Crozet Calendar Clinic: Paul Nelson

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Paul Nelson’s photograph is featured in the 2022 Crozet calendar contest.

Each month a prize-winning photograph from the archives of the Crozet Calendar will be published together with a story from the photographer of how the image was made and commentary by Sam Abell about the merits of the photograph.

When is pursuing a photograph like a treasure hunt?

When the photographer is the attentive, determined and accomplished Paul Nelson, creator of this month’s featured image which was made in…location unnamed.

As Paul explained, “I had been watching this scene for several years. I had seen a similar image years before that I absolutely loved. I tried to figure out where the image was taken, and through a lot of searching I figured it out. I made many trips to this location before the conditions were as seen in the image.

At the newspaper I once worked for this was called “enterprise.” On their own, without an assignment, the photographer senses potential for a photograph and sets about investigating how to make it. Research is involved, including scouting trips. Trial and error enter the equation along with patient vigilance. Then the moment arrives and the second phase of thoughtful action begins.

“This morning it was fogged in where I live,” Nelson said, “but when I climbed up the mountain and got above the valley fog, I saw that the peaks were visible. I arrived before sunrise to make sure I was set up. Conditions change rapidly as the sun climbs higher into the sky. That tends to flatten the depth of the image and diminishes the golden color.

“There is always anticipation when you arrive in the dark and wait for the scene to be presented. You never know exactly what conditions will be there. I had to move several times to frame the image and create the best composition. Once I was set there were slight movements on the tripod and ball-head for fine adjustments. I get very excited when I see an image forming in the landscape and I do my best to capture what is in front of me in the camera.”

“Do my best” is Paul’s modest description of what happened next: “To capture as much detail as possible, I zoomed in and made five side-by-side vertical images. In post-production I utilized software to combine the five verticals into one seamless panorama. I get much more detail by zooming through the lens instead of using a wide-angle lens and using a digital crop to present the image I captured.

“I try to get as close to the final image as possible in camera, but there is some cropping in post processing. I always capture the image in camera using the RAW format and begin the processing in Lightroom. The RAW format captures the most detail that the camera can record but leaves the image slightly flat. Slight adjustments are needed later to bring the image to best represent how I remembered it.”

Paul’s photograph is a remarkable combination of old-fashioned sleuthing to find the obscure location, multiple trips to the site, determined in-the-dark field work plus sophisticated post production to bring five vertical exposures into one perfectly unified, highly detailed panorama.

Best of all? Paul’s work is invisible. The image seems inevitable.

I asked Paul what subjects commonly attract his attention. “Anything that catches my eye, where I recognize beauty, or an interesting/unique perspective. It could be lighting, angles, color, expression, contrast, or context.

“One of my favorite exercises is to ‘extract’ a smaller scene out of a larger context, such as a door or window frame from a building, or a portion of a tree rather than the entire tree. Whatever draws my eye leads me to further investigate the scene or subject. I try to refine or more deeply understand what interested me in the first place and find a way to present that part as the whole photograph.

“I’ve been interested in photography since high school, when I joined a camera club. We learned photo development, the various chemicals, and printing with the old black-and-white enlargers. I dabbled for many years until around 2001 when I made the decision to develop better photographic skills. I studied on my own, took classes from photographers I admired and worked to create images that moved people.

“It has always been my photographic goal to produce and display subjects that cause people to pause and think about the image in front of them. I consider my job done when their eyes move around the image, taking it all in.”

I didn’t ask Paul to reveal the specific location of his photograph. That information was too hard won. But when asked where he liked to photograph, Paul gave a possible clue: “I don’t focus so much on western Albemarle, but more in the Albemarle/Nelson sections of the Blue Ridge.” So, if I were looking for the treasure of this location, I’d start by considering that sublime landscape that sits “astride the counties.” 

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