Friday, March 05, 2010

Veteran sports photographer also striving for success with his fine-art landscapes

As a professional sports and landscape photographer living in the scenic southern Bay Area of California, Don Smith leads a number of landscape photography workshops in the western U.S., including trips along the spectacular Big Sur coastline.

“My philosophy," says Don, "includes the concept that art is initially created in our mind. Cameras, lenses, and filters are my way of translating that vision into an image. I can teach anyone the craft side of photography in a relatively short period of time. The vision side takes a lifetime -- we never stop learning how to see.

“To that end, I feel it is extremely important to get the image right in-the-camera -- and that's where Singh-Ray filters help. As you can see in these images.

"The Big Sur coastline is like my backyard playground. I am intimately familiar with the entire 90-mile coastline, though I find myself shooting the bulk of my images within the first 37 miles south of Carmel. In the image above of the three rocks captured at Garrapata Beach at dusk, I envisioned soft tones for the entire image. Mother Nature provided me the warm sky; I simply needed to calm the water to complete the mood. I immediately went to my Singh-Ray Vari-ND Variable Neutral Density filter and played with various shutter speeds. I finally settled on this 30-second exposure using my 70-200mm lens on my Canon 1Ds MKIII. There really is no magic formula for water as conditions are never the same. My advice is to play with the motion until it feels and looks good to your eye.

"Here's another favorite location of mine at the northern end of Garrapata State Park. Undoubtedly this is the most photographed section of the entire 90-mile Big Sur coastline and for good reason. The rocky shoreline and dramatic backdrop of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range make for an unbelievably gorgeous setting. This is also the one section of Big Sur where the weather is impossible to predict. Clouds and fog can hug the headlands and can form within minutes.

"Winter in Big Sur generally means the absence of fog, and when storms pass through, extremely vibrant sunset skies can result. I have always found numerous photo opportunities at Sobranes Point featuring the Sobranes Arch. Using my 16-35mm lens on my full frame Canon 1DsMKIII camera, I was able to create the front-to-back depth I wanted to make this image work. Because of the extreme difference in contrast from the vibrant sky to the colorful non-native ice plant in the foreground, I used a 5-stop, soft-step ND Grad to balance the image. It was also important that I captured enough motion in the water to give the viewer a sense of the power of the ocean’s swells. Controlling the sky with the 5-stop ND Grad allowed for a 1-second exposure which provided the proper texture in the surging water.

"When I am not out photographing along the coast, I love being in the mountains. On a recent workshop that I co-instructed with Gary Hart, we had our group on location in the Alabama Hills above the town of Lone Pine at dawn. We planned to photograph the full moon setting just to the right of Mt. Whitney. As is often the case when photographing in the Eastern-Sierra, some lenticular clouds began to form near the crest. Seemingly within minutes, these lenticulars sprouted what appeared to be giant wings just as the rising sun began to paint them with its warm light.

"Not wanting to turn the foreground into a total silhouette, I opted to use my Singh-Ray 2-stop soft-step Graduated Neutral Density filter to blend the scene more to how my eye was witnessing it. And it worked beautifully! The soft-edge filter transitioned nicely into the shadowed foreground, but still allowed enough light on the foreground to record detail. I captured this scene again with my Canon full-frame 1DsMKIII, and 24-70mm lens. I also used my Singh-Ray Polarizer to help saturate the color on both the cloud and the snow-covered mountains.

"I am fortunate to live within a short drive of some of California’s most beautiful coastal-mountain scenery. This image of a mist bow in Big Basin State Park’s Berry Creek Falls was really a fortuitous moment. It took about 2-1/2 hours of hiking to reach this 40-foot falls, and when I arrived, I began cursing my luck that the sun had crested a ridge behind me and was adding some splotchy light on the falling water.

"But much to my surprise (and good luck), a tiny mist bow began to materialize. I immediately ditched the idea of capturing the entire falls and went to work on isolating just a small portion of the falls. The sun was moving fast and so was the bow, when finally some tall redwoods blocked the sun’s path and the light fell off the falls. Seemingly minutes later, the light magically re-appeared and this bow spanned the entire width of the falls!

"I knew I wanted to slow the water down and allow the sensuous lines of the water to paint the image. So I used my Singh-Ray Vari-N-Duo to ensure that I could properly polarize the mist bow and slow the water. Again I just played with varying amounts of neutral density, which in turn allowed me to experiment with various shutter speeds, and I settled on 2.5 seconds. It was then just a matter of experimenting with different compositions until I found one that felt right.

"This past summer, I decided to add a workshop on the paradise island of Kauai, Hawaii, and even though I had photographed this incredible island many times before, it was time to head back to review potential shooting locations. This past July I awoke early and headed to Wailua Bay on the eastern side of the island just north of Lihue. I could see a gap along the horizon and anticipated a sun-star when the sun hit the horizon.

"I scrambled to find the best foreground and discovered these black rocks. I hoped the earliest warm rays would paint them red. To control the extreme contrast, I used my Daryl Benson 3-stop Reverse ND Grad, and simply placed the darkest portion of the grad along the horizon line. I set my aperture at f/16 to ensure my starburst and this was the result! And as you can see, the red light did indeed reflect in the wet rocks; without that reflection, I believe the foreground would have been too dark. The 3-stop Reverse Grad proves to be an invaluable filter when shooting sunrises and sunsets along the ocean. It's the one location where photographers can almost always count on a straight horizon line!

"I have been using my Singh-Ray filters for years and I will continue to carry them wherever I go. Software certainly has its place in today’s digital world, but I come from the background of 20 years of shooting color transparencies, where there was no tolerance for exposure mistakes. I've learned to slow down and make sure the image is correct before tripping the shutter. Hasty 'grip and rip' photography does not cut it in the competitive world of landscape photography. Whenever an image can be captured by using a filter to match my vision, it's applied. I'm convinced my time is best spent behind the camera, and not in front of the computer."

Don is a contract photographer for Getty Images with both his sports and landscape imagery. To learn much more about Don's photographic activities and his 2010 schedule of workshops, be sure to visit his website and blog.

No comments: