Friday, March 20, 2009

Photographing Alberta's winter wonders offers every opportunity to warm up your vision

One of the things outdoor photographer Ben Chase enjoys most about living in Spokane, Washington is the great location. "One of my favorite winter-time photo destinations," says Ben, "is directly north about 500 miles to the Banff, Jasper, and Kananaskis areas in Alberta, Canada. The crispy cold snow, unpredictable weather, dramatic light, and opportunities for viewing wildlife are reasons enough to book yourself an extended photo trip to this well-known region of Canada. I've just returned from the area with several new images to talk about.

"During the entire trip, I made every landscape image by hand holding my 4x6-inch Singh-Ray Graduated ND Filters in front of the lens. With shutter speeds of 1/2 second or more, I found that moving the filter a bit during the exposure helps hide the graduation line of the filter. My most used filter on this particular trip was the Singh-Ray 3-stop Reverse ND Grad. This filter helps in situations where most of the highlights are concentrated near the horizon such as in the sunrise at Mount Rundel in Banff National Park, shown above. Snow in the foreground can make things particularly challenging. For this and several other images, I had some success with 'filter-dodging' the foreground with a 1-stop ND Grad filter held upside down while I handheld my main Reverse ND grad to control the horizon and sky areas at the same time.

"Not far from Banff, and just west of Calgary, is the Kananaskis Trail country, which is reachable south of the Trans-Canada off Highway 40. One popular shot in this area is of Mt. Kidd near the highway in some reflecting pools. A two-stop hard ND grad allowed me to catch the last light on Mt. Kidd and maintain the detail in the foreground. An interesting side-note about this photograph: A park ranger actually pulled off the road to make sure that my friend and I were not electro-fishing. I have been stopped by police and park rangers numerous times over the past 10 years, but I have to admit this is the first time I've had someone think I was electro-fishing.

"On days when the color isn't there, sometimes you find interesting things to photograph that are much more effective when shot in monochrome. This view of Mt. Rundle in the Vermillion Lakes area is mostly recognized for its colorful sunrises and sunsets, but for this particular shot, I wanted something a little different. There are lightning-shaped patterns in the ice caused by rocks that were thrown through the ice and then re-frozen in place, creating an interesting, 'Ice Lightning' effect. A one-stop graduated ND filter did the trick here, allowing more detail to be retained in Mt. Rundle and the rest of the background.

"On occasion (or frequently if your luck is like mine), you will encounter extreme situations where using ND grads will not perfectly balance the exposure, but they can make enough of a difference to make an image effective. Here, I stacked my 1, 2, and 3-stop hard-step Singh-Ray graduated ND filters to manage the effect of shooting directly into the sun.

"Each trip to Alberta is a test. Sometimes getting good winter photographs means shivering on a frozen lake in 30-knot winds with your tripod leg spikes embedded into the ice. Often it means testing your gear in cold, harsh conditions, and I'm happy to say that the new Canon 5D Mark II performed flawlessly for me in this regard. However, the main reason I enjoy Alberta in the winter is that it really tests my vision and my skills. If you don't go to the Alberta area in winter, you will never know what dramatic and remarkable images you might have captured there; so break out the pocket hand warmers and snowshoes and head north soon."

If you can't make it to Alberta anytime soon, the next best thing would be to visit Ben's website where you can enjoy many more landscape images from the Banff/Jasper region of Canada as well as impressive images from all across the American Northwest.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Let's all raft the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon with our Singh-Ray filters

Veteran travel photographer Ralph Lee Hopkins has traveled to many of the world's wild and scenic places leading photo expeditions and workshops. A few years back, he photographed and studied rocks along the rim of the Grand Canyon as part of earning his master's degree in geology at Northern Arizona University, and he's made frequent returns ever since.

As Ralph says, "A trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon is one of life’s great adventures. The thrill of running world-class rapids, the awe-inspiring scenery around every bend, and the surprises of hidden inner canyons all contribute to a life-changing experience.

"For photographers, 'running the river' also presents some major challenges. Keeping your gear dry through the hair-raising rapids and protecting your cameras and lenses from the invasive sand demands careful preparation and specialized equipment. But mastering the extreme lighting conditions in the canyon’s depths offer the biggest challenges.

"Far below the rim there are canyons within canyons that few visitors get to see. The soft, filtered light in these deep recesses can be cool and flat. In contrast, reflected light off the colorful canyon walls can be warm and saturated. Then there’s the task of balancing bright sun with deep shadows.

