Friday, February 01, 2008

Not always as easy as it looks...

When looking at beautiful outdoor photography of pristine wilderness, it's easy to overlook all the effort, preparation, and risks that go into capturing these images. Washington-state-based outdoor photographer Ben Chase sends us the following story which he says is almost verbatim from his backpacking journal.

"Backpacking in Denali's backcountry can certainly be an uplifting experience. You typically see few people since the vast majority of tourists to the park never leave the bus when they ride the Denali Park road. However, being prepared for contingencies is a skill that you must possess when backpacking in the wilderness. While I typically don't like to travel long distances alone, there was no other option for this particular trip.

"August 19, 2005, was the first day in a two-day bus trip up the Toklat river valley. Earlier in the week, after arriving at Denali via train from Fairbanks, I took care of the required paperwork and took possession of a bear-resistant food container to store my less-than-appealing dehydrated food. The weather was beautiful this day, but I had been warned by the rangers that smoke was likely on its way. I stopped to make a shot next to my campground (above). A Singh-Ray two-stop ND Grad (probably should have been a 3-stop, but I was tired) helped keep the bright sky from being an unidentifiable blob.

"On August 20, I departed the Denali Park bus at a point along the park road where I could hike on up the Toklat river to shoot the Wyoming hills in the distance. Unfortunately, my trip was not timed very well, as the park was suffering from a large number of wildfires in different locations and on this day the smoke had filled the river valley. Not being too disheartened, I left the park bus near the Toklat stop and found my way down onto the riverbed. Hiking on this terrain posed quite a few challenges. First, the large rocks and debris made it difficult to maintain my footing, especially while carrying a 70-lb backpack (Mamiya RZ67 gear is heavy). To punish myself even more, I carry a Gitzo G1410 aluminum tripod, which weighs in at just over 8 lbs. As much as I complained to myself about having to carry the tripod, it makes river crossings significantly easier.

"Ideally, it's best to cross the river branches at points where the water 'appears' to be shallower, so you and your pack are not swept away by the current. Unbuckling your backpack and wrapping your gear in plastic bags for the crossing serves two purposes -- One, your gear doesn't get wet inside the bags, and two, you don't get dragged to a cold, watery death if you slip up. Now when I say "cold", I don't mean, 'Hey, that's a little chilly!.' The water in the Toklat is cold enough to take your breath away instantly -- it's like getting punched in the gut by a heavyweight boxer. This is where the tripod made the crossing much easier. By extending the legs and planting them in front of me as I crossed diagonally, it offered some additional stability.

"By late afternoon, I found my way onto a nice flat dry spot in the middle of the river. In the picture below, you can see the smoke in the background. That evening, the wolves were howling so loud that I could hear them above the roar of the river. I decided to hike out the next morning since the smoke had make landscape photography dismal at best. I'm not sure when I fell asleep, but I woke up suddenly at 2:14 am to the sound of raindrops.

"I was already in a foul mood at that point, so I decided to just pack it up and head out before I had to break down a sopping-wet tent in the morning. I noticed the smell of smoke was now much more overpowering than I had remembered it the past few days. I fumbled for my headlamp, threw on my socks and boots, and headed outside to start packing my campsite. When I turned on my headlamp, I almost could not believe my eyes. It looked like it was snowing! I looked at the surface of my rainfly and noticed that there was a very light coating of powder on it. This was not snow - this was ASH. Suddenly a cold chill came over my body as I thought the worst things possible -- that a wildfire had broken out nearby, and I had no way of knowing how close the fire was. I had to assume the worst.

"To this day, I don't think I could break down a tent and clear a campsite faster than I did that night. Everything was packed and ready to go in minutes. Now I had to look forward to crossing the river branches at night with only my headlamp for guidance. Clearly, this would be a stupid decision given any other circumstances. Visibility was incredibly poor - maybe 50-60 feet or so. Fortunately I was not too far from the bank of the river and I could use that to help keep me on track as I headed back to the park road and hopefully to safety. The ash was like gray snow that clogged my nose and eyes. Moving quickly, I made my "Hey Bear!" calls, with the hope of not startling a grizzly or other large mammal. Within a few miles, the smoke had thinned out such that I could see an uncountable number of eyes along the riverbank reflected in my headlamp -- one of the creepiest things I've ever witnessed in the backcountry. Seeing those eyes made my imagination run wild, thinking that a huge number of animals were heading for the riverbank to escape the fire that was undoubtably nearby. I moved even more quickly, ignoring the discomforts of the freezing water and uneven terrain.

"I made it to the park road and waited a few hours until a park bus came by. I related my experience to the driver who explained that the wind had apparently blown in a lot of smoke and ash from a fire that was miles away, posing no real threat. I laugh at the experience now when I think of it, but I don't expect to be traveling in that area again anytime there are wildfires about.

