Terra Galleria Photography

Undeveloped in California: Castle Mountains National Monument

If I was to sum up my impressions of Castle Mountains National Monument in one word, it would be “primitive”. See what I managed to discover and photograph in one day of exploring this beautiful desert area that manages to make the Mojave National Preserve appear civilized, without the benefit of any detailed information nor any facilities.

Castle Mountains National Monument is part of a trio of national monuments in the California desert proclaimed by President Obama in February 2016, and quite small compared to the two others. While Mojave Trails National Monument surrounds Mojave National Preserve on three sides, Castle Mountains is surrounded by Mojave National Preserve on three sides. Unlike most of the recently created national monuments, Castle Mountains is managed by the National Park Service. Areas managed by the National Park Service in general, and national parks in particular, tend to be more developed than those managed by other government agencies such as the BLM. Therefore, I was surprised by the barebones nature of the national park website for Castle Mountains: no detailed map, nor any information on the park or activities – an harbinger of the situation on the ground. The most useful map of Castle Mountains is actually the NPS map of Mojave National Preserve, and since there is no ranger station nor visitor center in Castle Mountains, if you want to ask for conditions, the best number to call would be the Mojave Hole-in-thewall Visitor Center (760 252-6104 or 760 928-2572) or maybe the main Mojave visitor center in Barstow a call (760-252-6100).

The website did mention that the main approach to the monument is from Walking Box Ranch Road (unpaved) off of Nevada State Rd 164 or Nipton Road, and recommended a high clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle. Driving out of Searchlight in the dark, I looked in vain for a sign pointing to the national monument. Google Maps suggested a route via Walking Box Ranch Road, so in spite of the NPS warnings not to rely on GPS for navigation, I assumed the electronic directions to be correct. After a about ten miles of well-graded dirt road, I was pleased to spot a sign with the familiar brown color that said “Entering Castle Mountains National Monument”.

I was planning to stop at the first parking lot or trailhead ahead and sleep in the car – there are no campgrounds nor bathrooms in the monument. However, none appeared, and after driving for a while, I realized I’d gone too far from the Castle Peaks that I had initially planned to photograph at sunrise since they are east-facing. Despite the apparent isolation, I didn’t want just to park on the side of the road, since it had become quite narrow with not even a proper shoulder. It took me a while to locate a side road where I could pull out. This turned out a good idea because late at night, eighteen-wheeler trucks would barge by. When Castle Mountains National Monument was designated, its boundaries were drawn around a gold mine which is still active, and the industrial vehicles would be the only traffic I would see during my stay. I guess they are the reason the main road in such a good shape, and passable by most vehicles. Instead of driving back towards the Castle Peaks in the dark, I photographed the first light reaching mountains located in the Mojave National Preserve.

Besides the mountains, I found in the monument grasslands said to be particularly diverse, one of densest collection of Joshua Trees of the Mojave, superior to that found in Joshua Tree National Park, and generally a great array of desert vegetation ranging from all sort of cacti to juniper and pinyon pines.

Forming sharp pinnacles carved by erosion out of volcanic rocks, the Castle Peaks, which can be seen from as far as I-15 near the CA-NV state line, are the most striking mountains around. However, they are located in the Mojave National Preserve, not in the monument, and are often confused with the Castle Mountains. From the road, the Castle Peaks face east and make for a great sunrise shot, while the Castle Mountains face west.

The namesake Castle Mountains culminate at about 5,500 feet. I soon zeroed on their most distinctive summit, Hart Peak. Besides at the entrance, I didn’t find any trail, trailhead, pull-out, or a single sign in the entire monument, but I spotted quite a few side roads leading towards the direction of the peak. I tried driving one, but it quickly became very rough. Not confident that my Subaru Forester had enough clearance, I parked near the main road and continued by foot. Overgrown jeep roads and a bit of cross country hiking lead in 1.5 miles (one-way) with 500 feet elevation gain to a saddle south of Hart Peak, where I found my favorite views of the monument, with interesting topography in all directions, and cross-light on the mountains in the early morning and late afternoon. From the saddle, I hiked the mountains opposite to Hart Peak for high vantage points. Since it was still early, I returned to the car, drove the main road to the southern boundary of the monument, and then hiked back to a spot below the saddle for sunset. Besides a few trucks on the main road, I didn’t see anybody for the entire day. Since the desert is full of thorny plants, After staying until the last light, I was grateful to mostly follow washes and old roads on my way down in the dark.

See more images from Castle Mountains National Monument

Part 2 of 5.

Mojave Trails National Monument Highlights

Protecting a huge 1.6 million acres, Mojave Trails National Monument is the largest of the three California desert national monuments established by President Barack Obama in February 2016. In the heart of the California desert, Mojave Trails National Monument forms a connective tissue linking Joshua Tree National Park in the south to Mojave National Preserve, that it surrounds and with which it shares many geological features: remnants of a volcanic past, isolated sand dunes, and rugged mountain ranges.

(click on map for larger version)

Amboy Crater

Amboy Crater is a cinder cone extinct volcano whose black color sharply contrasts with the earth tones of the surrounding desert. It is perhaps the most easily accessed and developed area in Mojave Trails National Monument. Amboy crater was a popular sight for travelers in the heydays of route 66 from the 1920s to the 1960s. On my recent visit, I encountered hikers both at sunrise and sunset. From the trailhead and the approach, Amboy Crater is front-lit in the morning.

A newly paved spur road on the south side of Highway 66, about 2 miles west of Amboy (population 4) leads to a nice picnic area which serves as a trailhead. The hike is about 3 miles RT. Although from a distance the area looks flat, the trail first crosses labyrinthine lava fields and sandy washes and required a bit of attention to follow. Returning in the dark after sunset, I was glad for the discrete, but frequent markers. Once you reach the cinder cone on its western side, it becomes rocky and steep as you walk on lava blocks to climb 250 feet to the crater rim. A 0.3 mile-mile trail circles the crater top, offering a great perspective of itself and of the desert extending to distant mountain ranges beyond. I waited for the soft and even light of dusk to photograph the textures within the crater, while delicate colors lingered in the sky, although there was hardly enough light to see.

