Category Archives: Bemusements

Old and New: A Tale of Two Kirk BH-3 Ball Heads

My Kirk BH-3 tripod ball head has served me well on four continents on the trail, in the studio, in mountains, deserts, and along the rugged Pacific host, from the barrios of Havana to the souks of Morocco and the Boulevards of Paris. So one day recently, when my BH-3 reported to duty with a definite kink in the retaining plate bracket and knob, it was with sadness that I replaced him in favor of a brand spanking new model. Time goes by, and since change is incremental one doesn’t see the markings until there is a new one for comparison.

Old and New - Kirk BH-3 Ball Heads © Harold Davis

Old and New – Kirk BH-3 Ball Heads © Harold Davis

As I’ve noted, technique is not at the apex of the Maslowvian triangle of photographic needs (vision is), but technique is still my craft, and I am very fond of the tools that help me practice my craft, and want to give my old BH-3 ball head the most honorable send off possible, as it retires and becomes a paper weight and conversation piece rather than an ongoing part of my day-to-day photographic life.

Kirk BH-3 Ball Head - Facing Retirement © Harold Davis

Kirk BH-3 Ball Head – Facing Retirement © Harold Davis

Also posted in Equipment, Photography

This way is not the way

Not the way © Harold Davis

Not the way © Harold Davis

Also posted in Japan, Photography

Something Fishy

One of my favorite characters in fantasy literature, J.R.R. Tolkein’s Smeagol, would have appreciated the nice, plump and juicy slab of fish I brought back from the store. The fish meat rested on skin on the back, and the skin and scales glistened with a rainbow of pastel colors in the light. I knew I had to photograph the fish scales up close and personal.

Scales © Harold Davis

Scales © Harold Davis

I used my 85mm tilt-shift macro with a 36mm extension tube at an effective aperture of f/51 and an exposure sequence at ISO 100 from 1/8 of a second to 8 seconds. This is extreme close-up photography, with a magnification ratio of about 15:1, meaning you are viewing the fish scales fifteen times actual life size. Magnified this way, the fish scales look almost soft, and could be barnacles, or schools of fish themselves.

Fish Scales in Black & White © Harold Davis

Fish Scales in Black & White © Harold Davis

Smeagol a/k/a Gollum would probably not have approved of my light source: directed sunlight (Gollum preferred dark caves, and the sun hurt his eyes). He also might have thought that the way it was prepared (by smoking) “ruined” my nice, plump and juicy raw slab of salmon. But I, to use Gollum’s vocabulary, thought my nice piece of smoked fish was “tasty” indeed—when I ate it after photographing it!

Fly Day

What day is it today? For many of us it is “Fly Day”—no matter what the calendar says. And while flying, what better way to while away the time than to photograph the airplane wing with my iPhone, then play with the results (this iPhone image was processed using the Plastic Bullet, Lo Mob, Filterstorm and Snapseed apps).

Fly Day © Harold Davis

Fly Day © Harold Davis

Also posted in iPhone

Van Gogh’s Church at Auvers

Auvers-sur-Oise is hallowed ground for fans of Vincent van Gogh (and who isn’t a fan?). Here he painted many of his greatest paintings, lived the last 93 days of his life, and is buried. Today a suburb to the north of Paris, in van Gogh’s day Auvers was a pretty country village, home to Dr. Paul Gachet. Dr. Gachet was part of the same circle of avant-garde  impressionist artists as van Gogh; he boarded and “treated” van Gogh for mental illness, although van Gogh felt that Gachet actually was in worse shape than he was.

Church at Auvers © Harold Davis

Church at Auvers © Harold Davis

Before his very untimely death by gunshot to the chest under ambiguous circumstances—often, but not definitively narrated as suicide—van Gogh painted many scenes around Auvers, including Dr. Gachet’s house, the famous Wheat Field with Crows, and of course the Church at Auvers.

The modern pilgrim to the hallowed ground trod by the great van Gogh finds many of the Auvers landscapes unchanged. While not quite as overrun as Giverny, there are plenty of visitors,  and signs for tourists have been strategically placed more-or-less where van Gogh painted, showing his great painting of the location on each sign.

With the image of the Church at Auvers shown above I decided to include the tourist sign in my image. I left the right side of the photo including the sign without manipulation, and worked the left side in post-production so that one could perhaps be stepping into the reality of a van Gogh painting—or maybe a kind of dream. Because, as Vincent van Gogh put it, “I dream of painting and then I paint my dream.”

Vincent van Gogh's Grave in Auvers-sur-Oise © Harold Davis

Vincent van Gogh’s Grave © Harold Davis

Related stories: Sweet Treat; The Role of the Artist; Go Van Gogh; Starry Night.

Also posted in France


This statue was resident in the lobby at the Hotel Lutetia in Paris when we held the 2013 Photograph Paris with Harold Davis workshop. It amused me to snap an iPhone photo, more or less from the viewpoint of the front desk.

Derrière by Harold Davis

Derrière © Harold Davis

Also posted in iPhone, Paris

The infinitesimal and the infinite

I think perhaps that The Incredible Shrinking Man, a 1957 film about a man who shrinks to nothing following an encounter with a radioactive cloud, had an indelible impact on a portion of my visual aesthetic. I know that The Incredible Shrinking Man was one of the first movies I ever saw (what were my parents thinking?). No doubt due to my tender years, I took the pseudo-profundities uttered by Grant Williams, the actor who plays the shrinking man as, well, profundities.

Death Valley Badlands by Harold Davis

Death Valley Badlands © Harold Davis

It’s hard to resist lines like this one: “So close — the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly, I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet — like the closing of a gigantic circle.”

To this day, I enjoy playing with scale in my imagery. It’s one of my goals to create iconography that compels at least a second glance, and using indeterminate scale is one way to get there.

Sand Dollar by Harold Davis

Sand Dollar © Harold Davis

For example, the Sand Dollar shown above is captured at near microscopic level. But the vista of badlands in Death Valley (far above) could easily be an enlargement of the pattern in the shell. You see, it’s all a circle, with the large and vast ultimately smaller than the small and tiny—or vice versa.

For the record, the other movie I remember well from my early years was Some Like It Hot. My brother and I were supposed to be asleep in the back of the family station wagon at the drive-in movie theater. Now what artistic influence did Some Like It Hot have?

Also posted in Monochrome

Smoking Gun

There’s one somewhat discordant element in this tableau of a metallurgic assayer’s desk, shot at Laws Railroad Museum near Bishop, California. What is the gun doing in the image?

According to the docent I spoke with, most assayers tended to deal in gold and other precious metals as well as to assay it. The natural tendency for miners hitting what passed for civilization out of their stakes in Death Valley or the Panamint Range was to want to get some ready money quickly—no doubt for some to spend on booze and women in wild boom towns like Bodie. These miners would often come to feel that they had been low-balled by assayers who had taken advantage of them; hence, a revolver to defend against disgruntled small mining stake-holders was standard equipment for most metallurgists.

Assay by Harold Davis

Assay © Harold Davis

Exposure data: 52mm, ten exposures at shutter speeds between 1/80 of a second and five seconds, each exposure at f/13 and ISO 200, tripod mounted; exposures combined using Nik HDR Efex Pro and Photoshop, and converted to monochromatic using Photoshop, Nik Silver Efex and Topaz Adjust.

Also posted in HDR, Monochrome, Photography

Tennessee Beach Landslide

For many years one of the pleasures of the two-mile hike down to Tennessee Beach in the Marin Headlands has been to view the wonderful hole in the cliff on the north side of the beach. This dramatic formation as it appeared in 2007 can be seen in the photo below, which is lit by moonlight. A star appears through the hole in the cliff in the photo.

