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California Pastorale by Tony Dunn

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JW Ranch (103k)


JW Ranch

This is one of my favorite images. Much of my work includes very little evidence of man in the environment, having an "empty planet" feel of wide open landscapes with no evidence of humanity. To me, this image manages to successfully capture that feeling even though a barn is the central subject. Although barns can be terribly cliche, this image works for me because of the combination of colors as well as the dramatic late afternoon lighting on both the hills and the barn that give a richness and warmth to the image. Several people have told me that they have a hard time believing that this is California rather than Nebraska or eastern Wyoming, but this image was taken along the west edge of the Sacramento Valley near Corning.

Blue Oak (100k)


Blue Oak in the Sutter Buttes

This is one of several "favorite" trees of mine scattered around the Sacramento Valley. Actually, this tree is located at the northern edge of the Sutter Buttes, the eroded stump of an ancient volcano that sits like a pimple in the middle of the otherwise pool table flatness of the Sacramento Valley. This image has a couple of strengths to my eye. First of all, the outlining of the oak against clouds is very strong and is reinforced by the fact that the clouds reflect the slope of the hill. Secondly, the fence draws the eye across the image toward the distant sunlit hills, giving the image a very real sense of depth. The use of a 20mm lens allowed me to capture the sweep of this image.

Abandoned Almond Trees (109k)


Abandoned Almond Trees

This tree is another one of my favorites. This area on the western edge of the Sacramento Valley was once covered with almond orchards. All but a few of the trees are gone now, and those that remain have been pruned by grazing cattle, creating an almost African-looking savannah scene. This is a very classical composition, extremely simple in design. The two trees with different shapes and at different distances work well, particularly since they seem to lean toward each other, increasing their sense of relationship.

Lenticular Sky (106k)


Lenticular Sky

This image was taken on a day when extremely unusual lenticular clouds formed in the lee of the Coast Ranges, over the west edge of the Sacramento Valley. The air was extremely clear and shooting conditions were perfect. I spent several hours driving around the rolling foothills west of Corning capturing what was probably a once in a lifetime event. The main thing I remember is that it was a thoroughly enjoyable day. Every image seemed to have something special. I selected this image from the many wonderful images from that day because the wide angle perspective shows the nature of the clouds. The almond trees (part of the same abandoned orchard as the image above) add interest along the horizon.

California Gold (113k)


California Gold

This image was taken on the same day as the previous photo, a mile or two to the west. What especially makes this image work for me is how the shapes of the hills are mirrored in the lenticular clouds in the sky. The oaks add visual punctuation to the scene. Without them, it would be a much weaker image.

California Green (108k)


California Green

I took this last spring while exploring the hills west of Williams. Though bone dry and brown in the summer and fall, in the spring the hills surrounding the Sacramento Valley are as green as Ireland. I consider this one of my best "drive by shootings" since there was no preparation or scouting involved. I just happened to be driving down this road and saw the late afternoon light on these hills. The wisps of clouds mimicking the curve of the hills was the icing on the cake.

Tuscan Ridge Sunset (136k)


Tuscan Ridge Sunset

This image was taken during the peak of the fires in southern Oregon last summer and the entire northern part of the state was shrouded in smoke. Though this generally made for poor shooting, since the sun typically just disappeared into the muck, I was able to get a few workable images. This image was taken on the edge of the 18th green of a local golf course. About 5 seconds after I took this photo, I heard a "thunk" about two feet away from me. Startled, I saw a golf ball roll right by my foot. A golfer chipping to the green overshot the hole and nearly beaned me.

Golden Sunset (118k)


Golden Sunset

This is another image taken during the peak of the fires last summer. I had thought that driving far enough south would eventually get me out of the smoke, but I had no luck with that. The smoke reduced contrast and rather than adding depth, it flattened everything. None of the photos I took on this day worked until the sun approached the horizon and created this golden glow. Using a 200mm focal length to extract the area around the sun, I bracketed several exposures. This one maintains the outline of the sun while still showing a hint of detail in the shadows. I particularly like the subtle layering of the mountains in the image and the range of warm golden tones. There was considerable flare in this image, but I was able to remove virtually all of it after several hours of work in Photoshop.

