Lab Profile: Jim Stein Lives Life To The Fullest, Camera In Hand

Jim Stein of Los Alamos National Laboratory has a passion for photography. Courtesy photo
A starry night seen from Los Alamos. Photo by Jim Stein

LANL News:

As a child, Jim Stein, of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Quality & Performance Assurance Division, loved poring over the awe-inspiring photos of National Geographic magazine. With a small camera his parents bought for him, his passion for photography was ignited.

“I started playing around with the camera like I was a Nat Geo photographer,” he said. “And although I really was pretty awful, I’ve been hooked ever since.”

After spending 10 years in Washington, D.C., Stein returned to his hometown of Los Alamos, where he has worked for the Laboratory since 2004—and where he continues to find the perfect canvas for his art.

“I love mountains. I love canyons. I don’t know if there is another place in this country where you have that together, plus the drama we have in our weather,” he explained. “I missed seeing the stars at night in D.C.—you don’t see the clear skies we have here in many other places.”

Specializing in capturing expansive landscapes, tumultuous weather and the deep black night sky, Stein finds Los Alamos and the surrounding area to be a photographer’s paradise. The self-taught photographer enjoys the challenge these areas present compositionally—and technically.

“My main passion with photography is experimentation, trying new techniques, not just with taking the photo but with processing it as well,” he said.

Playing with light
“I was always fascinated with how light was captured with photography—that’s what it’s all about—whether it’s reflected or directed light, manmade or natural,” Stein said. If he does not know how to create an effect, he will research it and practice until he masters it.

Night photography in particular presents a unique set of challenges with light, but he credits today’s technological advances in cameras with providing an extensive dynamic range within the digital file for him to manipulate with software. Weather shots are also tricky to capture; for example, when taking a photo of lightning strikes, the camera shutter stays open for a prolonged exposure, which can add distracting visual noise to the image, similar to the grain seen in film photographs.

“With the camera sensors available these days, I’m able to photograph the highly contrasting black, black sky with stars out, and also a foreground,” Stein said.

He likes to blend different exposures of the same scene to increase the detail and decrease the noise when processing this type of image.

He also likes to digitally stitch several images together into a landscape panorama. With a medium telephoto lens and a device that eliminates parallax error and helps keep the various shots level, Stein takes several photos and compiles a high-resolution-format image electronically.

Watching the sky

As a self-proclaimed meteorology geek, Stein taught himself to track weather patterns so he could be in the right place at the right time to photograph storms. Shooting weather and night scenes requires a level of determination and fortitude to withstand the uncomfortable elements and the late hours, but it’s all worth it to him.

“Weather here can pop up unexpectedly, so I try not to stray too far from my truck,” he said. “I’ve been caught in really close thunderstorms hiking miles away from shelter, and the key is to stick to your route and your plan and not panic when you’re out there alone.”

Giving back to the community

As an event photographer for the Jemez Mountain Trail Run and the Pajarito Trail Fest, Stein has been setting up his camera along the race courses and snapping runners as they come gasping by since the mid-2000s.

He spends a lot of time scouting locations to photograph these events.

“I get some lighthearted flak from runners who ask why I took their photo while they were running uphill. I then shot from the downhill side, but the response isn’t much better. There aren’t a lot of flat areas out there,” Stein said. “The people who run in our local events are fantastic and seeing their experience and the positive attitudes out there charges me up to keep doing it every year.”

He donates the profits he makes on photo sales back to the events because he finds the work satisfying and believes the events are great community builders.

Living life to the fullest

With all the techniques he has taught himself, Stein finds it challenging to keep the process fresh and not get caught up in the technical planning ahead of time or digital reworking in the studio.

“I do a lot more thinking up front now and sometimes it can be paralyzing,” he said. “All you’re doing in reality is taking the lens cap off, focusing and taking a photo. The challenge is to keep it as free as it used to be.”

Photography for Jim is about pursing happiness and living his passion.

“After both my parents died, I did some introspection about what life is about, and I’ve made a vow to live my life to the fullest,” he concludes. “Photography has helped me do that.”

Lightning strikes in the Valles Caldera. Photo by Jim Stein
New Mexico scene. Photo by Jim Stein