Cadiz Dunes

By contrast, the Cadiz Dunes are one of the most remote highlights of Mojave Trails National Monument. If it wasn’t for a rendezvous with photographer Greg Russel, who wrote an excellent post about threats to the area’s water, I wouldn’t have seen a single other person since leaving the pavement in the afternoon. The dunes are surrounded by mountains, and light is good both at sunrise and sunset. I preferred to photograph slightly backlit to emphasize the play of light and shadows.

The dunes are located in the Cadiz Dunes Wilderness and were not heavily used by off-road vehicles prior to their protection by the California Desert Protection Act of 1994, so they are still pristine. Besides having them to ourselves, we did not see any human footprints, although animal tracks were plenty. Getting there requires driving the Cadiz Road, which is unpaved but passable by most vehicles. From Highway 66 in the north, the road is slightly rougher than from Highway 62 in the south, with a few washed-out sections, but that is more than made up for by the fact that the unpaved drive is only about twice as short. From Cadiz Road, a 2.5-mile access road situated on the northwest edge of the dunes leads to a small parking area right next to the dunes. The last mile of that access road is sandy, fortunately the sand was firm enough that my AWD Subaru Forester had no trouble. I made sure not to slow down until I reached the parking area – which is hard enough that it was safe to stop on.

Afton Canyon

Although water is present under the desert ground, there is only one place where the 140-mile long Mojave River continuously flows above the ground rather than under the sands. Besides the rich desert riparian habitat of willows, Afton Canyon has also steep rock walls that earned it the nickname of “Grand Canyon of the Mojave”.

While staying at the campground reached via a few miles of well-graded unpaved road from I-40, trains ran fairly close all night, but fortunately they slowed down through the canyon enough that closed car windows muffled much of the noise. I was hoping to travel the whole length of the canyon by car, but right after the campground, the Mojave River flows onto the road, requiring a long crossing. After measuring a depth of at least 18 inches, I decided not to risk it this time.

Route 66

Historic Route 66 is a quintessential American icon of a bygone period, and Mojave Trails National Monument includes 105 miles of it, from Needles to Ludlow. This represents the longest remaining undeveloped stretch of Route 66. During my visit, a long section of it was closed for bridge repairs, and the total absence of traffic made it possible for me to set up long exposure night shots.

Mojave Trails National Monument is so recent that facilities are still minimal, and in particular you won’t find a visitor center. Nevertheless, I am hoping those highlights can get you started. In such a huge desert area, you are sure to make plenty of discoveries out of the beaten path!

See more images from Mojave Trails National Monument

Part 1 of 5

Treasured Lands Featured at Foto Modesto

I am honored that a part of Treasured Lands is the featured guest exhibit at Foto Modesto 2018, a month-long festival in Modesto CA celebrating the photographic arts, taking place in February 2018. Here is a write-up from the Modesto Bee. My thanks go to David Shroeder for the invitation.

The exhibit takes place at the Mistlin Gallery:
Regular Gallery Hours:
Tuesday – Friday, 11:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Saturday, 12:00 noon – 4:00 p.m.
Address: 1015 J Street, between 10th and 11th in Downtown Modesto
Phone: 209-529-3369

You can park in the city garage on the corner of 11th and K Streets, and the gallery will validate your parking.

I will also give a presentation Sunday, February 11 at Prospect Theater Project, 1214 K Street from 2:00 to 4:00 pm. Donation of $10 to support Foto Modesto requested.

There will be three more public opportunities to watch the presentation in the South SF Bay Area this winter, as listed on my speaking page:

SARATOGA LIBRARY
February 12, 2018, 7 PM
13650 Saratoga Ave
Saratoga, CA

LOS GATOS – SARATOGA CAMERA CLUB
February 26, 2018, 7:30 PM
Temple Shir Hadash
20 Cherry Blossom Ln
Los Gatos, CA

MORGAN HILL PHOTOGRAPHY CLUB
March 7, 2018, 7:45 PM
Centennial Recreation Senior Center
171 West Edmundson Avenue
Morgan Hill, CA

Book review: A Photographer’s Life by Jack Dykinga

A quarter-century ago, when I started large format nature photography, Jack Dykinga’s work was a main source of inspiration. His wilderness advocacy books on the American Southwest, and in particular the Sonoran, Mojave, and Escalante Canyons, used fine art photography as a means to document the land in a way both accurate and stirring. I was intrigued by a tidbit in the short bio included in his books: he had won a Pulitzer Price. You don’t win Pulitzer Price for doing nature photography. What work had he also been doing, and how did he transition to nature photography?

Dykinga’s latest book, A Photographer’s Life: A Journey from Pulitzer Prize-Winning Photojournalist to Celebrated Nature Photographer (Rocky Nook, 2017), finally answers those questions. The book functions primarily as an autobiographical narrative that is started, sustained and structured by this most beautiful of qualities, gratitude. In 2014, Dykinga is lying in a hospital dying but still wants to see his great-children grow. A lung transplant saves his life and deepens his appreciation for the gift of life. As he reminisces on that full and meaningful life, he remembers all the people who have inspired and given him so much, and most chapters of the book highlight one such person: “It takes a village to make a photographer”. Back then, the world of photography was smaller and more close-knit, allowing Dykinga to develop friendships with several of the prominent landscape photographers and environmental writers.

Along the way, we witness not only professional triumphs, but also setbacks, as we are given a behind the scenes view of the world of editorial photography. Dykinga doesn’t shy from candidly revealing some of its less savory aspects: the politics of journalism and the necessity to please advertisers – which eventually drove him away from photojournalism, how standing up for a friend gets him blacklisted from hard-earned plum National Geographic assignments. Dykinga has long been a role model for integrity, standing for what’s important, and this book is the latest testimony to it.