Sunset & Oak (117k)


Sunset & Oak - Sutter Buttes

This photo was taken near the second image in the exhibit, at the north end of the Sutter Buttes. This image is a classic case where the photo is "better" than reality. To the eye, the sky was very bright and there was a lot of light reflecting from clouds and lighting the ground. I knew that the film wouldn't be able to handle that wide range of values and so I spot metered on the patch of blue in the center of the image, knowing that would make a much darker, richer scene, turning the oak tree into a silhouette and creating a dark frame of clouds.

Before the Storm (149k)


Before the Storm

This photo was taken on Table Mountain, near Oroville. I love the lighting in this image. The low angle of the sun visually lit the dry grass on fire. A two stop split neutral density filter was used to even the brightness of the sky and grass. After the sun went down the thunderclouds closed in and we had a very rare (for northern California) and very dramatic lightning storm that night.

Sonoma Valley Vineyards (161k)


Sonoma Valley Vineyards

Moving a little astray from the Sacramento Valley, this photo was taken in the hills on the east side of the Sonoma Valley, not long before sunset. I used a 200mm focal length to extract this scene. For me, the crisscrossing hills with alternating light and shadow, along with the haze caused by the rapidly encroaching fog make this image. Each layer (I count seven), with its own lighting and patterns of vegetation, draws the viewer further and further into the image. It was taken after a long afternoon of driving around the Sonoma Valley unsuccessfully looking for good compositions. Though the wine country is noted for its photographic beauty, I was having no luck until I saw this scene. To me, it communicates a lot of the gentle pastoral beauty of the area.

Pit River (125k)


Pit River from Fall River Mills

Straying from the Sacramento Valley in the opposite direction, this image was taken about an hour and a half northeast of Redding from the bridge over the Pit River at Fall River Mills. Though I spent about a half an hour standing in the middle of the road, only one car passed me during that time. This part of the Modoc Plateau is a beautiful and fascinating area for me. Though the climate is near desert, the numerous rivers flowing through the area give it a visual feel unlike any other part of California. For this image, I had to wait for the sun to emerge from behind the clouds to light the trees and grass.

Fall River (98k)


Fall River Pier

Taken on the same trip as the previous photo, I like this image for the purity of the blues and the simplicity of the composition. It was an absolutely still morning, and the river was, as you can see, like glass. It also gives a real sense of the wide open space of the Modoc Plateau. A polarizer was used to bring out more color in the sky and water.

Sunset over Mt. Lassen (62k)


Sunset over Mt. Lassen

This is the only image in the exhibit that includes an "iconic" northern California subject - Mt. Lassen. I've included it here because Mt. Lassen is small enough to be practically incidental to the image (see About the Exhibit, below). Taken above Lake Almanor (which appears in the middle ground), this image is similar in technique to the "Sunset & Oak - Sutter Buttes" image in that to the eye this was a much much brighter scene with plenty of detail visible in the trees and around the lake. I wanted to create an almost nighttime effect for this shot, as if it were taken at extremely high altitude, so I spot metered just to the left of the sun.

God Beams (70k)


God Beams

I have several wonderful images of this particular sunset, taken near McArthur, not far from Fall River Mills. Since the country was absolutely flat, I set up the tripod in the bed of my pickup to get a better perspective. The slow 1/2 second exposure required me to be very still, since I have learned that any movement on my part rocks the truck and is transferred to the image. I combined a two stop and a one stop split neutral density filter to darken the sky enough to bring out some detail in the foreground. A bit of additional work in Photoshop brought out more foreground detail. Lacking a strong central subject, this image still works because of the complex layering created by the trees, the hills, the clouds and the god beams in the sky.

Red Sunset & Oak (81k)


Red Sunset & Oak

This image was taken after a very long and fruitless day of driving around the northern Sacramento Valley. There were incredible clouds in the sky, but for the most part they blocked the afternoon sun, reducing any potential foreground subjects to shadowy darkness. However, a gap remained between the clouds and the horizon. I found this lone oak tree in large flat valley about 45 minutes before the sun emerged from behind the clouds and set up and waited for the sun to appear. When it finally did, it lit the scene with an incredible red-orange light. I waited until the sun was touching the mountains in the west before taking this image.

Note: For best viewing, set your monitor to High Color or True Color and set the color temperature to 5000K.  These images have been prepared with a Gamma of 2.2, which is typical for a Windows monitor.  If you are a Macintosh user, use the sRGB calibrated profile in the Color section of your Monitors & Sounds control panel.