Tennessee Beach in 2007 (original title "Power of the Moon") © Harold Davis

Tennessee Beach in 2007 (original title “Power of the Moon”) © Harold Davis

Sometime during the tumultuous storms of the last few weeks this cliff collapsed, presumably brought down by rain and wind. The impact on the appearance of the north end of Tennessee Beach is tremendous and visceral, as you can see in the 2013 view of the scene below that I shot yesterday.

Tennessee Beach in 2013 (facing north) © Harold Davis

Tennessee Beach in 2013 (facing north) © Harold Davis

Looking at the fault line exposed by the landslide, it seems likely that erosion will continue. Perhaps the cliff jutting out into the sea is doomed to become an island sea stack in the course of time. But I am no geologist.

The cliffs looking north from Tennessee Beach are still spectacular, although I miss the unique formation of the hole in the cliff.

This slide in a beloved landscape is a reminder that nothing lasts forever, and that the only constant is change. Confronted with clear evidence that even something as apparently immutable as the iron-bound cliffs of the Marin Headlands are not static we have to conclude that our lives will change as well—in ways that are hard to expect or predict, and out of our control.

Change can be disconcerting, particularly when it is precipitated by exogenous events—the human equivalents to landslide. The way to survive in style is to eschew denial, and accept that the unpredictable is by definition unpredictable.

Also posted in San Francisco Area, Writing


When you have four kids like I do, shopping for food occurs frequently. The one thing you want to do when you take the kids into the supermarket is to encapsulate them to prevent general madness, mayhem, and terrorizing of the civilian population.

Kids in a Shopping Cart by Harold Davis

Kids in a Shopping Cart © Harold Davis

What better way to encapsulate them than in a honey trap, like this shopping cart? Katie Rose and Mathew are shown in the “cab” and Nicky is riding on top.

It’s times like these that I am grateful for my iPhone camera because it is the camera I always have with me!

Also posted in iPhone, Katie Rose, Kids


The idea behind Within the Canvas (below) is to show the model emerging from a background. It is not clear where the model begins and where the model ends. Model and canvas seem to flow together. The fabric the model is wearing is part of the canvas. Or, is it?

Even as an issue of three-dimensional spacial relationships consider: Is the model is in front or in back of the canvas? Depending where you look in the image, both are possible—leading to potential paradox and visual impossibility. A potential solution is to assume there is a slit in the canvas, but this doesn’t really work (observe her hand).

Within the Canvas by Harold Davis

Within the Canvas © Harold Davis—Click to view larger

To make this image I shot the model on a white background. She was wrapped in sheer, white gauze. In post-production, I placed the model image as a layer on a canvas background, then added a series of textures on top of the Photoshop composite.

Related stories that show images with models and textures: Everything in Moderation; Like a Titian.

Also see: Impossible gallery; The eye believes what it thinks it sees; Models category; Models gallery (some models are NSFW).

Also posted in Models, Photography

Signifying the Whale

I fondly dubbed my shot of a wet cyclamen “Moby Dick” because the flower looked to me like a white whale. I never expected the New Bedford Whaling Museum—surely an authority on whales and what they look like—to take up the refrain!

Moby Dick by Harold Davis

Moby Dick © Harold Davis

Signifying the Whale is an exhibition opening at the New Bedford Whaling Museum on November 1. The exhibit consists of crowd-sourced images (via Flickr) of signified (as in, to be a sign or symbol of something), documented, or artistically rendered whales. The images in the exhibition do not depict actual whales.

I am pleased to have my image lead the way into this singular and amusing exhibition!

Signifying the Whale



Also posted in Photography

Like a Titian

With this image featuring the travelling model Kellie my idea was to recreate something of the feeling of a Titian painting, particularly in the folds of red velvet draped on the couch. Besides the studio model shot I used a desaturated image of the setting sun (and bird). To complete the image, I add several layers of virtual textures (I will be writing about digital textures in a future story) and a small margin of background.

Kellie by Harold Davis

Kellie © Harold Davis

I’ve printed Kellie on canvas to reinforce the visual reference to historical masterworks, and am experimenting with adding by hand an actual (rather than virtual) coat of varnish that I can work to recreate the craquelure of an old oil painting.

