Southwestern Jaunt | Pictures and Follow Up

Finally got around to selecting some photographs from my recent Southwestern jaunt, and getting them (mostly) geotagged. I’ll have more to say about that onerous process later. I have figured out what I hope will prove a workable technological solution.

I’m neither fan nor intentional practitioner of the classic “beautiful landscape” photograph, because they are so ubiquitous and over-done that it’s impossible to add anything to the genre — the domain of pictorialists and f/64 adherents like William Henry Jackson or Ansel Adams. But I do succumb occasionally, especially when overwhelmed by the otherworldly majesty of the American Southwest. Making a picture that I know will be little more than a documentary tourist-snapshot becomes a necessary evil, somehow — such as with this panorama of Inspiration Point, at Bryce Canyon National Park, in Utah:

Inspiration Point, Bryce Canyon NP, Utah

This was my first trip to Bryce; the place is beyond description, whether in words or photographs, so cliché is always looming at the periphery of one’s eye. Here’s Bryce Point in the Park, via the Superwide:

Bryce Point, Bryce Canyon NP, Utah

From the National Park Service educational placards available in the Park — here as elsewhere, excellent — I learned that those stone spires are called hoodoos. They were formed, of course, by countless millennia of water erosion of the soft stone. If you can visit such a place without contemplating your own unimportance in the Grand Scheme of Things, you have a well-developed ego indeed.

The Superwide would seem to be a camera made for this kind of landscape imagery. But its field of view is so wide that, again, you really want to be closer to the subject to use it to its full advantage. This photo was made in Marble Canyon, Arizona, near the Utah border:

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The problem with an ultra-wide-angle camera specifically, and with Big Landscape images, is one of scale. It’s hard to immediately understand just how big is the thing you’re looking at:

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I added a foreground element to help the eye figure things out, as with this image, made in North Rim, Arizona, which is not far from the Grand Canyon:

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Spectators also have their uses, as here at Inspiration Point in Bryce:

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That gentleman was one of a group of four exuberant foreign visitors to the park. They seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves, as were these guys at Farview Point — though Mom was having some trouble corralling the kids:

Farview Point, Bryce Canyon NP, Utah

Which brings me back to kitsch, in this shot of the Painted Desert Indian Center, in Holbrook, Arizona:

Painted Desert Indian Center, Holbrook, AZ

I wouldn’t have thought of dinosaurs and Native Americans as a natural souvenir-shop match, given that the latter didn’t arrive on this continent until around 15,000 years ago. But clearly I underestimated the commercial zeal of the proprietor. Connected by a 500-yard drive through this I-40 viaduct, from the other direction…

I-40 viaduct, Holbrook, AZ

…is this tourist establishment, evidently under the same management as Painted Desert:

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The Southwest seems full of such places — the desert equivalent of the Alligator Farms along the Gulf Coast of my youth, garish signs promising wonders within to behold.

The rest of what I shot seemed to have no purpose. I tried to yield to whatever caught my eye, without overthinking why. Inexplicability and incongruity — being mismatched to the surroundings or the situation — have always been a visual draw.

Convenience store, Bryce, UT

Tourists are also a rich vein to mine; each one seems to be in a world of his or her making, sometimes only peripherally related to the nominal purpose of the visit:

Navajo Bridge, Marble Canyon, AZ

Bryce Point, Bryce Canyon NP, Utah

Bryce Point, Bryce Canyon NP, Utah

Others defy categorization; they are simply interesting, or plain ol’ beautiful, which is often its own best excuse:

Convenience store, Fredonia, AZ

Colorado River, New Castle, CO

Green River, UT

I don’t recall ever returning from a photographic-purposed trip feeling satisfied with what I got on film or memory card. No exception this time. Dissatisfaction is much of what keeps me coming back to photography; the sense that, with just a bit more something on my part, what I saw in my head would make it to the photograph and tell the story I’d hoped it might when I pressed the shutter. The agony and the ecstasy….

Geotagging. Sigh. That tedious ritual of metadata-post-production was my biggest challenge this trip. But if one has the location of the shot, the rest of the story is there for the taking, prompted by latitudes and longitudes, and the time of day.

I have one camera — a medium-format digital — with an accessory module that GPS- and time-stamps each image as it’s shot. Of course, if the module has shut itself off to save its battery (it eats them like a Komodo Dragon devours rancid goat carcasses), then it has to be awakened with a slight shutter-press, so it can re-acquire the satellites and spit out a location fix. Meanwhile, one’s moment may have fled. Not ideal. And I didn’t bring that camera on this trip, because I wanted to travel lightly. None of my other cameras — film nor digital — has GPS capability.

My field-kludgy, and ultimately unworkable, approach was to take an iPhone snap of each scene where I also made either a digital or film image — when I could remember to do so. I also kept a “shoot log” of film images on my phone, containing notes I can refer back to. The idea is that, when I import the images into my cataloging / editing software (Adobe Lightroom), I can arrange them by capture time and thus have the geotagged iPhone shots appear next to the digital shots made simultaneously. For the film images, I can simply match them up visually. In either case, I then can copy the GPS coordinates from iPhone to digital or film image, and Lightroom takes care of the rest.

Sounds great, but harder to achieve in practice than you might imagine. First, the digital cameras and the iPhone have to be set to the same time zone, and to as close to the same time as possible, if you want them to pop up next to each other in chronological order. If you happen to cross into another time zone, the iPhone will reset itself while the cameras won’t, and now you’re out of sync. And then there’s Daylight Saving Time to contend with; they don’t do it in Arizona, which I traversed for this voyage. The ideal is to keep everything set to UTC (Zulu time or GMT), but that isn’t workable on your personal phone. I mean, I guess it probably is, if you commit, with all your interconnected tech, to operate only in UTC. I tried it once; it was a hell of a lot of trouble, and all of my files got jacked up.

But then I vaguely remembered that Lightroom can import a GPX “track log” file, which it can use to geotag photos based on their “capture” time. Using any GPS device that can save and output a GPX file, I can turn on the GPS and let it track my movements. Every few seconds, the unit records the time and the lat/lon coordinates into the GPX file. That file gets imported into Lightroom, which matches coordinates to images based on capture time, and tags the images accordingly. For film images, I will have to record the time each one is shot from the clock on the GPS unit, make that the film photo’s “capture” time in Lightroom, and then let LR treat those images just like the digitals. Voila.

This newly-discovered “need” gave me an excuse to purchase a handheld GPS unit. We’d been thinking about one of those for skiing, hiking, and traveling purposes — it’s handy to have a sat-nav capability that doesn’t require a cell phone connection, like the iPhone does. I went with the Garmin GPSMap 64sc, despite its smallish, low-res screen, because it operates using buttons — much easier to manage in ski gloves than the touch screens on newer models. It’s also water-resistant and somewhat rugged. And of course, this unit can record and export the aforementioned GPX track log file.

But the killer feature is its 8MP camera. At first this seemed like the worst kind of feature bloat; why would you need a camera in your GPS unit? Well, I can snap a geotagged photo every time I shoot a film photo, and match them up visually with the film images, doing away with the need either to record image times in my shoot log, or to modify image capture times in Lightroom so that the track log can tag them properly. Two fewer steps to worry about. So now I have all bases — film and digital — covered. And I got to purchase a cool new toy without producing a wifely glare of disapproval; what’s not to like?

I’ll report back after I’ve field-tested this methodology.

Michael Sebastian @mikeseb