For further reading check out HDR Photography: Theory of Usage.

I heard a story today where one of my favorite HDR photographers (Stuck in Customs) was disqualified from a Smithsonian photo contest because the photo he entered was generated using HDR (high dynamic range).  The HDR process is kinda complex and to put it in as simple terms as someone of my limited knowledge can, a photographer uses a software tool to stitch two or more separate exposures of the same photo together to create a more vivid, higher contrast photo.  The Smithsonian judges considered the photo “digitally altered” and wouldn’t permit it to be entered.  I found the story interesting because it brings up a debate of what constitutes “digitally altered?”

I’ve been taking photos for a long time though have only recently put forth significant effort to improve my skills.  For the majority of those years photographing my favorite locations, people and events photo manipulating software such as Photoshop has been a part of the process.  I’ve used programs to brighten, adjust contrast and color, reduce noise and stitch panoramics for more than a decade.  Even four and a half year old Kylie showed us how to make the photo of her fish “much better” with a key stroke in Microsoft’s “I’m a PC” commercial.  I’d be willing to bet the Smithsonian wouldn’t disqualify little Kylie from entering her fish photo in their contest.

I certainly do understand setting some limits on the level of altering being allowed.  For instance, if elements are added or removed from a photo, techniques called cloning or surreal compilation.  And they have the right to not enter collages, right?  But where is the line drawn?

I’ve recently been dabbling in HDR and I really enjoy the results.  I’m not a professionally trained photographer and I am no authority on the art.  I would assume there are plenty of purists out there who consider HDR a disgrace to the art form.  It’s what I would call the Bob Ross statue.  I’m not going to attempt to enter that argument.  At least not yet.  But what I will do is examine the HDR technique and the amount of manipulation involved and let you be the judge.

Above is a dramatic photo of an old abandoned Victorian home in Park City, Utah.  It was produced using three exposures and an HDR tone mapping software.  The HDR tool is not this big mathematical machine that a photographer tosses multiple exposers into and then it spits out the beautifully perfect final HDR photo.  After the tool processes the HDR the result bares little resemblance to the original photo.  At this point the photographer enters the tone mapping process where they are presented with a slew of sliders to adjust everything from luminosity to color balance.  All of these options will be very familiar to anyone who knows their way around Photoshop.  The artist will be able to produce a very dramatic photo, as the one above, or scale back the sliders to generate a photo that resembles the original exposures used to generate the HDR.

The first two photos below are two different tone mapping results generated from the same HDR.  The third is one of the original exposures used to generate the HDR.   Click each photo for larger versions.


As you can see the variety of intensity is very drastic.  The same can be said for the possibilities presented to an artist through Photoshop (just imagine if I applied the sponge filter to this photo in Photoshop).  This photo is a good example of some of the benefits of HDR as no longer is shooting directly into the sun taboo.  In fact it produces much more dramatic results.

As I said earlier I’m not going to interject my views on what makes art.  I’m only discussing methods and tools available to artists.  As far as I’m concerned the question isn’t whether the photo was altered as it is whether the result no longer constitutes art in the hands of the artist.  I find it interesting that Mr. Stuck in Customs won this very contest a few years ago (certainly with an HDR photo) and the winning entry still hangs in the Smithsonian.  I guess the debate rages on.

Burns Cowboy Shop

Park City, Utah is chock full of little boardwalk fronted Victorian structures.  Burns Cowboy Shop is one of my favorites.  However, the building itself might be all the historic mining residents of Park City would recognize.  Now the town is a playground for the rich and famous and what are Hollywood Sundance Film Festival goers going to do with a saddle and spurs?  Well, actually you can get a saddle in Burns (as you can see from the photo) but it would be beautifully embroidered and gem studded.  None of the their merchandise will ever see the world from the back of a horse.

Burns Cowboy Shop

Click photo for a larger version.

