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.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Rain or shine, Singh-Ray photographers keep right on shooting for success

If you remember Jon Cornforth's June 18 story on photographing mountain wildflowers, you may also remember he was planning to spend much of this past summer shooting for stock in southeast Alaska. "If anyone's wondering why I've not submitted any new images from that adventure," says Jon, "I can only say that the weather up north was terrible this past summer.

"I spent the better part of 8 weeks getting rained on with almost no chance of shooting the spectacular landscape scenes that I was after. I'm including this image, that I call 'Fords Terror Mist,' just to give an idea of what it was like to shoot in Alaska this summer. Taken on a cloudy, wet day, it is one of my favorite images from the summer. I used my Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer to eliminate glare and bring out the lush greens.

"On my last trip in August, I got called home to Seattle early due to a fire at our home. Thankfully, my wife and 2 young daughters were not home when it happened, and the fire was put out before it spread downstairs to where my office is located.

"There was also good news this summer. Nature's Best Photography included two of my seascapes in the magazine's inaugural Ocean Views Competition. Both images were also included in the print exhibit that opened at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington, DC in June. The international competition was open to all photographers, but the images had to have an ocean theme.

"This image 'Wailau Beach Rainbow' was created several years ago during a sea-kayaking expedition along the remote north shore of Molokai, Hawaii. Some friends and I spent a week kayaking the uninhabited north shore and camping on beaches surrounded to some of the world's tallest sea cliffs. On the second day, we awoke to find it was raining so hard it was difficult to justify leaving the tent, let alone trying to photograph the sunrise. But at least it was Hawaii and the rain was warm. Shortly after sunrise, light started to shine through between the downpours and this incredible double rainbow appeared to perfectly complement the scene. I set up my Pentax 67 medium format film camera along the rocky shore and composed this image while trying to keep my camera dry. Then came the fun part -- putting on my filters without getting them or the lens wet.

"Whenever I shoot a rainbow, I use my Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer because rainbows are polarized light. In order to make the rainbow 'pop,' I rotate the filter to eliminate the background glare. If I rotate the polarizer too far, the rainbow will totally disappear, and why would I want to do that when they are so hard to find? I also used a Singh-Ray Graduated Neutral Density filter to balance the ocean, dark lava rocks, sea cliffs, and rainbow. I often use my 3-stop soft-step grad when I only need to use a 1-stop filter, since the beginning of the transition is approximately 1-stop and I do not need to include the 3-stop top part of the filter.

"This next image was also included in the Ocean Views exhibit. It was taken in Glacier Bay National Park in southeast Alaska. Titled 'Johns Hopkins Inlet Sunrise,' it shows the glacial moraine in front of the Lamplugh Glacier in the remote northwest corner of the park. At low tide, thousands of blocks of ice that have calved off of the tidewater face of the glacier lie stranded on the beach and make for a spectacular scene. These blocks of ice range from the size of a bus to the size of an orange and lay about in the most beautiful chaos that can be imagined. I spent a week using my 22-foot C-Dory anchored in Reid Inlet as a basecamp and my more fuel-efficient 12-foot inflatable boat to explore the beaches and glaciers. After several days of terrible weather, I was rewarded with a brief but spectacular sunrise. I got up early enough to put on all of my warm clothes and pack my gear for the 30 minute open air boat ride to the Lamplugh Glacier. Since I had previously spent several days exploring the rocky beaches to the left of the glacier, I already knew where I was going to compose my image. After scouting the beach for a few minutes, I decided on this composition and was ready when the sunrise light began to illuminate the mountains surrounding the fjord. I used a Singh-Ray 2-stop hard-step Graduated ND filter to balance the ice that was in the shade with the clouds and beautiful light that filled the inlet.

"As a side note, I took a photographer friend back to this remote location this past May. We were trying to do photograph some scenes similar to this one that I had photographed the previous year. The face of the glacier was creaking and cracking a lot more than I had remembered, so we kept our eye on it and gave it a wider berth than I had previously done. Eventually, an enormous piece of the glacier calved off while we were about 75 yards away taking pictures. We grabbed everything that we had and ran as fast as we could! I saw out of the corner of my eye the impact and subsequent explosion of ice flying through the air. As I ran, pieces of ice were flying past my head and eventually something connected with the back of my left leg. I kept running even though the pain was unbearable. Once the ice stopped flying, we stopped and evaluated the situation long enough for an even bigger piece of ice to break off and scare the hell out of us. We decided we were done photographing this area! If you are ever fortunate enough to explore this area of Glacier Bay or any other active glacial region, please take care and be very cautious around an active glacier. Do not underestimate the danger. People have been killed by glaciers the world over.

"As a working photographer, it's always good to be noticed. That's why I was pleased to receive some additional publicity from the Ocean Views exhibit on the newly launched website Pixcetera.com, which is part of AOL. In late August both of my images were featured along with 22 others from the exhibit as part of a slideshow on Pixcetera's main page and then on the AOL News home page. I was immediately bombarded by hundreds of emails and image inquiries. Such activity is well beyond the norm for my website. I soon discovered the reason -- my 'Wailau Beach Rainbow' image was the first one in the rotation and people were searching for my website based on my image credit information. It was very flattering to have so much fan mail (and a few unfriendly people who did not believe my image was real), plus the many print orders that came in. The last time I checked, almost 1.4 million people had viewed the slideshow. I am now working to upgrade my website to handle more e-commerce and will be working with Pixcetera to run a portfolio of my photographs soon.

"My final image is from a backpacking photography workshop I lead for a client in early September. We spent 7 days backpacking 40 miles roundtrip into North Cascades National Park. After several days of camping and enjoying the spectacular views from our rugged alpine camp, I was rewarded with this new image, 'Whatcom Peak Reflection.' I used a LB Warming Polarizer and a 3-stop soft-step Graduated ND to balance the scene.

"As a closing note, I've been focusing on shooting more wildlife. I recently photographed great white sharks underwater at Guadalupe Island off of the coast of Baja, and have just returned from shooting sea otters on the California Coast with my new Canon 50D. Some of my upcoming adventures include diving in the remote Raja Ampat islands in Indonesia, photographing wildlife in Panama over the holidays, and returning to Patagonia in late January for a bad weather landscape photography rematch with Fitzroy and Cerro Torre."

We have a hunch Jon is also planning to return to Alaska next summer. To see more Cornforth images, you can visit his website and stop by his blog.