Wednesday, June 18, 2008

We're approaching the peak season to photograph mountain wildflowers

Before taking off for Alaska again to capture harbor seals and grizzly bears, outdoor photographer Jon Cornforth sent this reminder that it's wildflower time in the high mountains.

"Wildflower season! My favorite time of year in the mountains is almost here," Jon tells us. "There is nothing quite as spectacular as coming across a wildflower bloom carpeting a mountain meadow in purples, pinks, reds, and yellows. Here in the Pacific Northwest, the peak of the mountain wildflower season usually occurs in early August -- give or take a week or two depending on how much snow the mountains received the previous winter. Among my two favorite places to photograph wildflowers are beneath the iconic snow capped volcanoes of Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams. I have climbed them both but now find the views from the meadows more rewarding and photogenic.

"Wind is the enemy of wildflower photos. I can't count how many times I have set up a camera and waited for even the most gentle of breezes to stop blowing the delicate flowers around. I typically use a strong foreground display to frame the scene and long exposures for maximum depth of field. I almost always use my Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer in combination with a Graduated Neutral Density filter to eliminate glare and balance the overall exposure within the scene.

"This view (above) of "Paradise Wildflowers" boasts a once-in-a-lifetime display of purple lupine, yellow asters, common bistort, indian paintbrush, and mountain daisies. This is among my best known images and most successful fine-art prints. I photographed it several years ago after a 1-hour hike uphill from the Paradise parking lot at Mt. Rainier National Park. I could not get close enough to the flowers in the foreground using my Pentax 67 medium format camera, so I used my 4x5 view camera with its large format lens and a medium format roll-film back. With the view camera, I was able to 'tilt' the lens in order to increase my depth of field and thus get within 1-1/2 feet of the flowers in the foreground. I also needed to stop my lens down to f32, which typically requires an exposure of 8 seconds or more early or late in the day. Placing a 2-stop hard-step ND grad filter properly on a view camera when the image is upside down and incredibly dark from being stopped down and polarized is an achievement all by itself.

"Personally, I tend to be drawn to vertical compositions, but I am often asked by publishers and art clients for a horizontal image of the same scene. I try to capture both a horizontal and vertical image whenever possible, but moving a 4x5 around quickly is not something that I am very good at. After having my initial success with "Paradise Wildflowers", I was asked several times for a horizontal image that was similar. So after a long NW winter, I went back to Mt Rainier the next summer and hiked up to the meadows on Mazama Ridge for another sunrise attempt at photographing the mountain and wildflowers. For my effort, I was rewarded with this image "Mazama Ridge Wildflowers". Again, I used my 4x5 with a roll film back and my always handy SR LB Warming Polarizer with a SR 2-stop Hard Grad.

"Mt. Adams is the second highest peak in my home state. It is not, however, as iconic as Mt. Rainier since it is not visible from Seattle -- but it is just as spectacular and well worth the visit. All of the flower meadows at Mt. Adams require more hiking than the 'drive-by' wildflower displays found at Mt. Rainier. One of my favorite hikes requires an overnight backpack to the north side of the mountain to a meadow appropriately called Adams Meadows. It took me several attempts over a few years to finally get this image right. On this visit, I scouted several different locations from the Pacific Crest Trail which goes through this area until I found this beautiful meadow full of lupine. I again used my LB Warming Polarizer, but this time with a 3-stop hard-step ND Grad filter to compensate for the deep shade the flowers were in. There was not the tiniest hint of breeze so the flowers were perfectly motionless as the sun sank low on the horizon. To highlight how perfectly still and peaceful this scene was, my exposure was almost 1 minute long."

In August, Jon will lead private photography workshops for individuals or small groups on wildflower treks to these or other hard-to-find locations in Washington's Cascade mountains. For more info, please visit Jon's workshop page on his website.