Having undergone a similar evolution, I relate to his transition from large format photography to digital, and most photographers will take comfort with that too. However, the story that surprised me is how in 1975, as part of an assignment to photograph an ordinary man attempting to summit Mount Rainier, Dykinga undertook the climb with only summary preparation. As a result, a storm made it an harrowing experience, but one that nevertheless struck a chord with him, just like my experience of the wilderness of mountains had changed my life and would eventually lead me to nature photography. Dykinga’s path was quicker because that same year, Dykinga had become aware of the pioneering conservation photographer Philip Hyde’s work. He realized that he wanted “to be like Philip Hyde”. Realistic about how hard it is to eke out a living in nature photography, he acknowledges the generosity of a nature lover in making it possible for him to start a new career in that field.

The book also works as a retrospective portfolio. The clean design and reproduction quality do justice to Dykinga’s work. We get to at least see the photojournalistic work for which Dykinga won the Pulitzer, documenting the poor conditions of a state mental institution. The nature selection range from classic large-format images to his newest digital work, and despite owning six of his books I discovered many new images, in particular from Mexico. It includes his most iconic photographs such as the reflected petrified sand dunes in Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness that adorn the cover of Stone Canyons of the Colorado Plateau, or the Saguaro with an arm curving downwards to reveal a bloom.

For the later image, Dykinga writes about how much time and effort went into creating it, first selecting the particular cactus after a week of scouting, then visiting it for another week until the blooms appeared at the desired places. This leads us to the third aspect of the book, which are the comments on photography. Although this is not the primary focus of the book, I have found those comments as insightful as those in the more directly educational Capture the Magic: Train Your Eye, Improve Your Photographic Composition. Besides detailed explanation about how some specific pictures were made, the book is laced with advice for photographers at a “big picture” level: the thinking and decisions Dykinga made, the evaluation of what makes a great composition. I chucked when Dykinga admitted that on occasion he got so excited about a location that he photographed too quickly, then had to return for better compositions, an all too common occurence for me too.

Jack Dykinga is one of the great nature landscape photographers of our times and has produced a book which is at the same time informative, inspirational and moving. Functioning as a memoir, a beautiful retrospective of his work, and a collection of musings on photography, A Photographer’s Life: A Journey from Pulitzer Prize-Winning Photojournalist to Celebrated Nature Photographer offers an engaging combination of gratitude, personal stories, insights, and of course excellent photographs.

Three Unnamed Iconic Rocks, Jumbo Rocks, Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park is well-known for the namesake Joshua trees and rounded boulders. The Jumbo Rocks area, home to the largest campground in the park (124 campsites), contains some of Joshua Tree National Park’s most whimsical rock formations. The most interesting are unnamed, and their locations passed from photographer to photographer. You’ve seen the pictures before, and this post tells you how to find three of the those most popular rocks.

The rock formation most well known to the general public is Skull Rock, located east of the Jumbo Rocks campground along the main park road, on its south side. To see it, you can just drive and park on a turnout along the road about 1,000 meters north-east of the campground entrance near a pedestrian crossing, or you can follow the 1.7-mile Skull Rock Nature Trail beginning inside the campground. Skull Rock is well-known because it is named and signed, but there are plenty of other unnamed and unmarked rock formations more interesting to photograph.

The Skull Rock Nature Trail starts across from the amphitheater, located near campsite 93. At the start of this trail, you will find an unnamed boulder pile with spherical marble-like rocks balancing on triangular crisscrossing blocks. First photographed by Ansel Adams in the 1930s, it makes for a far more interesting subject than Skull Rock, with many compositions possible. That wall of rocks faces west and catches the last light of sunset. Below the formation, there is a striking wedged spherical boulder. Repeating the marble shape, it forms an excellent foreground, but the location is tight for multiple photographers.

Standing on the turnout for Skull Road, if you look towards the West, on the other side of the road, you might be able to spot two large twins rounded boulders about 250 meters away. These were the subject of Michael Fatali’s “Sunkissed” and “Fruit of Temptation” and were also photographed by Jack Dykinga in 1989. The relative appearance of those boulders varies with angle, they can be framed with various foregrounds, and the east side presents a Sphynx-like figure, so there are a lot of possibilities. The front of the formation catches the first light of sunrise.

Within the campground, you can also find another photographer’s favorite, the weathered bonsai-like juniper tree framing a pointy balanced monolith, which is close to campsite 19 on Loop C. The light there is best from late afternoon to sunset. Reserving this campsite would be ideal for night photography. I timed my photograph for the moment when the last light from the moon lit the rock. Although the colors are not visible to the human eye, a moonset creates the same warm tones as a sunset, with the bonus of stars sprinkled in the sky.

Besides those three icons, there are many discoveries to be made by wandering around the boulders and following the light.

Best Photobooks 2017: the Meta-List

How do you separate wheat from chaff within the several thousand photobooks published last year? Photographers, critics, curators, and journalists have been writing year-end lists of best (favorite, interesting, notable…) photobooks. However, each list is subjective and limited by the number of photobooks to which the writer had access. The meta-list is a methodology to aggregate them together into a more consensual and inclusive list.

In my meta-list of best photobooks, titles are ranked by how many lists they have appeared in, each listing counting as one “vote”, and only titles that have appeared at least in two lists are considered. The 2017 meta-list (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016) is derived from 41 sources, totaling 92 individual lists. Unlike in previous years, I couldn’t rely on an existing compilation of lists, so I made my own, using Google searches and browsing of sites that posted lists on previous years. The list compilation is posted below the meta-list and each entry makes for good reading. Also, new this year, I’ve added a link to a video flip-through for the top titles, as well as links to Amazon, or in the case of self-published books, to the author’s page – a good way to support them and get a signed copy.