The Colony

This is kind of an amendment to my on going Top Ski Destinations posts.  We were just in Utah and skied The Canyons for the first time.  The mountains have the best and worst characteristics of any resort I’ve skied.  The place is huge (I hear it’s the second biggest in the US outside Big Sky/Moonlight Basin) and the terrain is spectacularly varied.  But the size leads to its downfall.  It took us a good hour to start skiing from the time we got on the first lift which incidentally was a people mover just to transport passengers from the parking lots and bus stop to the resort.  There are also issues with smoothly routing skiers.  There seemed to be more dead ends than most resorts making confusing lift riding necessary in order to navigate the mountains.  Not to mention that there is only one way to ski back to the base.  The results are slopes that felt much more crowded than much smaller mountains.

But we had plenty of quality skiing.  The below photo is of a mountain area called The Colony resembling the Deer Valley community on roids.  The trails twist and turn with roads and obscenely overgrown private residences in a quite graceful dance.  Skiers shoot through tunnels, race under steep road overpasses and cross bridges with rustic wood log railings.  It really creates a spectacular setting and a very very different skiing experience from the standard downhill mountain kind.

The Colony


Telluride, old west playgroundSki resorts often spring up in mountainous areas where once thriving mining communities gave way to devastating emigration and boredom.  Skiing was often all these locales had left.  Depending on their location however, tourism can transform ski towns into sprawling theme destinations.  And quickly resorts realize that if they cater to children then parents will promptly flock.  While parents sip hot totties fire-side in peace and leisurely cruise slopes, little Timmy and Sally can be kept out of trouble by Dora and Diego on skis.

Every once in a while we’ll stumble on a less common ski destination that seems oblivious to the draw of the activity elsewhere.  Though resisting the spoils of popularity is getting harder and harder in an ever shrinking world.  Only here are we reminded how great the sport is when experienced in it’s more pure form.

  1. Telluride, Colorado– It helps that Telluride is simply difficult to get to.  This dead-end mining town was only kept alive by their skiing possibilities.  With no room for expansion it has resisted the throngs of development for the most part but I don’t know how long it can be able to remain at the top of my list.  The now idyllic grassy valley floor is being aggressively pursued by developers.  A feisty contingent of preservationists have fended off the attackers with great success however and Telluride remains largely unchanged since its Victorian era golden age.
  2. Jackson Hole, Wyoming– Even though the town of Jackson has embraced it’s old west roots and exercised more kitch than I prefer it is quite true to it’s ancestry.  This authenticity can nearly entirely be attributed to the local residents that continue to go about their business.  It’s not rare to see cowboys moseying over actual boadwalks, dusty pickups with Blue Healers in the back and evidence of horse-back transportation on dirt roads.  There are a number of surrounding burgs that are untouched by tourist dollars and the resort itself is just far enough away from town that it hasn’t developed as a gingerbread Alpine replica.
  3. Park City, Utah – Park City is quite different than the first two on the list.  With such close proximity to a major metropolis and being a bonafied classic ski Mecca it is busy and rapidly developing.  And hosting the Olympics doesn’t help.  But even with all this, restrictions against chain businesses and other preservation efforts have left Park City relatively in tact.  Amazingly, it wasn’t long ago that Park City appeared on a registry of American ghost towns.
  4. Breckenridge, Colorado – With the high traffic of Summit and Eagle counties towns like Frisco, Dillon and Vail have sprawled out with strip malls, gas stations and chain restaurants and no longer bare resemblance to their former days.  But Breckenridge has somehow kept its original character and is still one of America’s first ski towns.
  5. Big Sky, Montana –Number 5 is where I started running out of ideas.  I’ve heard great things about the original ski destinations like Sun Valley or Taos but I just haven’t been to them.  Big Sky comes next on my list for the simple fact that it’s the destination you’re most likely to hit a deer driving to, that evening entertainment is a Bud at the bar with true locals and where breakfast is wild boar pate on toast.  Even their local celebrity is everyone’s favorite redneck billionaire Ted Turner.

