Friday, July 11, 2008

The better we plan our photo trips, the more we have to show for it

As Texas photographer Ernesto Santos continues his career as an academic administrator, he's also planning his future success as a full-time professional fine-art photographer. So it's not surprising that Ernesto's photo trips always start with some serious planning.

"When I travel anywhere, and especially in the American Southwest," says Ernesto, "I'm astounded by the range of environments I can experience in just one trip. By planning trips to locations that are less often photographed, I hope to come home with fresh looking, more marketable images. For that reason, I often pass by the more popular national parks and monuments to photograph further from the beaten path.

"When planning photo trips, I like to first spend a few weeks poring over stacks of nature, outdoor and travel magazines as well as checking my favorite photo websites -- trying to determine what is currently being published and photographed, what trends are developing and which locations might be waning in interest. This takes more time, but with some knowledge of geography it's possible to recognize potential hot spots. Not only has this strategy helped me capture some unique images, but it has also enabled me to get them published.

"Once I have an idea of what the terrain and environs of my chosen locations will look like, I try to imagine what effect the weather will be having while I am there. I closely follow weather reports and the solar and lunar charts to help determine this. As I begin to build a “portfolio” of the area in my mind’s eye, I can visualize very clearly what images I may be able to capture with the lenses and filters I will have with me. On a recent trip to southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, I decided to drive so there would be no equipment limitations to deal with. Since I would be bringing all my lenses, cameras, and filters, I let my imagination run wild. This is a very important step in the planning process since it helps me clarify my creative intentions. I also find that -- when I am working in an area -- it is usually best to keep moving. It increases the odds that I will come upon the 'perfect scene' in outstanding light. I then take this 'keep moving' philosophy and apply it on a larger scale. I don’t stay too many days in the same location. When on a road trip I try to be always ready to move on.

"The image above was taken at The Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. I don’t see a lot of photographs of this location and those I do see are mostly wideangle shots taken close to the dune field. Here I opted to shoot from a long distance with a 200mm lens to not only isolate the dunes but to compress the distances between the ridges. My Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer helped accentuate the late afternoon light reflecting off of the sand. To bring this image over the top, I included some dune climbers to provide scale and give viewers a better sense of the immensity of this beautiful natural formation.

"Travel the San Juan Skyway from Durango to Ouray in Colorado and you will be in alpine bliss. One of the more notable peaks in this southern chain of the Rockies is Red Mountain shown here. There is evidence of the old mining days sprinkled all around the area, and I was able to catch this shot of an old mining shaft structure just before it went into shadow near the end of the day. The Singh-Ray LB ColorCombo and a two-stop Graduated Neutral Density Filter were used to accentuate the reds of the mountain and hold back the top half of the scene just enough to bring out the shadow detail in the pine trees.

"As the snow melt begins to run off the high country peaks in the spring, torrents of silt-laden water meander to the valleys below. One stream in particular near Red Mountain had water that was a rich orange color. I used a three-stop ND Grad and my LB ColorCombo Polarizer to create this image with off-the-chart color depth and the perfect amount of water veiling.

"Northern New Mexico is one of my favorite places on Earth, probably because many times you get the sense that you are on another planet. One such place is the fantastic and bizarre Bisti Badlands Wilderness Area south of Farmington, NM. It takes preparation to get there and to traverse it safely (there are no roads or trails) but you will be rewarded.

I hiked into this area in the morning darkness and settled in to get this shot of the sun just rising through a distant notch in the sandstone formations. By using a three stop Singh-Ray Reverse ND Grad, I was able to hold back the bright rising sun. I also stacked a three-stop ND Grad on top to hold back the upper edge of the sky. When stacking this filter, I was careful to not cover the sun thus creating an almost nuclear explosion effect.

"Anyone who tries the trip planning approach I've described should find it helps develop a better itinerary and save valuable time and effort during the trip. The better the plan, the more likely it will be that we score some dramatic and distinctly different images."