(15 votes)
Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation MATHIEU ASSELIN Verlag Kettler video amazon

(14 votes)
Deep Springs SAM CONTIS Mack video amazon

(13 votes)
Welcome to Camp America, Inside Guantanamo Bay DEBI CORNWALL Radius Books video amazon

(12 votes)
Reading Raymond Carver MARY FREY Peperoni Books video amazon

(10 votes)
Island of the Colorblind SANNE DE WILDE Kehrer Verlag video amazon
Ville de Calais HENK WILDSCHUT Self-published video author

(9 votes)
Buzzing at the Sill PETER VAN AGTMAEL Kehrer Verlag video amazon
Selected Works, 1973-1981 STEPHEN SHORE Aperture video amazon
The Last Testament JONAS BENDIKSEN Aperture video amazon

(8 votes)
The First March of Gentlemen RAFAL MILACH Muzeum Dzieci Wrzesinskich (1st), GOST (2nd) video amazon

(7 votes)
Museum Bhavan DAYANITA SINGH Steidl video amazon
Prince Street Girls SUSAN MEISELAS TBW Books Series video amazon
Slant Rhymes ALEX WEBB & REBECCA NORRIS WEBB La Fabrica video amazon
War Sand DONALD WEBER Self-published video author
White Night FENG LI Jiazazhi video amazon

(6 votes)
Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals MANDY BARKER Overlapse video amazon
Blind Spot TEJU COLE Penguin Random House video amazon
California JOHN CHIARA Aperture video amazon
Halo RINKO KAWAUCHI Aperture/Thames & Hudson video amazon
In Most Tides An Island NICHOLAS MUELLNER SPBH video amazon
Local Objects TIM CARPENTER The Ice Plant video amazon
Night Procession STEPHEN GILL Nobody/Self-published video author

(5 votes)
Boardwalk Minus Forty MIKE MANDEL TBW Books Series video amazon
Endangered TIM FLACH Abrams video amazon
Human Nature LUCAS FOGLIA Nazraeli video amazon
Nausea RON JUDE Mack video amazon
On Abortion LAIA ABRIL Dewi Lewis video amazon
On The Frontline SUSAN MEISELAS Aperture video amazon
Pictures from Home LARRY SULTAN Mack (reprint) video amazon
Ravens MASAHISA FUKASE Mack (reprint) video amazon
The Last Son JIM GOLDBERG Super Labo video amazon

(4 votes)
A Beautiful Ghetto DEVIN ALLEN Haymarket Books
Bleu ALIX MARIE Morel
Borne Back VICTORIA WILL Peanut Press
Dublin KRASS CLEMENT RRB Publishing video
Election Eve WILLIAM EGGLESTON Steidl (reprint)
General View THOMAS ALBDORF Skinnerboox video
Good Goddamn BRYAN SCHUTMAAT Trespasser video
Hidden Mother LAURA LARSON Saint Lucy Books
I Love You, I’m Leaving MATT EICH Ceiba Editions video
If You Have A Secret IRINA POPOVA Self-published (reprint) video
Man Next Door ROB HORNSTRA Self-published video
Manhattan Transit The Subway Photographs of Helen Levitt HELEN LEVITT Walter Konig
Obama: An Intimate Portrait PETE SOUZA Little, Brown and Co video.
Only the Lonely, 1955-1984 WILLIAM GEDNEY University of Texas Press video
People In Cars MIKE MANDEL Stanley/Barkervideo
Photobook Phenomenon MORITZ NEUMULLER (ed) RM CCCB/FUNDACION FOTO COLECTANIA video
The Ending LEIF SANDBERG Bœcker Books video
The Mechanism MÅRTEN LANGE Mack video
The Restoration Will MAYUMI SUZUKI Self-published video
The Transverse Path (or Nature’s Little Secret) MIKE SLACK The Ice Plant video

(3 votes)
30/Exposure KAZUMA OBARA Self-published
36 Views FYODOR TELKOV Ediciones Anomalas
An autobiography of miss Wish NINA BERMAN Kehrer Verlag
And from the Coaltips a Tree Will Rise LATOYA RUBY FRAZIER MAC’S Grand Hornu
Beyond Here Is Nothing LAURA EL TANTAWY Self-published
Centennial IRVING PENN Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University
Corbeau Anne Golaz MACK
Dandy Lion: The Black Dandy and Street Style SHANTRELLE P. LEWIS Aperture
Fancy Pictures MARK NEVILLE Steidl
Fink on Warhol: New York Photographs of the 1960s LARRY FINK Damiani
Firecrackers: Female Photographers Now FIONA ROGERS & MAX HOUGHTON Thames & Hudson
Head LEE FRIEDLANDER TBW Books Series
I Fought the Law OLIVIA LOCHER Chronicle Books
In that Land of Perfect Day BRANDON THIBODEAUX Red Hook Editions
Iowa NANCY REXROTH University of Texas Press
La Grieta (The Crack) CARLOS SPOTTORNO Astiberri Ediciones
Mean Streets: NYC 1970-1985 by Edward Grazda powerHouse Books
Merrie Albion: Landscape Studies From A Small Island SIMON ROBERTS Dewi Lewis Publishing
Mfon: Women Photographers of the African Diaspora LAYLAH AMATULLAH BARRAYN, ADAMA DELPHINE FAWUNDU, & CRYSTAL WHALEY Eye + Inc.
Money Must Be Made LORENZO VITTURI SPBH
Pittsburgh 1950 ELLIOTT ERWITT GOST
Portraits DUANE MICHALS Thames & Hudson
Red Flower: The Women of Okinawa MAO ISHIKAWA Session Press
Ren Hang REN HANG Taschen
Sleeping by the Mississippi ALEC SOTH Mack (reprint)
The Disappearance of Joseph Plummer AMANI WILLETT Overlapse Photobooks
The Family Imprint: A Daughter’s Portrait of Love and Loss NANCY BOROWICK Hatje Cantz
The Iceberg GIORGIO DI NOTO Edition Patrick Frey
They Shall Take Up Serpents BILL BURKE TBW Books Series
Think of Scotland MARTIN PARR Damiani
This Is Not My Book ERIK VAN DER WEIJDE Spector Books
Witness: Kashmir 1986-2016 SANJAY KAK (Ed,9 Photographers)
You Get Me? MAHTAB HUSSAIN Mack

