Friday, July 17, 2009

The Art and Method of Satisfaction Management

One of the challenges of serious photography is balancing time in the field with the demands of "real life." We asked aspiring outdoor photographer Floris van Breugel for his perspective. "Being a graduate student at Caltech is generally considered a rather time consuming ‘day job,' and yet, I'm committed to getting out and coming home regularly with meaningful images" says Floris. "My time is limited, that’s a fact; but I'm always finding new ways to use my time more efficiently. Part of the solution is realizing that -- if I expect to come home from a photo trip with original and exciting images -- I need to do enough careful research and planning to make sure my time is spent wisely.

"And speaking of time spent wisely, it takes me almost no extra time while I'm in the field to use my filters. If, for example, I were to take the approach of blending multiple exposures to extend the dynamic range of the image, I would need to spend considerable time at home in post processing to get the light balance in each image just right. Since learning how to use my ND grads, polarizers and other Singh-Ray filters to get it right in the field, I now know before leaving the scene that I’ve captured it just the way I want it to look and that it will only take a few more minutes on the computer to create the final image. That means I can spend more time photographing in the field! My best advice is to get the 4x6-inch-size Graduated ND filters and start hand holding them -- that way you can move the filter a bit during the exposure, which reduces the ‘grad line’ effect that can turn some people away from using them.

"Recently, however, I'm aware of something else that's important to my image making strategy... we might call it 'satisfaction management.' I'm not entirely certain where this concept will eventually lead me, but I can say it began when I recently read the thoughts of veteran professionals Guy Tal and Darwin Wiggett on making more personally meaningful images to satisfy our own souls rather than always going for 'trophy" images to meet the expectations of our perceived audience and/or marketplace. I only know I hope to make more images that reflect my personal experience with my subjects. (For more on this topic, I suggest a reading Guy's article and Darwin's article). In order to balance the two sides, I now intend to make sure there will be opportunities during each trip for both some pre-planned images, as well as ample time to explore new opportunities with an open mind.

"Increasingly, photographers think they need brilliant sunsets to make beautiful images. However, we all know there’s a lot more than sunsets out there -- we don’t need fleecy white clouds at all to have a fantastic time and come home with images that convey the experience. Here’s a recent example from the Alabama Hills in the Eastern Sierra, where I used my 3-stop Reverse Graduated ND filter to shoot into the sun. This exposure did require some post-processing to remove the flare created by shooting into the sun, but without my reverse ND grad I would not have been able to properly capture the complete sun-star.

"I have also learned to make the most of any weather and lighting conditions -- be they rumbling storm clouds, or clear blue skies. There’s always something beautiful out there! Now, back to my methods for maximizing the way I spend my time. Here are some examples of first some planned 'trophy' images and then images that just emerged from my experience at the moment. Having seen some imagery from similar oak savannah areas in the California foothills, I decided it was time to give it a go myself. With a few tips and some fine-tuning using the 3D terrain view of Google earth, I found what looked like a great spot. Already the time of year was just right – I wanted golden hills with budding oak trees – now it was just a question of getting the right weather conditions. I started to watch the weather over the area – a clearing storm overnight would give me the best chance at a striking sunrise. When that day appeared, I drove the 2.5 hours in the middle of the night, slept in the car, and awoke to a vast expanse of rolling hills. I spent a good hour exploring to find just the right spot with a complementary foreground. That of course is where the real creativity comes in – the personal connection that will give the image a deeper meaning. As the sun broke through, soft pastels graced the landscape, and with my 2-stop hard-step Graduated ND filter I took this image, “Freedom of the Hills,” as a 3-shot panorama. After taking in the surroundings for a bit longer, I drove home, edited the file in record time (thanks to the Graduated ND filters), and was at work in lab before 10. It was a bittersweet experience though. While it’s one of my favorite images, there’s an emptiness that comes from having made it in such a hit-and-run, trophy-collecting manner.

