Crozet Calendar Clinic: Paul Nelson

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September Winner: Perseverance by Paul Nelson

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.

Ansel Adams is the most revered and recognizable name in photography today, despite the fact that his greatest work was done more than half a century ago. Why? Because he succeeded in popularizing “serious” photography.

His pristine black and white prints of epic American landscapes were admired and emulated by the most studious photographers and exhibited by the most esteemed museums.

Yet that same work, in the form of large posters, found its way onto the walls of countless thousands of dorm rooms, offices, institutions, and hospital waiting rooms around the world. Everyone knew his name and everyone knew what it stood for—serious photography.

Which brings us to Paul Nelson and his photograph “Perseverance,” which in every meaningful way comes from the Ansel Adams school of photography. Tenets of that school are state-of-the-art equipment, sustained searching for subject matter, diligent on-site work and sophisticated post-production.

In Paul’s words: “This tree fascinated me for some time. It demonstrates strength, perseverance, and prolonged determination. There is a beauty in its shape. You can see the struggle that has taken place here in the texture of its trunk and in the limbs. It was amazing how this tree took root on top of the cliff, holding on very tightly to the rocks. It reminded me of a natural version of what the bonsai artist is working to create.

“I had been to the site at Raven’s Roost, near the north end of the Blue Ridge Parkway, several times during the day. But I could not figure out how to get a strong image without a cluttered background distracting from the solitary tree. Then one day I thought about photographing the tree at night.

“I shot the scene around midnight from three sides—the fourth side being the cliff. As it was dark—with only the moon for lighting—I had to be very careful moving among the rocks trying not to trip or fall. I was also wary of not stepping on any snakes.

“I shot over 60 images before I left the scene. I tried high angles and low angles in each location. I also studied each image when it appeared on the back of the camera. I was looking for mistakes— bad lighting, camera shake, blurry subject, the importance of foreground interest, proper exposure, etc.— trying to learn from each exposure to improve the composition and mood of the image.

“I am of the school of thought that there should always be post-processing in photographic images. It is not so well known that Ansel Adams was highly respected for his ‘post-processing’ skills in the darkroom. And digital cameras only render an approximation of the true color characteristics of a scene.

“I used a Canon 5D Mk III with a 17-40mm F/4 lens and ended up with 15 seconds to 30 seconds for exposure time. That timing brought out the stars and gave the impression of more moonlight.

The most difficult part was the ‘light painting’. For this I used a large Streamlight flashlight. During exposures I ran light over the tree, highlighting the areas of interest.  The brightness of the light, how much time is spent on each part of the tree and whether or not the foreground rocks get illuminated all contribute to the final image. It was hard to get the right mix.

“As I experimented, I wasn’t happy with the color of the light, so after a while I put the shirttail of my faded light blue shirt over the lens of the flashlight to knock down the light intensity and add a slight bluish tint to the tree. It was like using a color filter on a flash.

“Finally, where I stood to illuminate the tree was not necessarily the same place I set up the camera, so the process was to trip the shutter, run to the best spot to illuminate the tree, go back to the camera and review the image, then repeat. I ended up with only a few images that truly worked.”

But work it does. In thorough pre-planning, persistent on-location effort, trial and error, innovative lighting and post-production Paul Nelson’s photograph truly “works.” Ansel Adams would be proud.

As a young photographer, I knew Adams’ work from his admirable, best-selling large format books—books like I wanted of my own work someday. Once at the former Williams Corner Book Store in downtown Charlottesville I asked the owner, Mike Williams, “How do I get a book of my own work?”

“You can’t. Monographs don’t sell.”

“Really? Look here, Ansel Adams has four of them.”

Mike paused, then said, “As a seller of books, my advice is to change your name to Ansel Abell.” 

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