Friday, November 21, 2008

While leading a photo tour for 36 other photographers, he felt an urge to shoot himself

About this time last fall, when Texas-based landscape photographer Ernesto Santos arrived at the airport in Jackson, Wyoming, he was pondering one all-important question: "How do I make unique images of such a very familiar place -- while I'm leading a large group of other photographers?”

Ernesto was in Wyoming to lead a group of 36 very enthusiastic nature photographers into the wilds of the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park for seven days. "It was 7th Annual Nikonians Photo Adventure Trip (ANPAT)," says Ernesto, "and we were meeting in Jackson to begin the week.

"Just 16 month earlier, my wife and I had spent ten exciting days in the area photographing the spring scenery in both parks. But this visit was in the fall, and I was busy trying to plan my own shooting strategy while also consulting with three dozen other dedicated outdoor photographers. This was not a group of beginners and intermediates; most were carrying top-of-the-line Nikon cameras with very expensive pro lenses and they all had raised their expectations as high as the nearby mountain peaks.

"Finally, in spite of the various responsibilities I felt weighing on my shoulders, I decided to not let anything keep me from having some fun and coming away with some memorable shots of my own. It was time, I coached myself, to get back to the basics. I had brought all my Singh-Ray filters with me, but I needed a very simple shooting plan that would not complicate things or take my focus away from the group when they needed me. So I limited myself to using mostly Graduated Neutral Density filters and just three lenses. I soon discovered, even when working in the most familiar and most photographed areas of the two parks, that I could still find my own perspectives by thoughtful use of the right filters in the right situations.


"I'm including four images from that trip to show what I was able to do in early morning light to create dramatic moods. In Yellowstone there is no better way to achieve drama than to spend a chilly autumn morning in the heavy mist of the geyser basins. For the images above and at left, I used a 2-stop Graduated ND filter to intensify the brooding sky and the low hanging clouds as twilight turned into day. Although very acceptable images could have been taken without the grad filter, shifting the sky over to the quartertones by adding the filter saturated the orange and gold colors dramatically. Suddenly, the mood changes and you get a feeling of being in an alien world. As one friend of mine observed, 'It looks like Hell.'

"Later in the trip, we spent the morning at a small pond where I recalled taking some nice shots of water lilies the previous spring. Now in the fall, this was by far the coldest morning of the trip. As I stood there frozen to the core, the rising sun began to light up the sky. I could not believe how different this familiar place looked during another time of year. Here I used my 3-stop Daryl Benson Reverse ND Grad to hold back the very bright horizon and still preserve the details in the lofty wisps of cloud.

"Finally, we come to this panorama stitched from three images, I used a technique you'll find described in my earlier blog article posted on July 11, 2008. In that article, I featured a shot taken in the Bisti Badlands where I stacked my 3-stop Reverse ND grad and a 3-stop hard-step ND Grad to create what I like to call the nuclear explosion effect. The key to this technique is to make sure that you do not cover the brightest area of the horizon with the stacked standard ND grad thus achieving the distinctive halo effect. Here I used the same technique again -- using the Reverse Grad to hold back the sun with the regular grad positioned over the upper edge of the image -- to capture an eerie panorama of the top of Minerva Terrace in the Mammoth Springs area of Yellowstone.

"I learned that managing the various demands involved in leading a large group of photographers can be a daunting task. But the most important thing I learned is that, simply by minimizing my photo gear and using my filters creatively, I could work quickly and concentrate on the basics of image making. I was still able to come home with some great images; and, I'm relieved to say, everyone in the group enjoyed their own growth experiences and personal success."

Ernesto is planning to stay in Texas this fall and take his camera and filters to the Guadalupe Mountains for the fall foliage in McKittrick Canyon. Sounds like a future story, maybe. You can keep track of Ernesto's efforts to become a full-time professional by visiting his website.

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