Mark Willis on Photography

Rainbow by Mark Willis

Double rainbow with lightning strike–Photo by Mark Willis

Mark Willis, archeologist and photographer

Mark Willis, archeologist and photographer

I am delighted to have Mark Willis, an expert in emerging technologies in photography and archeology, as my guest today.

This double rainbow photograph is magnificent, Mark. Tell us about it.

This image of a rainbow was taken after a storm passed through the Lower Pecos region in early April, 2013.  Right at sunset the clouds parted and this beautiful double rainbow appeared.  I took a series of bracketed shots to capture the color depth.  That also helped to capture the lightning strike that can be seen in the right side of the image.

Your pictures are amazing! How do you get such wonderful shots? 

Thanks.  If I get a nice shot is normally because I’ve take hundreds of photos and one or two are keepers.  I enjoy experimenting with various types of photography to increase my technical skills.  Lately, I’ve been playing with landscape and nighttime photography.

Lightning strike at Shumla, Texas, by Mark Willis

Lightning strike at Shumla, Texas, by Mark Willis

This one was also taken the same night of the storm mentioned previously.  To get this shot, I took dozens of  long exposures looking into the darkest part of the storm.  The long exposures allow for the lightning to be photographed and it also allows the ambient light to illuminate the landscape and hence the dramatic colors.

Stars over Bunk House at Shumla, Texas by Mark Willis

Stars over Bunk House at Shumla, Texas by Mark Willis

The night sky out at Shumla is really impressive.  Most city dwellers can’t believe it when they see how incredible the stars are.  For this photograph, I placed the Shumla Bunkhouse in the foreground to add some interest to the image. It was taken a couple of hours after sunset and with a 20 second exposure.  The light area in the lower right of the image isn’t a sunset.  It is actually the light pollution from Langtry, Texas bouncing off of low thin clouds.  This type of photography is pretty tricky because you have to guess at all of the manual settings and just hope something turns out nice.

You are well known for kite aerial photography. What is that, Mark?

Kite Arial  Photograh of archeological site by Mark Willis

Kite Aerial Photograph of archeological site by Mark Willis

It is one of the cheapest and most innovative ways to take aerial photographs. Kite Aerial Photography (KAP) was invented in the middle half of the 1800s by the French.  A camera is attached a sturdy string and lifted into the air by a large kite. One of the earliest uses of KAP was to map topographic features of the landscape for military purposes.  In much the same way, I use KAP to create highly detailed maps of archaeological sites and excavations.  I have had the privilege of conducting KAP projects all over the world.  It is my favorite type of aerial photography.

You also use drones. Could you tell us a little about that?   

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or drone, flying over Ecuador

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or drone, flying over Ecuador

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly called drones, are the up and coming way to conduct aerial mapping projects.  Unlike KAP, the UAVs are autonomously controlled by an internal computer.  UAVs are true robots that fly themselves.  UAVs are perfect for mapping large landscapes as they can cover a much larger area than KAP in a short amount of time.  The disadvantage is the cost of the equipment.  KAP also tends to produces higher resolution images.

You recently completed an ambitious 3-D modeling project at Panther Cave. What did that entail?

The 3D modeling at Panther Cave is ground breaking.  It involved creating an extremely high resolution model from nothing more than a series of photographs.  Typically these sorts of models are made using extremely expensive and cumbersome laser scanners  The new method we used is called Structure from Motion. It is inexpensive and produces results that other techniques are not capable of.  I am excited the world gets see this site in an entirely new way.

Have you ever had any mishaps or close calls while shooting?

It wasn’t really a close call but one of the eeriest moments I had was working very deep in the rock art cave of Marsoulas in Southern France.  I was on a very steep muddy slope documenting Aurignacian era rock art with an underground river below me. My colleagues had exited the cave and I was alone with the ancient art when the generator powering our lights ran out of gas.  For several minutes I sat alone in the inky blackness listening to the slow flow of the water below me and imaging how many of our ancestors had done the same.

Your photography has taken you around the world. What are some of your favorite places?

I started backpacking the world alone when I was seventeen.  I haven’t found a favorite place yet but the more exotic the better.  I enjoy working in the Pacific at places like Palau and Kiribati but feel most at home on the left bank of the Pecos.

What drives you to do this?

Those that know me know that I work constantly.  I am either creating a new 3D modeling process, testing a new technique to document petroglyphs at night, or running an archaeological survey. Always doing something related to archaeology.  A friend of mine calls me the “James Brown of archaeology”.  Not sure if I would go that far but I get a thrill out of finding new ways to look at archaeological sites and our world in general.  It is my work and it is my passion.

This has been fascinating.  Many thanks for being with us today, Mark.  

Mark can be reached via his occasionally updated blog, http://palentier.blogspot.com/ , or on Google+https://plus.google.com/u/0/117833894683564726361