A Photographic Box of Cracker Jack

Recently, a new acquaintance Arun Manohar asked if I’d like to join him on a photo outing to the Algodones Dunes Wilderness.  I visited these dunes for the first time a few weeks ago, and I’ve been anxious to return.  There is something spontaneous and exciting about shooting a new area, but familiarity plays an important role when photographing an interesting landscape.

On Friday afternoon, I made the decision to skip the trip.  The weather report called for clear skies, and though a skilled photographer should still be able to make some nice images, it would certainly make things more difficult.  Furthermore, a camping trip would have me back in San Diego with little time to prepare for our annual Superbowl party, which is really just an excuse to get together with friends and eat lots of good food.

So, on Saturday evening, I sat in front of my computer feeling unmotivated and guilty.  I should be out under the stars right now!  What if a freak storm moved in, and the conditions turned epic?  Oh well…

Sipping some hot tea, and lacking any real agenda, I began searching through some old folders on my hard drive.  The first thought that crossed my mind, as I inspected these files from ’06 and ’07, was my relative lack of technical skill back then.  I guess that should come as no surprise, but it was rather shocking to look through so many files that were grossly out of focus, shot at an inappropriate aperture or shutter speed, or worse.

Delete.  Delete.  Delete.

Then, just as I was starting to feel really disgusted with myself, I came across an image that forced me to take my finger off the delete key.  I leaned forward in my chair, with a quizzical look on my face, and opened Photoshop to take a closer look at the RAW file.

Do my eyes deceive me, or is that an image of Colorado’s famous Dallas Divide?

Dallas Divide, Colorado

Indeed, hidden amongst the hundreds of lackluster images from my 2008 trip to Colorado, here was a potential gem.  Dramatic light, rich Autumn color, and proper focus and exposure to boot!  I’m not exaggerating when I say that discovering this image felt a bit like reaching into a box of Cracker Jack and pulling out a brand new Singh-Ray grad ND filter.  Hey – I have to insert the photography humor wherever I can, so cut me some slack.

The image above is exactly the type of grand Colorado scenic that I had in mind when I planned that trip in 2008.  I returned with a few keepers, but I’ve always been disappointed since the grand scenics from Kebler Pass and the other hotspots fell short of my expectations.  I dare say that this is my favorite image from the trip, and it only took me three years to discover it.

After the Dallas Divide image, I felt a sudden rush of excitement.  What other images might be hiding on my hard drive?  Perhaps this weekend would be productive, after all.  Certainly not in the way that I expected, and undeniably lacking in the “commune with nature” aspect of a photo outing, but productive, nonetheless.


Soon, I found another Colorado image that appealed to me.  This type of photo isn’t terribly original or creative, which might be the reason I ignored it back then, but I am glad to have rediscovered it.  There’s something so peaceful and uplifting about these golden aspens, reaching towards the clear blue sky.  I am a more confident photographer now than I was three years ago, and I am happy to include this image in my portfolio.

Reviewing these old files taught me two important lessons.  First, that my eye for composition and my creative vision seem to be evolving as I grow as a photographer.  I hope that’s a good thing.  Though I’m able to trace a clear style back to my earliest images, I’m definitely learning to see and appreciate the beauty in more simple,  elemental compositions.  Looking through my old files is, in a way, like examining a familiar photo album with a new pair of glasses.

Kelso Dunes

The second lesson I learned, is that I’m simply much better at editing and post work.  Every image I shoot starts as a RAW file, or multiple RAW files, as in the case of the image below.  Editing in Photoshop is a very important part of my workflow, and learning to use these digital tools takes time and practice.  Over the last few years, I’ve learned a great deal from expert photographers such as Tony Kuyper, among others.  The image below is a hand blend from two separate RAW files; one exposed for the forest and the other for the bright peaks and sky.  I remember trying to edit this image after I returned from my ’06 trip to Banff, but I didn’t have the tools to pull it off.

Banff Overlook

This raises an interesting question.  The anti-Photoshop traditionalist might use the above information to denigrate the authenticity of my Banff Overlook photograph.  After all, this image didn’t even exist until a few days ago.  Does the fact that I lacked the skill and digital techniques to successfully process this image in 2006, take away from its impact or authenticity today?  I really hope not, but I can see why it might raise the question.  If anything, this example serves to illustrate how the digital workflow is far from a magic cure-all.  One does not simply snap a lousy picture, input data into Photoshop, and out pops a beautiful landscape photograph.  I have yet to meet an expert at Photoshop, who was not already a highly skilled photographer.

The Enchantments

This last image isn’t very old at all.  I shot this in Washington’s Alpine Lakes Wilderness a few months ago.  Like the others, I overlooked this image until now.  I was so focused on photographing the golden larches in The Enchantments, I must have passed over this relatively simple sunrise.  Now that some time has gone by, and I’m no longer suffering from larch fever, I find the balance and light in this composition to be very nice indeed.

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2 Responses to A Photographic Box of Cracker Jack

  1. Arun says:

    nice post, Jason. Only recently have I started saving all my files, crappy or not. I used to permanently delete over 95% of them. Hopefully, in the future, I will be able to fish out some gems like you found – either because my processing skills have improved or due to the availability of better tools to finish images.

    • Jason Kim says:


      Digital storage has become so inexpensive, I tend to save anything that has the slightest potential. You never know how your taste will change, or what tools might become available. Let me know when you upload some pics from the dunes, and I’ll link to them through this post.

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