Friday, October 16, 2009

Five years after giving up all his filters, veteran photographer plans comeback

Dale Wilson is a self-taught professional photographer based in Nova Scotia who has been teaching and writing articles about photography for more than 20 years, most recently as a columnist for Outdoor Photography Canada magazine. Quite recently, he's come back to the world of enthusiastic filter users and agreed to share his experience.

"I was influenced relatively early in my career," says Dale, "by two friends who have gone on to achieve great acclaim in the world of outdoor photography. In December of 1994, good fortune placed me in the frozen environs of Jasper National Park, Alberta, which just happened to be the home shooting turf of Daryl Benson and Darwin Wiggett.

"I knew them both through their widely published images and stellar reputations. Daryl and I were contributing editors to a magazine called Photo Digest, and Darwin was writing for Photo Life. Darwin and I are now -- fifteen years later -- contributing editors with Outdoor Photography Canada, and Daryl just produces big coffee-table photo books about Canada and gets filters named after himself.

"Back in 1994, Daryl and Darwin were successfully photographing with filters more aggressively than any others I knew at that time. Like all good photographers, they had back-up filters, and before I knew it, I was loaded with split grads, colour intensifying filters, and others... a total of around 25 filters in all. For the next ten years I was to see and photograph the world in a variety of exciting colours.

"When digital capture started to take over, my photo clients and stock agencies began telling me they didn’t want to see those 'artificial' colours any longer. Reluctantly I reverted to bare lenses, but what emerged from my camera was oftentimes uninspired imagery. I was left wanting, but my clients were paying the bills and thus directing my results. What a shame that I had fallen into the trap.

"Now let's fast track forward to just last August, some 15 years after that foray into Canada’s Rocky Mountain parks. Yet another Singh-Ray blogger, the itinerant Ethan Meleg, came calling to my home in Nova Scotia. I first met Ethan several years earlier in Toronto -- and when one lives a mere 45-minute drive from the idyllic Peggy’s Cove fishing village and lighthouse, it has to be assumed there can be no better place for two photographers to have some fun. Now, immediately on arrival, I watched Ethan pull from his camera bag a case containing an arsenal of Singh-Ray filters that would make Bob Singh gleam with pride.

"More importantly, I was suddenly envious watching Ethan stack and adjust his filters with such precision and confidence. For me it was déjà vu. I knew I had suffered enough. Ethan was happy to share. I captured the image of the lighthouse (at the top of this story) with an LB Warming Polarizer plus two Galen Rowell Graduated NDs -- a 2-stop hard-step and 3-stop soft-step -- which I feathered together and hand held during the exposure. I used the same LB Polarizer and a 3-stop soft-step ND Grad for the second image.

"I soon found myself looking up at an ominous cloud bank that I knew would most certainly block the setting sun. I also realized that despite the obligatory bus load of tourists that would parade to this beacon precisely 15-minutes prior to sunset, and despite more than five years of using manipulation software instead of Graduated ND filters, I found myself sitting in this scenic sanctuary feeling contented... most contented indeed. Maybe, and hopefully, my own Singh-Ray filter pack will lead me away from the computer screen and back out to the field where I can once again make pictures I find pleasing -- rather than taking pictures that are simply appeasing. Aaagh, now that felt good!"

To enjoy more of Dale's images and helpful photo tips, check out his column in Outdoor Photography Canada or visit his website.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Capturing more fine images in each location calls for an open mind as well as keen eyes

As outdoor photographer Shane McDermott sees it, living in Flagstaff, Arizona, is as good as it gets. "Being so close to many of our nation's outdoor treasures inspires me to explore the surrounding natural world almost every day. But then some days are even better, like my recent 15-hour adventure to photograph the breakout of wildflowers in the high alpine basins of southwest Colorado.

"All five of the images seen here, and more, were taken during the visit to Ice Lake Basin in the San Juan mountains of Colorado's high country. They were captured in the span of one late afternoon and the following morning. One reason for this success was the great weather and atmospheric conditions that produced some exceptional light. We all know it's great to be lucky... to be in the right place at the right time.

"However, I believe more of my success on this trip was the result of opening my mind -- as well as my eyes -- while photographing. I felt determined to respond to whatever magical images I might find awaiting me. Until lately, I have often headed into the field with a relatively fixed or preconceived idea of what I wanted to photograph. I'm increasingly aware that I often become so fixated on capturing the image I pre-visualized that my field work is reduced to a 'seek and conquer mission.' In the past, I'm certain I've overlooked many images my mind never even imagined.