Also posted in Models

Ghosts of Grand Central

Wandering around New York with my camera after an absence of many years was in some ways a dissonant experience. I grew up in New York City, but the New York of today is not the New York I remember from the years of my youth and as a young adult.

Of course, one can’t go home again and the only thing constant is change. But somehow this visit to my old stomping grounds made me feel particularly spectral, as if the photographer Harold of thirty years ago was also present and sensing my contemporary presence. To the Harold of the past I would have seemed like a ghost, inhabiting a future world that would have been almost unimaginable.

Past and present merged as one, and I tried to express this very odd feeling in my image of Grand Central Station and its ghosts.

Ghosts of Grand Central by Harold Davis

Ghosts of Grand Central © Harold Davis—Click for larger image

How this image was made: When I walked through Grand Central Station I knew that I wanted to show this vast public space filled with people, many of whom would be partially blurred and therefore “ghosts.” Obviously, to achieve this effect I needed a long exposure.

The first hurdle was that when I took out my tripod a gentleman in camouflage khakis carrying an automatic weapon came over and told me I couldn’t use it. This was in keeping with much of my experience trying to photograph in New York—pulling out my tripod often led to its prohibition.

So I found a balcony railing on which I could rest my camera.

The next problem was that there was too much light for a long exposure. I solved this issue in two ways. First, I added a neutral density filter that cut the amount of light coming into my camera by a factor of 8. I then made a series of exposures at 4 seconds, f/22 and ISO 100.

The second way to extend the exposure was to rely on stacking. Stacking is a post-processing method for effectively extending the length of an exposure by aggregating shorter exposures. A common use is to extend the effective time of night exposures to create circular star trails as in Stars My Destination.

By extending the exposure time using a small aperture, a neutral density filter, and stacking I accomplished the intermittent blur I was looking for. People who stood still appeared solid and “real,” while those who were moving became spectral and blurred ghosts.

In this image I used the technique of stacking a little differently from stacking star trails, in which one wants the brightest pixel in a stack to be the one selected: In Ghosts of Grand Central I made two stacks, each consisting of six images, for an aggregate exposure length of 24 seconds. In one of the stacks I elected to choose the darkest pixel at each point. This is accomplished in the Photoshop Statistics action by setting the stack mode to Minimum.

The second stack used the Range stack mode, which is a statistical method that renders the spread between the darkest and lightest pixel at every point.

I combined the two stacks using a gradient, so the background of Grand Central Station (created with the Minimum stack) looked fundamentally as it does in “real life. But the foreground and floor of the space, created in the Range mode, was spectral and ghostly with some figures rendered normally and others as negative space.

Also posted in New York


If you go into any restaurant these days and look at the diners who are eating alone, most of them are likely to be playing with their smartphones. Some of these folks are checking email and some are surfing the web. Others, like me, are often using the camera in their phone to take and process photos. For example, creating semi-abstract images of packets of sugar while waiting for the first cuppa of the morning.

Sugar Packets by Harold Davis

Sugar Packets © Harold Davis

It’s well known that the iPhone camera is now the most used camera in the world. If not the world’s best digital camera, it is the camera that is always with one. But—like more professional digital cameras—if you treat it as just another camera that renders static and realistic images via a sensor (instead of film) you are missing most of the creative potential.

Digital photography is a completely new art form and a whole new ballgame. This is true if you make digital images with a DSLR, and also true if you create with an iPhone. New mediums require new thinking, new tools and new ways of seeing.

Case in point: While bored and waiting for breakfast in a restaurant on a recent trip, I created the image of sugar packets shown in this story using the Slow Shutter Cam iPhone app. Somewhat astoundingly, Show Shutter Cam lets you adjust effective shutter speed, blur, and exposure after the fact—you tweak these things following composition and image creation, and then save the image to the Camera Roll.

In other words, I was able to completely control the blur in the impressionistic image of sugar packets I had made by adjusting a slider after the photo had been made.

A new paradigm. Sweet.

Also posted in iPhone