(2 votes)
50 Years of Rolling Stone JANN S WENNER Rolling Stone
A Rock is a River MAYA ROCHAT
Alternative Moons NADINE SCHLIEPER & ROBERT PUFLEB
Arbus Friedlander Winogrand: New Documents, 1967 JOHN SZARKOWSKI Museum of Modern Art
Archiving Eden DORNITH DOHERTY Schilt Publications
As it may be BIEKE DEPOORTER Aperture
Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill JERRY DANTZIC Thames + Hudson
Bluewater Shore DOUGLAS STOCKDALE self-published
Bord de Mer GABRIELE BASILICO Contrasto
Bystander: A History of Street Photography JOEL MEYEROWITZ & COLIN WESTERBECK Laurence King Publishing
Christian Borchert – Schattentanz / Shadow dance HANSGERT LAMBERS & JENS BOVE (editors)
Clear of People MICHAL IWANOWSKI Brave Books
Continental Drift TAIYO ONORATO & NICO KREBS Edition Patrick Frey
Daily, In A Nimble Sea BARRY STONE Silas Finch
Days of Smelling Like Grass YOSHIO MIZOGUCHI
Diary of a Leap Year RABIH MROUE
East/West HARRY GRUYAERT Thames & Hudson
Ed Forbis LOLA PAPROCKA & PANI PAUL Palm* Studios
Eternal Friendship ANOUCK DURAND Siglio
Expired Paper ALISON ROSSITER Radius Books
Extra! WEEGEE Hirmer/University of Chicago
Feast for the Eyes SUSAN BRIGHT Aperture
Flow TYMON MARKOWSKI Self-published
Front Line Towards Enemy LOUIE PALU Yoffy Press
Generation Wealth LAUREN GREENFIELD Phaidon
Here For The Ride ANDRE D. WAGNER Creative Future
Hunter Grill ALEXANDRE CHRISTIAENS
I loved my wife (Killing children is good for the economy) DIETER DE LATHAUWER
Internat CAROLYN DRAKE
Kensington Blues JEFFREY STOCKBRIDGE Self-published
Magnum Manifesto CLEMENT CHEROUX & CLARA BOUVERESSE Thames & Hudson
Mother MATTHEW FINN Dewi Lewis
Natten MARGOT WALLARD
Nokturno ANDREJ LAMUT The Angry Bat
Order of Appearance JIM JOCOY TBW Books
Out of the Blue VIRGINIE REBETEZ Meta/Books
Passport ALEXANDER CHEKMENEV
Past Perfect Continuous IGOR POSNER
Pictures From the Next Day ROBERT LYONS Zatara Press
Pop BRIAN GRIFFIN
Preston Bus Station JAMIE HAWKESWORTH
Prison Photographs NICOLO DEGIORGIS
Real Nazis PIOTR UKLANSKI Edition Patrick Frey
Really Good Dog Photography LUCY DAVIES (Ed) Hoxton Mini Press & Penguin Books
Recent Histories: Contemporary African Photography and Video Art from the Walther Collection DANIELA BAUMANN, JOSHUA CHUANG, OLUREMI C. ONABANJO Steidl
Rex ZACKARY CANEPARI Contrasto Books
Roadside Lights EIJI OHASHI Zen Foto Gallery
Shot: 101 Survivors of Gun Violence in America KATHY SHORR
Siloquies and Soliloquies on Death, Life and Other Interludes EDGAR MARTINS The Moth House
Small Town Inertia JIM MORTRAM
State of Nature CLAUDIUS SCHULZE Hartmann
Tales Of Lipstick And Virtue ANNA EHRENSTEIN Editions Bessard
The Erratics DARREN HARVEY-REGAN RVB Books
The Flying Carpet CESARE FABBRI Mack
The Gravity of Place ISRAEL ARINO Ediciones Anomalas
The Japanese Photobook: 1912-1980 MANFRED HEITING Steidl
The Kids The Children of LGBTQ Parents in the USA GABRIELA HERMAN The New Press
The Pigeon Photographer NICOLO DEGIORGIS Rorhof
The Run-On of Time EUGENE RICHARDS Yale University Press
The Topography of Tears ROSE-LYNN FISHER Bellevue Literary Press
The World is not Beautiful; Photographs 1973-1981 JOHN MYERS
There’s A White Horse In My Garden ANNE SCHWALBE
Veterans: Faces of World War II SASHA MASLOV Princeton Architectural Press
Walden S.B. WALKER Kehrer Verlag
We Are Still Here DEVYN GALINDO DG-Print
You Wait ROMAN PYATKOVKA

Source lists

Antiquated Modern
A Photographic Mind
Mother Jones
NY Times Mag
CAPE
Liberation Fr
The Heavy Collective (3 lists)
Scotsman
Bintphotobooks
Internazionale It
Women Photograph
The Camera Store
Previiew
LensCulture Curators
LensCulture Personal Favorites
LensCulture (multiple votes counted)
The Photobook Blog
1000 Words Mag
NY Times
Humble Arts Foundation
Booktrib
Elizabeth Avedon Part 1
Elizabeth Avedon Part 2
Shooter Files
Calvert Journal
Vulture
Buzzfeed
Crave
Parade
Amateur Photographer UK
Elin Spring Photography
Atlas Obscura
Artsy
Times UK
The Guardian UK
Photobookstore UK (23 lists) + meta-list
PhotoEye (28 mini-lists)
Smithsonian
PDN
The 2017 PhotoBook Awards Shortlist

The following lists have some photobooks in them but have not been used either because they are too general (also feature non-photobook titles), or more rarely, too specialized:
CIIN
CL Tampa
Culture Type
Elle UK
Fashionista
AFR
Format
Independent UK
Inside Hook
Jackson Art
LA Times
Magnum Photos
Readings
Sleek Mag
Daily Beast
Guardian UK
The What
Vogue
WRAL
BJP
NYMag
Bouilla Blaise

Regardless of what one may think about the practice of listing best photobooks of the year, I think that the Meta-list provides a good snapshot of what the “photobook world” thought about the year past standouts, and more importantly is an invitation to discover work that wouldn’t have come to your attention otherwise.