"At Ice Lake Basin, I was working on a way to get around this potential pitfall. I tried to suspend all aspirations and imaginings of specific images I should try to bring back. My intent was to respond to whatever nature had to offer at the time -- allowing myself to be moved by not only what I was seeing but what I was experiencing. So, here are several of the unexpected images I discovered during those 15 hours.

"The image above may be my favorite of the trip, and it's one that I almost walked on. Actually, that colorful little sneeze weed plant is only about 8 inches high. I barely notice it, until I had practically stepped on it. With this scene I wanted to portray the enduring quality of this isolated plant, and the short and precarious life cycle of all the wildflowers that live above 12,000 feet. This landscape was captured about 30 minutes after sunup, normally at a time when the light is already starting to become harsh. Fortunately a thin layer of clouds helped to diffuse the light, creating a beautifully soft glow. However a fairly consistent breeze now started to become a factor in each image that was going to include flowers, so I moved the ISO up to 800 to keep the shutter speed fast enough to prevent blurring of the flower. That wasn't my only challenge though, I also needed to hand-hold my camera for this image, something I almost never do for landscape photographs. The light was changing so quickly, and the rock slope was so unstable that it would have taken too long to establish a solid base in which to position my tripod. I just quickly dropped to the ground, laid on my side and took the picture -- good thing I did, because the light was gone within 30 seconds of capturing the image. My Singh-Ray LB ColorCombo was on the job, reducing glare and adding punch to the sky, while the color intensifier gave the scene a boost. The 'lighter, brighter' formulation gave me a shutter speed advantage that helped minimize motion blur.

"Thankfully the thin cloud cover persisted, which extended my shoot significantly! By this time I had moved back down to the lake surface, and for a brief period of time the wind subsided. The tremendous reflections commanded my attention, and I responded. The spotty yet diffused light provided wonderful opportunities to accentuate deep and dramatic compositions, and really place the light in the best spot to leverage the viewer. I also leveraged the two stones and plant in the foreground to create a strong anchor from which the eye can venture into the scene. The LB ColorCombo allowed me to manage the glare on the lake surface, emphasizing the reflections while allowing the stones in the shallow water to be clearly visible, among other enhancements. As soon as the breeze returned, I went on -- waiting for nature to present herself to me in another new way.

"For me this nearly sunset scene holds a lot of drama and visual depth. Technically, there are atmospheric conditions present that might have discouraged many landscape 'purists' from taking this shot. I personally feel the distant haze adds to the mysterious nature of this image, perhaps like a scene out of 'Lord of the Rings.' My Singh-Ray 2-stop hard-step ND Grad and LB ColorCombo performed perfectly.

"It is a good practice to let go of your own bias and visual preferences, (like mine for big vistas) and allow something different to present itself to you. This image required quite a wait. The light I had hoped for, didn't quite happen; but the scene still lent itself to a strong composition regardless. Many of my other compositions were showcasing the flowers so beautifully, but here I wanted to show the life-giving mountain stream that makes all those brilliant flowers possible. This image added an important piece to my story of Ice Lake, and again, the LB ColorCombo helped add visual intensity to the overall image.


"This was the very last image taken on this trip. The cloud cover was breaking as I was walking back to camp thinking I was finished for the trip, but I was still remained alert for further possibilities. I am in the habit of not packing up my camera gear while heading back from a shoot -- just in case I see something of interest. I had been working hard, and felt exhausted and hungry. If I had not been carrying my camera and tripod ready to go, I may have never seen this composition. Had my camera gear been packed, I would have been psychologically and visually done! Good habits in photography often pay off! I'd left my LB ColorCombo on the lens as well, which helped me do justice to the colors nature had to offer me, and my 2-stop hard-step ND Grad let me balance the exposure of the sky as my eye saw the scene.

"And that's my story of interacting with some of the images at Ice Lake Basin, as I allowed them to present themselves to me. But here is an important closing suggestion. If you want to tell a diverse and interesting visual story of one location, pay close attention to what you have already captured, recognize when the same or similar scene re-presents itself to you, and consciously don't shoot it again, move on. Allow something different to capture your imagination. By the end of your day, you may be surprised to discover how many fresh and unique images you have acquired from that same location."

To keep up with Shane's photo excursions and latest stories, you'll want to visit his website and his blog.