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About the Exhibit:

Photographically, when people think of California, they think of Ansel Adams' Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada. They think of towering, fog shrouded redwoods. They think of the Big Sur coast and golden yellow poppies in the Antelope Valley. They think of the Golden Gate Bridge. What people don't think of is what is locally referred to as the "north state": interior California north of Sacramento. This part of the state, though geographically rich, lacks the dramatic features of the Sierra Nevada or many parts of the southwest. About the only recognizably "iconic" landscape subjects are Mt. Shasta and Mt. Lassen.

This lack of traditionally dramatic vistas has, in fact, driven my photography of the area, in an attempt to give form and expression to the unique pastoral beauty of the area. On the one hand, the lack of dramatic subjects has left the area relatively unexplored by landscape photographers used to the Sierra Nevada or the Big Sur coast, allowing me to explore my own vision of the area unencumbered by the inevitable comparisons to previous work that photographers in more "popular" areas face. Though I have photographed extensively in Yosemite, the ghost of Ansel Adams looms over virtually every image, and people are forever comparing my work there to this or that Adams image. It is almost impossible for a photograph of Half Dome to stand on its own merit with such a rich photographic history behind it. In that sense, exploring the landscapes of northern California has been liberating, since there are few guideposts to mark the way or standards to "measure" up to.

On the other hand, the lack of obviously dramatic subjects has required me to become much more intimate with the area, exploring subjects and photographic opportunities that might not be obvious to the casual observer. In that sense, drawing out the character of the area has required much more work and taken much more time than in areas where the subjects are almost overpowering in their drama. However, the more in tune I have become with the northern California landscape, the easier it has become to see the photographic richness of the area.

In fact, it is the very lack of dramatic landscapes and recognizable "iconic" subjects in this part of the state that drives my work now. Rather than attempt to photograph what thousands have already portrayed, I much prefer to work on subjects that are not overtly dramatic or immediately recognizable, for the very reason that I feel free to openly explore my own vision without the baggage of previous photographers. For me, it has allowed me to find my own unique photographic "voice" in a way that I never would have following in the tripod holes of others.

About the Photographer:

I've lived in California virtually my entire life - since I was eight years old. I was raised in San Diego, but have lived all over the state, from the Central Coast to the Bay Area to the Sierra Nevada foothills to the Sacramento Valley. And my travels have led me into virtually every obscure corner of the state.

I first became interested in photography in high school and became (for an 18 year old) a fairly accomplished sports photographer, doing freelance work for various minor professional sports teams in San Diego. My severe lack of business sense at that age led to the quick demise of my budding photography business and eventually I put down my camera and moved one to other things.

It wasn't until I took the summer off from work in 1998 to enjoy loafing and hiking in the San Jacinto mountains of southern California that I once again picked up a camera. Surrounded by the Sierra-like beauty of the San Jacintos, I bought a mid-level SLR and began snapping away. Though some of this "early" landscape work showed promise, it's only been in the past year that I became really serious about my work and began to pursue landscape photography full time.

Truth to be told, a large impetus for this change were comments made by Laurent Martrès when I proposed using my work in a showcase a year ago. In particular, his comment that "you should work on developing your own style reflecting your own inner sensibilities" drove me to commit myself to discovering just exactly what my own style was. The landscape of northern California has been, as I have noted above, ideal for this.

I shoot virtually all of my work on Velvia, due to its fine grain in wonderful color reproduction. Truly nothing compares to Velvia for landscape work. All images were scanned into the computer with a Nikon Coolscan IV ED and manipulated in Photoshop 7.0. Photoshop has become an indispensable tool in my work. Though I don't digitally composite images or alter the content of the original image, I do use Photoshop extensively to bring out the best in each image. Given the narrow brightness range of film, I use Photoshop to attempt to recreate what I see visually in the field; bringing out the detail in the shadows or contrast between clouds and sky.

To see more of my work, please visit my web site,  And feel free to contact me with your comments.  I'd love to hear from you.

Please note:  All images featured in this showcase are Copyright (©) 2006 by Tony Dunn, all rights reserved. These images are protected by U.S. and international copyright laws and may not be used or reproduced without permission.  For licensing information, or to order prints, please contact Tony Dunn.

Find photos of the Southwest and Colorado Plateau in Photographing the Southwest and Land of the Canyons, the Photo Trip USA landscape photography guidebooks.


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