By the way, the photo includes two personal favorites that could be considered “outliers” that I will review on this blog. Can you spot them?

Happy New Year 2018

Today the winter sun rises on the first page of a 365-page blank book.

Make it the best you can!

After a night in my car, I showed up for sunrise in Lassen Volcanic National Park…. brrr! Lassen Peak has the highest snow accumulation in California, and snow closed the park road, leaving only Manzanita Lake with easy access. I was hoping for clouds, but the sky remained crystal clear. The view towards Lassen Peak from Manzanita Lake was backlit. Frozen solid and covered by snow, the surface of the lake presented nothing but featureless white. What to do with that blank page? I walked onto the lake and in the penumbra of a tree trunk, and with a wide-angle lens, the shadows created shapes and lines that made the picture. In a large print, the bright sparkle of the snow is also quite lively.

I wish everyone a year 2018 full of happiness, health, creativity, and success. My sincere thanks for your continuing readership and interest in my photography.

2017 in Review, Favorites, and Seasons Greetings

In 2017, I limited again my travels, in part because of the demands of the book tour for Treasured Lands. Beyond the great critical reviews, awards, and official state recognition, I am most grateful to all of you who have helped make the book a success. This has me considering a follow-up based on solely unusual views and locations. Despite the relatively short field time, I am fortunate to have been able to capture some elusive photographs that are sure to make their way into this project. I’d appreciate it if you would let me know which ones are your favorites!

Yosemite’s Horsetail Fall Firefall at Least: Why I didn’t attempt to photograph Yosemite’s marvelous “natural firefall” prior to this year, and the story behind an image that I bet you haven’t seen before.

Pinnacles Moses Spring Waterfall at Least: For most of the year, Pinnacles National Park is quite a dry place. I revisited right after the high rains of this winter to observe the place transformed by the flow of the creeks and to photograph another elusive waterfall.

Carrizo Plain National Monument Super Bloom: Most of the times a barren-looking grassland, the little-known Carrizo Plain came to life thanks to the abundant rains of last winter, to become the site of a “super bloom”, with some of the best wildflower displays I had ever seen in California. Next year, I will be spending more time in the national monuments as part of much needed advocacy for those public lands under attack. Even the government actions were deeply disappointing, it was heartening to see so many people speaking out for our public lands, and I hope that you’ll continue to do so!

Back to Pine Creek Canyon, Zion National Park: One might think that the slot canyons do not vary much. But in fact, the interplay of light with the walls varies much faster than in more open scenery, and the repeat visit of a Zion classic brought much changes.

A Gift from Kabetogama, Voyageurs National Park: I woke up at 5:30am to catch an early flight from San Francisco to Saint-Paul Minneapolis, arriving in the mid-afternoon, followed by a five-hour drive, to reach the outskirts of Voyageurs National Park. I am glad that I nevertheless stayed up that night.

Accessing and Working Isle Royale’s Lookout Louise: Isle Royale is famous for its population of wolves and moose, but they had proven elusive. On my third trip to Isle Royale, because I needed to go down from Lookout Louise to retrieve gear, I was elated to be able to at least photograph a moose.

Return of the Mountaineer: How it felt to climb the Grand Teton this summer after a 20-year hiatus from mountaineering, and observe again the alpenglow for high up.

Solar Eclipse over the Tetons: Photographing (?) the Real Icon: For the total solar eclipse of August 21, 2017 in Grand Teton National Park I chose a backcountry location discovered by William Henry Jackson. My shooting plan to capture this iconic shot did not involve straight photography.

Drone Tour of the Big Island of Hawaii: this year, a new drone has re-energized my aerial photography. The Big Island of Hawaii was a great place to test its possibilities.

Lombard Street: Variations on a Difficult to Photograph San Francisco Landmark: For something a bit different and closer to home, Lombard Street in San Francisco has a one-block section with eight hairpin turns known as the “crookedest street in the world”. Although one of the most famous sights in the city, it is also one of the most difficult to photograph.

If you’ve made it so far, thanks again for looking and reading. Wishing you Happy Holidays, or Merry Christmas, and a great time with family and friends, full of peace, love and joy!

Drone Tour of the Big Island of Hawaii

While the drone enabled novel perspectives over Waikiki, it was even more rewarding to fly the aircraft over the Big Island of Hawaii.

The Big Island is less developed than its neighbors, and full of rugged lava fields and dense tropical forests, so fewer access roads and viewpoints are available on the ground, and an aircraft is not subject to those limitations. Besides the aerial perspective, what makes drone photography so compelling is the ability to change your viewpoint almost instantly. Not only you cannot do that on foot, but even a manned aircraft is much less agile, not to mention that communicating your exact intentions to the pilot isn’t always easy.

The Big Island is the largest in Hawaii, the population sparse, and there are only two major airports, resulting in relatively few restrictions outside of the national park. Since coastal areas are quite flat, the higher viewpoint is effective in revealing the way the forces of nature have dramatically shaped the land, and also help put the human presence in the context of the vast landscape. This was my fifth trip to the Big Island of Hawaii, but having the eye in the sky made it possible to see it anew. The images below represent a clockwise tour of the Big Island.

A view from the ocean shows Waipio Valley’s flat floor surrounded by 2000 ft cliffs.

The bowl in which Akaka Falls plunges looks strikingly steep and deep from the air.