"The travel approach I prefer is a well-researched trip, with ample time and opportunities for real discoveries. Recently I had such a trip to Minaret Lake in the High Sierra. I had been anticipating this excursion since last year -- I knew I wanted to catch these dramatic peaks towering over a half frozen lake. After paying attention to previous years' weather patterns, talking with the rangers, and monitoring the weather (temperatures), a friend and I decided to gamble on a weekend in late June. After the 8-mile hike I came over the ridge and was greeted with a perfectly half-thawed alpine lake! That evening the remnants of a thunderstorm blew over, and the setting crescent moon completed the magical scene. Using my 2-stop hard-step Graduated ND filter I was able to contain all of the scene's dynamic range into one easy exposure. Those hours of careful research ended up paying off quite a bit!

"The following day I spent taking in the scenery, and exploring the thawing alpine landscape. I stumbled upon this patch of fresh Corn Lilies, and just had to endure the steady barrage of mosquitoes. The large gray boulders littered throughout the garden added a Zen-like quality that I really enjoyed. After I put on my Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer, the scene just got better -- the filter brought out the natural greens to their full potential.

"That evening I decided to try and get an image of the friendly marmot that had been hanging around our camp. It was the least I could do to make up for the chewed up hiking poles he left me. After many tries, I finally managed to get close enough to use my wide angle lens for an environmental portrait. The 2-stop hard-step Graduated ND filter allowed me to capture the whole scene in a single easy-to-process exposure. Lesson: always be prepared to take advantage of a relatively unexpected moment, and keep your filters within reach!

"Lastly, I want to reiterate what so many photographers I admire have said -- good images come from the heart; from a personal connection with nature. Sometimes it’s important to take the time to go somewhere just to explore, with no real idea what you may or may not find. You might be pleasantly surprised. I refer to the image at the top of this story which I found in a seldom visited canyon in the backcountry of King’s Canyon National Park. I knew the first part of the canyon quite well, but had no idea what treasures were hidden several miles downstream. I was ecstatic to discover this peaceful and mossy stream, which also happened to be home to a pair of American Dippers. Using my Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer, I was able to cut out the distracting glare, enhance the natural colors, and all that without losing too much light -- thanks to the efficient 'lighter, brighter' quality of the filter (it was approaching twilight in the dark canyon).

"In conclusion," says Floris, "whenever you're feeling short on time, it’s helpful to do your research and carefully time your trips to maximize the potential results. But, at the same time, it’s critical to always be open to the unknown and the unexpected experience. Knowing how and when to apply the tools in your filter bag can make that a lot easier, too!"

To keep up with Floris' photographic excursions, be sure to bookmark his website, his blog, and check out his Flickr galleries, too.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Three recent images produced with a very well-traveled set of Singh-Ray Filters

As a Pulitzer-Prize winning photographer and frequent contributor to many leading news, travel and sports publications, Jay Dickman has literally covered the world.

"Most recently," says Jay, "I’ve had the great opportunity to travel with Lindblad/National Geographic Expeditions (eight ships in the fleet, traveling year-around, pole-to-pole) as the on-board National Geographic Expert, providing lectures and photographic input to the travelers aboard these amazing journeys. Three trips to the Antarctic, two to Baja, a couple to the Galapagos, the Dalmatian Coast, and -- the cherry on the sundae -- the ultimate trip “Around the World by Private Jet.”

"In this atmosphere, I get to combine my two passions: photography and teaching. Many of the trips are photographically driven; excursions to the shore are set at 'prime-light' time, providing not only the tremendous locations but also positioning the photographers onboard for the best light possible.

