Friday, October 22, 2010

After suffering bad weather in the Canadian Rockies this year, Les Picker fondly recalls the summer of 2009

When he was 11 years old, Les Picker's dad bought him a 35mm SLR camera. Nearly five decades and a Ph.D. in environmental affairs later, he still loves to take photos and write about the natural world. "I think it was George Lepp who said there is no such thing as a bad day for a nature photographer. I’ve experienced all too many days in the field where conditions were so awful I wasn’t even able to snap the shutter, let alone snag a decent shot. But I was out there, communing with nature and loving every minute of the adventure.

"Along those lines, I recently returned from a photo shoot this summer in the Canadian Rockies, where 300 wildfires burned continuously and it rained half the time, it was the 'perfect storm' of photographic hell. For all my efforts I had very few usable images. I had to constantly remind myself to breathe and just enjoy the moment.

"Then again, there are those incredible days where the stars align and everything works. In fact, that's how it was during my trip to the Canadian Rockies in 2009 -- that trip more than made up for this summer's fiasco. Let me tell you about capturing these four images from that trip. I came upon this first scene (above) in Hillsdale Meadow in Banff National Park. It had just rained and the trees were beckoning, but the cloudless skies were not cooperating. Thirty minutes later, clouds began moving in rapidly. The challenge was to get the yellows in the trees to pop and, at the same time, balance the scene with the blue sky and billowing clouds.

"I used my Singh-Ray Warming Polarizer to saturate the leaves and slipped a Singh-Ray 3-stop, soft-step ND Grad into my filter holder. I fiddled with the angle of the ND Grad, but when the sun poked through some clouds to my right, it blew out the alpenglow on the peak. I decided to compensate a bit for that glow by adding another 1-stop ND Grad filter to hold back the peak. It also toned down the sky, but it was a sacrifice I was willing to make. For me the strength of the white tree trunks and yellow leaves carries the day.

"This next image is of Moraine Lake in Banff National Park. It was a frigid cold October day and it had snowed the night before. The day was miserable -- cold and damp -- and I waited for six hours for the clouds to break, so I could record a decent image. Since I had originally thought I’d get a shot right away, I didn’t take any food with me and by time the clouds parted just a bit, my blood sugar was low, my hands were shaking and I had a headache.

"This was a tricky lighting situation. The sky was completely clouded over all day, so when a patch of sky at the top of my composition showed some blue, my cable release quickly went to work. Up to that point, I hadn’t seen any reflections in the water due to windy conditions. Then, suddenly, it all came together. The wind died down for literally five minutes, enough for a reflection of the peaks, and then it was over. The sky completely clouded over and it started to alternately drizzle and snow.

"For this shot I used a 2-stop, soft-step Graduated ND filter, but when I looked at the histogram, I saw some blown-out pixels in the snow in the foreground. So, I added a 1-stop, soft-step graduated ND, placed in my holder upside-down, to hold back the snow and preserve some of its structure. Despite the dreary day, I came home with a few good shots and not the typical ones you see taken in sunny conditions. By the way, the water really is that lovely blue color -- the result of glacial melt and the minerals carried down from the mountains.

"This image is a classic Singh-Ray shot. I love technically challenging shots when I have the tools to deal with them. In this case, I was in Banff National Park and with sunset rapidly approaching and the sky not at all promising, I was daydreaming of downing a quick meal and hitting the sack.

"But this tiny pond beckoned, and for no more than three minutes the sky parted just enough for a few quick shots. My first images were horrible. I had blown out pixels from the sky and the pond reflections and the tree line was lost in shade and lacked detail. I quickly mounted a 2-stop, soft-step graduated ND filter on the top. Slightly better results, but the pond was still too hot and the snow right above the pond was a bit too bright. As the sky was closing very, very quickly, I pulled a 1-stop, soft-step Graduated ND out of my pouch and inserted it upside-down in my filter holder. Since it was graduated, it worked like a charm. I had the darkest part of the filter over the bright areas of the pond and the lighter gradient on the snow.

"This final example from that trip in 2009 is of Wedge Pond, just outside Calgary. I was already running late to catch my flight back east, but the allure of that pond near sunset was irresistible. I came to a screeching halt in the parking lot (not another soul was around) and I ran along the beach (I had my bear spray with me!) to get into position. I squeezed in a few shots before I realized I was in serious danger of missing my flight.

"One thing you gain after using Singh-Ray filters for a while is an intuitive sense of how they will work. I did not have time to get an exposure reading of the sky and a reading off the tree line, then figure out how many stops I needed for my graduated NDs. In this case I quickly pulled a Graduated 3-stop ND filter out of my belt pouch as I was setting up, snapped the images and ran back to the car, my knees caked in mud. But I did make my flight and came home with the goods."

Les is a professional nature photojournalist with more than 600 writing and photo credits in National Geographic publications, Forbes, Fortune Small Business, Better Homes & Gardens and dozens of other publications. You'll find samples of his work at He is also happy to answer photo questions at his blog site. Les wishes to express his thanks to Darwin Wiggett for introducing him to some of these locations and to Alan Ernst for his logistical help and advice.

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