeral.

All of a sudden I wondered, “How would a branch of this tree look on a black background?”

As I said, I had not been thinking about photography, and this idea seemed to come from nowhere. But once it occurred to me, I had to create the image the idea suggested—and technique was just an implementation detail.

Japanese Maple Inversion

Japanese Maple Inversion © Harold Davis

My oldest son Julian once asked me whether—if I had to choose and could only have one—I would prefer to be somewhere, or to photograph it. My answer was that I would choose to “be there.” Of course, this is not a real-world choice since it is hard to photograph a location without also being there. But the point is that the visual appreciation comes before photographic realization.

I like to give myself assignments. An assignment can be along the lines of going out and photographing the first red thing I see, or going someplace special with photography in mind. But these self-assignments need to be taken in the spirit of a knight errant’s quest: the assignment is the quest, and then I take the adventure that is given to me, which might be very different than the idea I started out with. I need to stay open to the possibility of the unexpected adventure and an unforeseen path along the way.

When a path is right, it feels right. Does one choose the path, or does the path choose one? It is a bit of both—the path feels right when it is right—and your intuition will tell you when your choice of path is sound and the path has chosen you.

It is good to learn to listen to one’s intuition. From an artistic viewpoint, intuition trumps logic any time. Intuition can be a very small voice, but if you grant it space it will claim its own volume over time.

Choosing the Path by Harold Davis
Choosing the Path © Harold Davis

It is important to me to look at photos, and I do get ideas from looking at what other photographers have done. This can range from browsing Flickr to studying the work of “old masters” such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.

I think it is important for landscape and nature photographers not to limit themselves to the work of photographers. I enjoy studying the work of great painters who have worked in these genres, such as Monet, Cezanne, and the German expressionist Emil Nolde, who painted wonderful, delicate watercolors of flowers. My visual interests go well beyond these genres to include the great works of surrealist painters such as Escher and Magritte.

For more about the surrealist influence on my work, check out (among other stories) Impossible Images and Portal.

If you are looking for inspiration, you should seek out the artists that matter to you. Collect a reference library of imagery. Try and understand why you care about these particular images.

I teach my workshops to recognize the many self-imposed reasons we all find to not take photos and block our own creativity. It is important to recognize these blocks so that we can overcome them. A common example is when one is driving along and sees a photo, but one knows one has to be somewhere. I advise stopping anyhow.

For example, the other day I was visiting a Zen Buddhist monastery. I left because I had to be somewhere. On the way out the road I looked back and saw what I thought might be an interesting composition of a fork in the road. One road was well used, and the other less travelled.

Since I had an appointment I almost drove on. But I made myself pull over and park the car, and shot the image shown below that I call Road Less Travelled (follow the link for more of the backstory behind this image). It would have been easy to drive on without stopping, but I find that taking the time to stop and to really look around me is what leads to my best images.

Road Less Travelled by Harold Davis

Road Less Travelled © Harold Davis

Photographers should remember that the world has three dimensions and can be seen in 360 degrees. In other words, don’t just look straight ahead. Look up, down, from side-to-side and behind you as well as in front.

Sometimes I like to play with an image and add an element, or take one way, even after I thought I was done. Does it look better in color, or in black & white? This line of thought explains how the color version of Road Less Travelled became the monochromatic Choosing the Path. Both versions are pleasing, and each has something the other does not. Not being complacent let me be open to the possibility of continuing work after I had thought I was done.

Whether in photography or post-production, keep experimenting! It’s important to make mistakes, and then move on. Any photographer who doesn’t make mistakes hasn’t tried hard enough. You should be reaching for the stars—and forgiving yourself and accepting of those times that you miss your celestial goal. Move on, and use what you have learned as “scouting” information for future creative voyages of discovery.

Posted in Writing

Road Less Travelled

Phyllis and I were lucky earlier this week to spend a few hours at Green Gulch Farm.  Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, also known as Green Dragon Temple (Soryu-ji), is a Buddhist practice center in the Japanese Soto Zen tradition offering training in Zen meditation and ordinary work, and is part of the larger San Francisco Zen Center that also includes the Tassajara retreat.

From the cluster of buildings at the center of the Green Gulch community we walked down to the ocean through extensive gardens. The atmosphere was dense with the fog that often pervades coastal northern California. We made a loop and returned, noting well-maintained and handcrafted details throughout our excursion.

Road Less Travelled

Road Less Travelled © Harold Davis

The Green Gulch valley borders the heart of the gorgeous scenery of the Marin Headlands. It’s amazing to feel like one has vanished into another world and a distant era when one is in actuality so close to the major metropolis of San Francisco.

On our way back out to the “real world” I snapped this image of diverging roads in the wood. Which path would you take? I know I always seem to follow the road that is less travelled.

View this image larger.

Posted in Landscape, Photography, San Francisco Area