"In this rapidly evolving digital world there seem to be many misconceptions about optical filters. The first being that you no longer need filters since Photoshop can 'fix' everything. Well, if you want to spend your life on the computer, keep thinking that way. In my workshops I preach about being in the moment and making the best possible image in the camera. And this requires having a selection of filters and knowing when to use them.

"There are three essential Singh-Ray filters that I use daily in the Grand Canyon: the LB Warming Polarizer, the Vari-ND Variable Neutral-Density filter, and the two f-stop, hard-step Graduated Neutral Density filter. Let's start with the LB Warming Polarizer. I love saturated colors -- not over-the-top, but warm -- like the way the scene looks to our eyes. A polarizing filter is essential in the Grand Canyon for darkening skies, cutting reflections on the water and wet rocks, and for saturating the colorful hues of the canyon walls.

"In the image above, we see the classic downstream view of Marble Canyon from Nankoweap Canyon. The red rocks of the Supai layers have painted the canyon walls a rusty-red, the thickest cliff being the Redwall Limestone. The LB Warming Polarizer provides the perfect amount of punch to this scene and helps saturate the reflection.

"We see in this next image how the turquoise water of the Little Colorado River jumps out against the deep blue sky. The polarizing effect to the sky enhances the wispy clouds. With Arizona's clear-blue skies you have to be careful that the effect is not too much. And it’s also important to watch for the distracting uneven over-polarized look that the sky can get when using wide-angle lenses. To give myself choices when editing, I remind myself to shoot scenes both with and without the polarizer, and also to vary its strength by rotating the front ring. Often I get seduced by the stunning way a highly polarized scene looks through the camera but later find I don't like the results.

"Now let's consider Singh-Ray's magical Vari-ND variable neutral-density filter. It's really fun when you want to play with the motion of flowing water. And surprisingly, in the Grand Canyon's hidden inner canyons, there is plenty of flowing water. The texture of the water looks very different at differing shutter speeds, so it's important to experiment. The Vari-ND makes it easy to vary the texture and speed of the water simply by rotating the front element and adjusting the shutter speed.

"In this shot, for example, our river guide Rob Elliot stands motionless in the swirling current, moving only his arms as he works his camera. My camera is stationary on a tripod and I’m using the mirror lock-up function. The 4-second exposure renders the water a pleasing silky look. And stopping down to f/22 provides a deep depth-of-field.

"We can see in the Vari-ND image below, how the white-water action is enhanced by the sense of motion to the splashing wave. Here I'm hand-holding my camera and panning with the raft as it's swept downstream. For this kind of action I find shutter speeds between 1/15 and 1/8 second provide the best results. The raft is acceptably sharp and there's still texture to the wave hitting the front of the raft.

"Now we come to the third essential filter -- or filters -- for shooting almost any outdoor photo adventure. Don't leave home without at least one graduated ND filter -- they are a must in the Grand Canyon. It's important to remember that our cameras cannot record the wide range of tones that our eyes see. Something has to give in a contrasty light situation that exceeds 5 stops between highlight and shadow areas, which very commonly occurs deep in the Grand Canyon. In such situations I find Singh-Ray's hard-step ND grads to be most useful. And with the way the last rays of the sun illuminate the canyon walls, I find the 2-stop hard-step ND Grad holds back just enough light to balance the overly bright tones in the scene. I don’t like either the 'filtered look' of Photoshop HDR or the extreme use of ND Grad filtration. I prefer the image to look natural, again how our eyes see it. I also carry a 3-stop, but I find the 2-stop is most useful to get a more natural result.

"When I shot this image, the dark gradient section of the filter was covering only the top third of the field of view, with the transition line running just above the level of the river. Stopping down to f/22 slows the shutter speed to 2 seconds and renders much more depth-of-field.

"In the final image, the 2-stop hard-edge ND Grad holds back the bright sky and the highlights on the cliff. Making this image at f/2.8 results in a shallow depth-of-field throwing the background out-of-focus. The soft morning light brings out the magenta hues in the white flowers -- the sacred datura. It’s critical to make this shot early in the day, as this wildflower blooms at night and the flowers wilt as soon as the direct sun hits them."

Based in Santa Fe, Ralph Lee Hopkins leads frequent workshops and photo trips for Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic. In April, 2010, he will lead a 16-day oar-boat trip and photo workshop down the Colorado River. You can find more information on Ralph's new website: