Friday, January 02, 2009

Returning to photograph Death Valley is like going home again... very rewarding!

Arizona-based landscape photographer Steve Kossack says, "It's interesting that the classic novel You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe, was published in 1940 -- two years after the author's death. I think the title, however, is generally thought to mean it’s not because home is different; it’s because we are different.

"Going back to any place that I've come to love really stirs my soul. It's a great motivator. I’ve now done more than a dozen workshops, for example, in the fabulous area known as Death Valley. It's not only the first place I learned both geographically and photographically, but it's become one of my favorite workshop 'homes' and the one that participants are most interested in revisiting. Returning in different seasons, year after year, and seeing the vast open spaces -- along with the hidden gems -- through the fresh eyes of our workshop participants helps keep the creative drive alive and burning. For me, it’s never the same place twice.

"I especially enjoy revisiting a place in different seasons. The light and the weather will always be different. These first two images show the same view of Zabriski Point in early morning light. It's the seasonal difference in light between the top image taken in spring and the second image taken in the fall that changes everything. The warmth of the spring image with the sun at a much higher angle forced a solution to a common problem. The background was bathed in rich light with the foreground in deep shadow. I chose the nearest lighted formation (the colorful ridge on the right) as my focal point and moved it off center as a way to lead the eye back and forth to the lightest object (the salt flats on the valley floor) and give a way out of the composition to the right. The balanced exposure was achieved with a Singh-Ray 4-stop hard-step Graduated Neutral Density filter carefully placed to not show the edge in the foreground.

"I paid close attention to the highlights as I exposed the fall image. The composition is based on those highlights. The extremely low angle of the light provided a more intimate look at the fantastic geologic shapes and forms. One of the focal points for me when shooting at Zabriski Point has always been a small dark mound in the bowl just before the ridge that leads the eye to the salt flats beyond. In the spring image it is still effective, but it became dominant when captured in the fall image. Now bathed in light, the color was saturated. With this in mind, the Singh-Ray LB Color Intensifier was chosen. I had looked at the LB ColorCombo earlier but the slim benefits of its polarizer were negated by the high winds that we were exposed to on this morning. I knew the ancient seabed before us was not going to move, but the tripod and camera might! I gained 1-1/2 f-stops by using the LB Color Intensifier and an ISO setting of 800, which resulted in a much faster shutter speed. This is a great example of why I carry both the ColorCombo and the Color Intensifier filters!

"Returning to the high ranges of Death Valley is a treat for my senses and my landscape photography. I like to plan a workshop around a full moon whenever possible. Watching the rising moon during a colorful sunset can be a thrill in itself.

"To try capturing the moonrise in an image -- such as this third photo -- takes some thought and a little technique as well. The moon is a sunlit object so exposure has to follow this rule. It is also moving (rising) more quickly than you might think so this must be taken into consideration as well. With a long lens (greater magnification), all these factors are even more pronounced. With a blanket of haze on the horizon and a very dim but evenly lit foreground, the moon suddenly appeared. It only lasted a few seconds. I had been shooting detail with the Canon 300 2.8L lens and my Singh-Ray 52mm LB ColorCombo drop-in filter to intensify the already saturated color that the reflected light bestowed on the scene. Fortunately all I needed to do was reframe the image and quickly figure out an exposure. I say fortunately because that’s all I had time for. This lovely composition disappeared within seconds!

"I include the fourth image of Dante’s Dawn mostly because both it and the moonrise image are what I call 'bookends.' They span the end of one day and the beginning of the next, and were taken from the same location more than a mile above the valley floor. I was shooting detail of the ridgeline on the far right when the moonrise ended the previous day. Once again, deep saturated color in the pre-dawn was the attraction. The use of the LB ColorCombo -- even before there was much skylight to polarize -- helped accentuate the glow of the blue and magenta in the sky and cut just a little of the haze as well. To further heighten the color and give a better reading to the mid-tones and shadows, a Singh-Ray 2-stop soft-step Graduated ND filter was also used.

"I'm convinced," says Steve, "we can all go home again! For me Death Valley is much like home and every time I'm there, I’m different, and in some way so is my work. The key is to f/8 and be there!"

There are about 100 more Death Valley landscape images, not to mention a number of other galleries, colorful how-to essays and news about his various 2009 workshops on Steve's website.

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