Landing recently on Port Lockroy in the Antarctic, we off-loaded our Zodiac rafts in rather inclement weather…mid-20’s and blowing snow and sleet. Making our way through the cabins of this 19th century British outpost, the weather started moving out (if you think your home location fits the old-saw, 'if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes,' the Antarctic takes this adage to the 10th power; one minute you are in sun and shirtsleeves, the next the temperature has dropped 25 degrees and you are fighting horizontal blowing snow and fog). On this small rock island, there are colonies of gentoo penguins. Rules of the road here dictate that visitors do NOT approach, touch or impede the progress of these residents. We are guests, and we are to respect the rules.

"The photo above was captured with the Antarctic Peninsula and its mountains as the background and a number of visually enticing gentoos close by. I moved within about 5 meters of the closest bird and sat. Penguins are curious and it didn’t take long for this one to shuffle up towards me, trying to figure out why I was there. The foreground was in the shade of the departing storm, the mountains in the background were basking in the sun…pretty but one of those impossible lighting situations for the photographer, as the dynamic range was too great for the camera to capture.

"I’ve been using Singh-Ray filters for several years, not willing to chance my images to anything less. From the LB Warming Polarizer to the Galen Rowell series of Graduated ND Filters, these filters are permanent residents of my camera bags. Although our eyes can see a tremendous dynamic range, the camera has a much more limited range. Looking at this scene, my eyes could take in the shadows as well as the detail in the sun-lit snow. With this fact in mind, I used a 2-stop, soft-step ND Grad filter that would place the demarcation zone over a broader area so the transition in density would not be noticeable.

"The one foreground penguin shuffled closer, the guy on the top left did a moment of sky pointing, giving the image a little more interest on that next layer, and the above image was made using my Olympus E3, 12-60mm lens @ 23mm, 1/250th of a second at f8 at 100 ISO.

"On another expedition to the Antarctic, we were incredibly fortunate to have visited Neko Harbor, one of the most stunningly beautiful bodies of water on the earth. Calving glaciers, icebergs, mountains, it’s the definition of sensory overload. These expeditions carry kayaks onboard the ship for those desiring a nearer experience to the frigid waters of the Antarctic. I’d gone out solo in one, and several of us were navigating towards a huge iceberg -- but not too close as these can roll quite unexpectedly and quickly. While one boat was passing in front of this behemoth, I used the Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer, turned not all the way to full polarization (the sky was intense enough without making it look false). I wanted to bring down the value of the sky while making the reflection a bit more pronounced. A couple of frames, and we paddled back to the ship. This time my camera was the Olympus E30, 12-60mm lens @ 17mm, 1/500th of a second at f4.4.

"Now let’s go about as far away as possible from Antarctica, both literally and figuratively, to the Pyramids of Egypt. Near the end of the Around the World by Private Jet trip, we landed in Cairo, Egypt, home of the famed Pyramids. Our stop here was in midday because we were moving through a number of locations.

"We’d gone to an overlook, where one can see all three of the Pyramids with a clean and unobstructed foreground. I was shooting the typical scenes, our group was scattered about, and our time had come to an end. As I was heading back to our vehicle, I saw this guy in his incredible headdress, offering to pose for photos for a fee. I ran up to him, asked him to just talk to a friend, and composed the image so there was no intrusion of cars or anything else which would detract from the timelessness of this image. Harken back to what time of day I’d mentioned earlier: midday. Not the best light for people photography, especially in the Egyptian desert. I only had a couple of minutes as our drivers were calling for us, so I decided to use my Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer -- again on the Olympus E30 and 12-60mm lens -- knowing that it would help provide saturation in the sky (a sand storm had moved through a short time before) as well as reducing the reflections on his skin. I had just enough time to make two frames before a caravan of buses and cars intruded on the road in the background; I was finished... but I was pleased with the results from the first two frames."

In addition to his ventures with Lindblad/National Geographic, Jay currently hosts his own series of FirstLight digital photography workshops in locations around the world. "Just when I think I'm sick of spending so much time away from home, I do my drill -- I pick up that camera and the magic flows through me." To see more of Jay's magic, visit www.jaydickman.net or visit his workshop schedule at www.firstlightworkshop.com