A large lava field borders the tropical forest and a community near Cape Kumukahi.

Houses surround the naturally-heated Champagne Ponds.

A backyard with swimming pool fringed by palm trees contrasts with the lava landscape.

The higher viewpoint reveals the extent of the Kapoho tidepools along the coast.

Colorful living coral dot the Kapoho tidepools.

An off-the-grid settlement is lost in a sea of hardened lava near Kalapana.

Turquoise waters border the lush grounds of Hulihee Palace, Kailua-Kona.

This islets of Kiholo Bay are clearly seen from the air.

Sony FE 24-105mm f4 G OSS Lens: Detailed Comparative Review

Summary: The possibly first in-depth review of the new Sony FE 24-105mm f/4 G OSS lens comparing it for reference to the Sony FE 24-70mm f/4 and Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L lenses using precise and reliable measurements.

A much anticipated lens

When I started to photograph with the Sony A7R2 in the summer of 2015, the selection of Sony FE lenses was quite limited. You could count them on the fingers of both hands: Sony 28mm f2, Sony Zeiss 35mm f2.8, Sony Zeiss 35mm f1.4 ZA, Sony Zeiss 55mm f1.8 ZA, Sony Zeiss 16-35mm f4 ZA OSS, Sony 70-200mm f4 ISS, Sony 28-70mm f3.5-5.6 OSS, Sony Zeiss 24-240mm f3.5-6.3 OSS and Sony Zeiss 24-70mm f4 OSS. Sony has certainly made impressive progress in expending this lineup in the last two years. It now includes 28 lenses, 14 zooms lenses and 14 prime lenses.

Their latest offering, the Sony FE 24-105mm f4 G OSS Lens is the lens I have been waiting for literally since I started using the Sony Alpha system.

First, although back in 2015 the Sony Zeiss 24-70mm f4 was the better of the three trans-standard zooms on offer, it isn’t a great lens, especially for one bearing the Zeiss name. I found it a step back in optical performance compared to the equivalent Canon offerings. The blog of Pulitzer Prize-winning celebrity photographer Brian Smith is a must-follow if you want to keep up to date with the latest Sony FE developments. In his post Are Sony FE Fenses as Sharp as Canon & Nikon Glass? the sharp-eyed reader can notice that all sorts of lenses are compared using DxO Mark scores, but the category 24-70 f4 is missing.

Second, when I was shooting Canon, my go-to-lens was the 24-105 f4L. I had been using it for a decade, since it was introduced in 2005, and such an habit is hard to die. I am sure the Sony 24-70 f2.8 GM is outstanding, but having used a 24-70 f2.8 in the past, I much prefer the additional reach and lighter weight of a 24-105 f4. I almost never shoot wide-open, so I don’t care for the beautiful bokeh of a f/2.8 lens. In addition, I also prefer a 100-400 lens to a 70-200 lens, and the former pairs better with a 24-105. My photography is outdoors and often required me to carry gear all day for long distances in the wilderness, in particular for my recent Treasured Lands photography book about the 59 U.S. National Parks.

When Sony announced the FE 24-105mm f4, after Brian mentioned in a tweet that it was much improved over the FE 24-70mm f4, I promptly pre-ordered three copies to test, so this is likely the first in-depth review of this lens you’ll read. Why three copies? My past experience of testing lenses has taught me that sometimes sample-to-sample variation is quite significant, to the point that it compares with model-to-model differences.

Specifications compared with Sony 24-70mm f/4

Left to right: Canon EF 24-105 f/4, Sony 24-105 f/4, Sony 24-70 f/4

The size and weight of the Sony 24-70 f/4 made it a delight to carry. The Sony 24-105 f/4 is larger and 50% heavier, but offers 75% more focal range, so that’s a reasonable trade-off, especially considering improvements in magnification, aperture (more blades result in smoother bokeh), and controls. It is extremely similar in appearance to the first version of the Canon 24-105 f/4, with almost exactly the same size, weight (664g), finish, and controls – the current version II of the Canon is quite larger and heavier (795g), though.

24-105 f/4 24-70 f/4
Close focus 1.25′ (38 cm), 0.31x or 1:3.2 magnification 1.31′ (40 cm), 0.2x or 1:5 magnification
Diaphragm blades 9 7
Stabilization Switch on lens, controlled by lens No switch on lens, controlled by camera
AF Fast and silent. Switch on lens, controlled by both with priority to MF Fast and silent. No switch on lens, controlled by camera
Size 3.28 x 4.46″ (83.4 x 113.3 mm) 2.87 x 3.72″ (73 x 94.5 mm)
Filter size 77mm 67mm
Weight 1.46 lb (663 g) 15.03 oz (426 g)
Construction Plastic barrel, rubberized rings. Plastic barrel with metal finish, finely indented metal rings.
Price (11/2017) $1,300 @ amazon $1,100 @ amazon

Operation

Like with other Sony FE lenses, the focus ring functions like an electronic dial, not physically connected to the lens, and there is no focus markings. Focusing is internal and doesn’t extend the lens. The lens is not parfocal, which means that when you zoom, the focus changes, however that change is minimal. The lens extends when zooming in. The zoom ring is solid and doesn’t suffer from zoom creep even pointed straight up or down.

AF is quick and silent. The lens is equipped with optical stabilization, which works in conjunction with the IBIS system. A button on the left side of the barrel can be customized. Compared to the Sony 24-70 f/4, the 24-105 f/4 also gains two switches for stabilization and AF. Those switches behave quite differently on the A7R2.

  • Stabilization is controlled only by the switch on the lens. The body cannot turn it on or off. I find that unfortunate. Currently, I have my two custom modes on the dial set up for hand-holding and working on a tripod. The hand-holding setup turns stabilization on, while the tripod setup turns it off – using stabilization on a tripod reduces image sharpness in a small but measurable way. With the 24-105 f/4, in addition to turning the dial, I’ll have to remember to operate the switch on the lens.
  • AF is controlled by both the switch on the lens and the camera. However, AF is active only if both lens and camera are switched to AF. I find it all too easy to brush the switch on the camera by accident and put the camera in manual focus mode, so I would have preferred that the lens switch has priority over the camera.
I hope that Sony will allow a different behavior via a future firmware update.

Visual comparison

The main issue with the 24-70 f/4 is that corners and edges are rather soft, and stopping down does not improve them. Let’s see if the 24-105 f/4 is an improvement by looking at a section of my photography library. The detail is a 600×400 pixels crop of the upper right shelf, the one with the small books.

Below is a 100% detail view of pictures from the Sony 24-70 f/4 at respectively f/4, f/8, and f/16. Notice how the title of the book with the grey spine, the author of the André Kertész book, and the Chinese characters are unlegible at all apertures.

Below are pictures from the Sony 24-105 f/4 at respectively f/4, f/8, and f/16. Even wide-open is already better than the best from the Sony 24-70 f/4. Stopping down improves image quality further, and at f/16, diffraction degrades it.

Below are pictures from the Canon 24-105 f/4 (Metabones adapter) at respectively f/4, f/8, and f/16. Sharpness is better than the Sony 24-70, but not as good as the Sony 24-105, and there is more chromatic abberation than in any of the two Sony lenses.

MTF Measurements

Visual evaluations are all good if you don’t have better, but measurements are more precise and remove any subjectivity. I used a target and software from Imatest, the leader in image quality measurement. Based on photographs of the target, Imatest automatically computes measures of lens performance.

This resulted in a lot of data, here is how to read it:

  • The five sets of graphs are for the focal lengths 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 70mm, and 105mm.
  • In each set left quadrants (A,B) are two different copies of the Sony 24-105 f/4 lens. Top right (C) is the Canon 24-105 f/4 lens. Bottom right is the Sony 24-70 f/4 lens
  • Each quadrant represents lens performance for the five f-stops between f/4 and f/16.
  • Red is image center, green is part-way, blue are corners, and black is a weighted average of the three previous values.
  • The value plotted as bars in the graphs is MTF 50, a good indicator of sharpness.

A wealth of information can be found in the graphs above, but here are a few general observations. Some will be well-known to some readers, but are worth repeating for others.

  • Aperture. Lenses are sharpest at middle apertures (sharpness is limited by abberations at wide apertures and by diffraction at smaller apertures. In fact, by f16, all lenses perform almost the same, which is why I didn’t bother to make measurements at f22). If given the choice, use a middle aperture such as f8.
  • Corners vs. Center. Center sharpness is always better than corner sharpness. At wide apertures, sharpness is less uniform across the image, with corners lagging behind. Stopping down often improve corners more than the center, making sharpness more uniform.
Here are some specific observations:

We find that there is a small, but measurable sample-to-sample variation between the two different copies of the Sony 24-105 f/4 lens. The sample A is clearly better. For the sake of presentation simplicity, I have omitted graphs from the third sample, but they are in the same ballpark. Based on experience testing other lenses, Sony’s quality control is better than average, since I have seen larger sample-to-sample variation.

The first set of graphs at 24mm validate what we observed visually: that Sony 24-105 f/4 has the best corner performance and it keeps improving as the lens is stepped down, and Sony 24-70 f/4 has the weakest one, with no improvements brought by stopping down. The Canon is in between the two. The Sony 24-105 f/4 performs great at f/8 and 24mm, my most used combination!

Based on visual observations, I expected the Sony 24-105 f/4 to measure better than the Sony 24-70 f/4, but the magnitude of the difference at all focal lengths surprised me. To be totally fair, the Sony 24-104 f/4 is new out of the box, while my 24-70 f/4 has been knocked around quite a bit. I didn’t baby it while climbing mountains. It is possible that its alignment was off. This has happened before. One time, while testing new lenses, I included my Canon 24-104 f/4 for reference and noticed that its performance wasn’t as good as what I remembered measuring in the past. I sent the lens to Canon Professional Services for checking, and sure enough, they found that it needed re-alignment!

Distortion

Like many trans-standard zooms, the 24-105 f/4 is not particularly well corrected for distortion. It suffers from barrel distortion at its shorter focal length, and pincushion distortion at the longer focal lengths. This is readily observed on the images of the Imatest target, respectively at 24mm and 105mm. Those images were shot wide-open, and vignetting is visible.

In practice, this is easily and automatically corrected in Lightroom with lens profiles. You can also use Photoshop’s Lens Distortion filter with the opposite of the coefficients below. However, you have to make sure that the compositions was not too tight to the image edges to leave room for the lost pixels. In fact, with its barrel distortion at 24mm, the field of view is probably more like 22-23mm, and after correction should be very close to 24mm.

Here are the measurements from Imatest.

Sony 24-105 f/4 Sony 24-70 f/4 Canon 24-105 f/4
24mm -3.5% -3.5% -3%
35mm 1.5% 2.1% 1.1%
50mm 3.1% 4.1% 2%
70mm 3.5% 4.3% 2%
105mm 3.1% 2%

Example images

I took a quick mid-day walk at Alviso. The two last photographs were made from the same viewpoint to illustrate the difference in field of view between 105mm and 70mm.

24mm, f/8

45mm, f/8

24mm, f/8

85mm, f/16

65mm, f/8

35mm, f/8

105mm, f/11

70mm, f/11

Conclusion

The wait has been worth it. Sony finally gets it right for this supremely versatile lens. Optical performance is much improved compared to the Sony 24-70 f/4, in particular with respect to the main weakness of that lens, corner sharpness. It also compares well with the excellent Canon 24-105 f/4L. Like for this lens, a compromise has been made with vignetting and distortion, which is a minor issue if images are post-processed. Definitively recommended! This review required a lot of attention to detail. If you have found it useful, consider buying the lens from my affiliate link at Amazon. Thanks!