"I'll just have to plan my next Denali trip for the early summer!"

By visiting Ben's website you'll see many images resulting from his successful trips across the American Northwest.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Experience and practice... or what's wrong with this picture?

Outdoor photographer Rod Barbee has a few cogent thoughts on learning how to use filters... and learning how to tile a bathroom shower enclosure.

"I’ve been remodeling one of our bathrooms for what seems like two years. It’s actually closer to a year and nine months... Anyway, I’m nearly done. The last task has been to tile our new shower enclosure: walls and floor. It’s been quite a learning experience and I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way. But that’s how we learn any craft, be it baking, carpentry, Photoshop... and it certainly applies to learning photography.

"When I first started my tiling job, I wasn’t really sure what I was doing. And even though I tried to be careful, I managed to make some initial mistakes. Likewise, the first few times I used a Graduated Neutral Density filter things didn’t quite turn out as expected either, as you can see in the photograph above in which the filter's transition line is obviously positioned too low -- it's obvious at least to the experienced eye. I would have preferred it right at the edge of the grass, instead part of the grass is in shadow from the ND Grad. I have since learned how to use my camera's depth-of-field preview button to close the lens opening down so that I can more accurately position the gradient. I have learned much from such early mistakes and am now more confident in using my ND Grad filters.

"The more tiles I laid, the better I got at it -- the more I used my ND Grads, the better I got at capturing a wider range of exposure levels in my images. Only by practice did I learn to choose the right ND Grad for a particular scene as well as the best way to position it in front of the lens. And I learned -- also by experience -- some time-saving tricks like hand holding my filters and using a stack of two filters in certain situations.

"While tiling, I learned that I needed to lay the tile the best I could the first time around -- there’s no "Photoshop" for fixing tiles. I use the same philosophy in my photography. I try to get closest to my vision and capturing the best possible image right in the camera. This often means choosing and using the right filters while I'm in the field. Whether it’s using my LB Warming Polarizer, one of my ND Grads, a Vari-ND, or the LB Color Intensifier, the more I can do to ensure the highest quality original image, the better off I’ll be once that image makes it into the computer.

"It always helps to have the right tools and to know how to use them. If I’m in a forest, I’ll reach for my Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer for the 2/3 stop faster shutter speed it allows over other polarizers. On the other hand, if I’m photographing a waterfall I often want longer shutter speeds. This is when I choose a normal polarizer or my Vari-ND filter -- as I did when taking this shot of Palouse Falls in Washington State. On a cloudy-bright day, the Vari-ND is the best way I know of to slow down my shutter speed for a slow-motion shot like this.

"No matter what you do -- be it laying tiles or choosing and using filters -- the more often you do it and think about it, the better you’ll get. This usually leads to experimenting, which is both instructive and an awful lot of fun (you sometimes end up with some wonderful surprises). And with digital cameras, there’s no reason not to go wild... experimentally speaking. So grab your camera and your filters and explore what more they can do for you. You’ll find plenty of ideas right here among the Focus on Singh-Ray blog entries. Keep learning."

To see more of Rod's photographic work and subscribe to his free newsletter, stop by

Monday, January 28, 2008

LB Warming Polarizer tames the light on sunny Galapagos Islands

Rick Walker sends these three wildlife shots he made using a 300mm lens on his Nikon D3. "These images were taken while on a recent shoot in the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador," says Rick."On my arrival, I promptly realized the Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer was just the right choice for photographing the fascinating creatures I found there. It really helped me deal with the strong sunlight and high-contrast lighting conditions I encountered almost everywhere I went. It was especially helpful in capturing the full details in the dark lava and tide pools as well as minimizing the many distracting reflections in the bright surf.

The little bit of added warmth this polarizer provides fully restored the colors as I saw them in the original scene and rendered the sea lions, iguanas, and crabs in a very natural manner -- without the blue tint often created by traditional polarizers. The higher light transmission of this filter enabled me to easily handhold my 300mm 4.0 AF-S Nikkor lens. By foregoing the use of a tripod, I greatly increased my mobility. There was also an improvement in autofocus performance because of the greater light transmission. The 300mm AF-S Nikkor and LB Polarizer proved to be a perfect combination for these shots!"

In addition to his photography, Rick Walker teaches photo workshops and serves as co-host of the podcast program, "The Image Doctors", a biweekly photographic discussion. "Although our podcast discussions focus on Nikon users," says Rick, "most topics are of interest to other serious photographers as well. The podcast is available at this link:, and an iPod is not required to listen to the programs -- any computer or device that can play MP3 files will work." Rick's website is