Up next: Charm

Mining ruins in Park City


Dumpin snow at AltaYou don’t have to be Shaun White to have a great time skiing or boarding. It’s not like tennis where not only do you have to consistently get the ball over the net but you need a partner that can do the same.  Otherwise you’ll be chasing balls all day and not actually playing tennis. Whether you’re doing sick Chicken Salad Air or just trying to keep your feet a good time can be had by all on the slopes. So, I’m not about to judge a skier’s enjoyment based on terrain as nearly all the top destinations have something for everyone. But that doesn’t mean that all terrain is created equal. Some resorts are so diverse and expansive that it’s impossible to not put them at the top of the list. That is just statistics and statistics don’t lie. But I have some personal favorites that I think need to be recognized for producing unique skiing experiences.

  1. Alta, Utah– Alta is unlike any other mountain I’ve skied.  Typically, you get off the lift, look up at a cluster of big blue signs, choose your path and repeat.  Not at Alta.  Well, they still have the big blue signs but runs quickly lose shape and melt together like water running downhill.  What the skier is left with is a fluffy sandbox of rolling hills, sudden drops and rocky outcrops.  It’s a smorgasbord of craft-your-own terrain that will be different every trip off the same lift.  Now throw in 43 feet of, literally, the best and driest snow in North America, the fact that they stick by their no snowboarders mantra and the cheapest lift tickets of the Rockies and you’ve got an unbeatable skiing experience.
  2. Whistler Blackcomb, BC, Canada– Not only have I not skied Whistler but I’ve never even been to Vancouver.  But the stats and rave reviews don’t lie.  It has 8,100 skiable acres, more than 200 trails, 12 bowls and a 1 mile vertical.  Everyone should be able to find their perfect line there.
  3. Deer Valley, Utah – Deer Valley gets much deserved credit for the spectacularly groomed and manicured runs but it actually has great diversity as well.  The terrain is designed more like a world class golf course than a ski resort with runs lined with multi-million dollar homes that expertly compliment the landscape.  Crowds are never an issue do to lift ticket limits and the dry Utah snow makes for some of the smoothest skiing around.  Deer Valley is like riding the newest high-engineered metal roller coaster making everything else feel like 60-year-old wooden filling rattlers.
  4. Telluride, Colorado– Telluride is another personal favorite.  “See Forever” precariously balances the mountain ridge and cruises for miles down the mountain while a variety of terrain shoots off it’s side.  It’s the Via Sacra of Telluride.
  5. Vail, Colorado – There may be some swearing at me right now but I’m going to stand by this one.  Vail has great terrain and it’s simply huge.  The back bowls vault Vail into the top 5 alone.  But there is one thing that is holding this giant back that can’t be overlooked: crowds.  I mean really.  You’ll spend a good portion of your day standing around and avoiding on-slope collisions with designer ski-bunnies.  This mountain resort more resembles an amusement park with it’s shoulder-to-shoulder snaking ski lift lines.  Warning: patience required.

Up next: Authenticity


Well, it’s that time of year again.  The fifth annual Hoffsis family ski trip.  We’re really late planning this year.  Where to go, where to go?  Thus far we’ve managed to have no repeat visits but it’s getting a lot more difficult.  We’ve covered lots of territory in the last 4 years.  From the popular to the locals-only and the easily accessible to the remote across three Rocky Mountain States.  So what are the priorities this year?  Do we want to sacrifice sick après-ski for skier free slopes and non-existent lift lines?  Or maybe trade in pole-less darting children for moose and mountain goats?

One thing is certain we will be enjoying late spring skiing this year.  Possibly, snow conditions will be a factor.  In this photo the old man is surveying Alta’s map which arguably has the best and most snow in North America.  It has something to do with low humididty in the Little Cottonwood Canyon off the flats of the Great Salt Lake.  Alta certainly is a temple to no-frills, back-to-basics skiing and a local favorite.  Lift tickets are half the price of the other elitest area resorts, snowboarders are staunchly barred from entering the front gate, “BOGUS!,” and there’s a 1960’s base “lodge” with only lockers and a cafeteria, reminicent of my good old Ashville Elementary days, packed to the gills with tough old senior citizens who ski for free.

Now let’s see, “Devil’s Way” or “Easier Way?”