Monday, September 17, 2007

Digging the Grand Canyon from the bottom up

"When seen from the level of the Colorado River, more than a mile deep in the earth," says Steve Kossack, "the Grand Canyon can at times seem almost impossible to photograph. As you go deeper into the canyon the light becomes more directional. Its intensity and angle increases and decreases constantly and very dramatically. Here's where the photographic challenges are as varied as the opportunities.

"Photographically speaking," says Steve, "it sometimes felt as though I was digging myself out of a magnificent hole in the ground!

"As I surveyed this breath-taking scene at upper Rattlesnake--deep within the canyon in the late afternoon--I choose to stay with the peacefulness of the setting by moving back from the river to include an open and uncluttered foreground with no dominant focal point. This let the composition flow gradually to the light of the distant canyon walls above the bend in the river. Choosing this composition, however, created two problems. First, the light was too intense on the canyon walls and overpowered the composition. Secondly, the glare off the river was almost as intense. No single exposure was going to hold all this information without help!

"For the second of these problems, my solution was the Singh-Ray LB ColorCombo. By rotating the filter's polarizing ring just enough, I was able to cut back the glare reflecting from the river. Adding this filter also created a slower shutter speed to help blur the river's movement. This 'two-for-one' bargain then turned into a 'tri-fecta' when I saw how nicely the ColorCombo's intensifier 'popped' the earth tones and highlight colors within the canyon. By now I was half-way home.

"The remaining problem was to hold back the sky and clouds while also preserving the delicate and subtle light on the cactus that I considered the essence of the composition. A graduated neutral density filter would be perfect if only there had been a straight horizon to work with! So instead, I used a filter 'dodging' technique that I've developed for such situations. It's described in greater detail on my website.

"First I set the digital camera's ISO on 50--its lowest setting. This allowed me to use the slowest possible shutter speed so I could have more exposure time to move my hand-held 4-stop, hard step 4 x 6-inch ND filter during the exposure. Slanting the filter to the left and then 'dragging' the gradient area from the sky to the left and down to the top of the tree (approximated of course) and back up again slowly several time during the exposure resulted in this almost perfect exposure. I made about 20 images controlled in various ways. This one--thanks to the dodging and Singh-Ray filters--captured the feeling and exhilaration I felt at the time."

To learn more about Steve Kossack's Smoky Mountain workshop in October, plus his instructive and inspiring series of DVDs, visit

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