You can see more of Ernesto's dramatic, award-winning images on his website. You might also find one of his images in the September 2008 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Photographers in the Palouse are greeted with vast opportunities and challenges

Each year Pacific Northwest photographer Kevin McNeal patiently awaits the arrival of spring and its fresh palette of colors. "There is no better place to visit in spring," says Kevin, "than the Palouse region of southeastern Washington and north-central Idaho. It's the richest wheat growing area in the United States.

"Perhaps the Palouse is even better known -- at least among outdoor photographers -- for its vast rolling hills of vivid green, rustic rural barns, spring wildflowers, and pastoral vistas that amaze the senses.

"For photographers this is a rich source of sensual landscapes unique in terms of their strong colors, natural patterns, and simple designs. Spring is, for me, the best time to capture the lush vivid greens that arise soon after the seeds have been planted but before the harvest. As photogenic as the Palouse is, it nevertheless can present many challenges when it comes to capturing exactly how the scene looks to the eye when I'm shooting. That's why I never make a trip to the Palouse without bringing all my Singh-Ray filters. Opportunities are everywhere, but I especially look for dramatic lighting conditions with storms and high winds mixed with the sun. These dark clouds present dramatic high-contrast scenes that call for using my Graduated Neutral Density filters to balance the detail in the sky.

"Often the sun is filtered through the clouds as it's illuminating the foreground. At the same time, the darker clouds foreshadow what is to come. I like the mood these clouds convey. so I will spot meter the scene to accurately capture detail in both the foreground and background. I will often have to quickly exchange one ND Grad for another of different density to balance the continually changing light.

"Another opportunity that often occurs in the Palouse are the fantastic sunrises and sunsets -- complete with spring wildflowers in the foreground. That's when I need to capture the color in the foreground wildflowers and -- at the same time -- balance the colorful light in the sky. To do this I use a Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer to reproduce the stunning color in the wildflowers as well as balance the warmth of the skies with the foreground. I then add a Graduated Neutral Density Filter to properly balance the exposure for the foreground with the brighter detail in the sky.

"The most exciting time in the Palouse is when the storms arrive and the wind creates a completely different scene. I try to scout ahead of time for potential scenes that will lend themselves to stormy weather conditions. This weather can produce dramatic images with fast moving clouds taking on a life of their own.

"This is where I like to be creative by using a combination of the Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter and the Mor-Slo ND filter. I will look to combine an element in the scene that is static with an element that is intentionally blurred. The two elements together help me inject a sense of movement into the scene. This can only be achieved by combining the two filters for a long exposure where the static subject is juxtaposed against the blur of the moving subject. This combination of filters can also be useful in situations that are not weather related. An example of this can be the blurred movement of a waterfall against the backdrop of a canyon. The stacking of filters blocks out enough light so that subjects in the scene begin to take on new shapes and forms not otherwise seen.

"The most important filter I need to capture the beauty of the Palouse is the Singh-Ray LB ColorCombo. This is the filter I use most often to help recreate the stunning colors of the scene just as I see them with my eyes. I will often return many times within a few weeks to capture the most vibrant greens that seem to only last for a short while. Some years, I only get one opportunity to capture that color, I've learned to find a composition I like in advance so that I'm ready to capture the scene when the ground has become wet from the rain. The rain helps saturate and add an ethereal quality to the greens. The LB ColorCombo allows me to capture the saturation of the fields without a loss of detail and to contrast this with the deep blue skies. Detail is so important when trying to capture saturation in high contrast scenes. The ambient light from the mix of clouds and sun can really enhance the greens of the pastorals, and it is important to have the right filter to capture that moment.

"That why a visit to the Palouse can be very rewarding yet challenging. Having my Singh-Ray filters ready to meet the variety of lighting challenges has helped me record all the things I love most about the Palouse."

To see more of Kevin's work, be sure to stop by his website.