Friday, April 30, 2010

Photographer navigates his own 22-foot boat to capture Southeast Alaska's coastal beauty

Seattle photographer Jon Cornforth currently has a feature article in the May issue of Popular Photography describing his very special photo accessory -- a small 22-foot C-dory -- used each summer to capture a variety of dramatic images in Southeast Alaska. Though Jon is well known here on the Singh-Ray blog for his dramatic landscape images from all over the world, he is also an accomplished wildlife and underwater photographer. The story's opening double-page image shows a humpback whale swimming with its mouth open after bubble-feeding. Humpback whales feed in large groups by blowing bubbles out of their blow hole and swimming in a circle beneath a school of herring. The fish become trapped in the middle of the rising bubble-ring which the whales then swim up through with their mouths open to swallow their prey.

Jon uses his boat to visit many remote locations throughout Southeast Alaska, but one of his favorite destinations is Glacier Bay National Park. Jon anchors his boat in a protected anchorage for up to 10 days at a time in order to give himself the maximum opportunity to photograph an area. He spends his days using his small 12-foot inflatable boat to extensively explore ice-choked fjords, rainforests, and beaches. During his visit to Glacier Bay last year, he spent several days photographing the incredible blooms of lupine along the side of the Lamplugh Glacier. After several days of waiting for the wind to die down, he was finally rewarded with this image. He used his LB Warming Polarizer and 3-stop soft-step ND Grad filter to balance this dramatic scene.

The most elusive thing for a landscape photographer in Southeast Alaska is sunrise or sunset light. During a previous visit, the only day that Jon had soft low-angle light was when he was near Leland Island. While exploring in his inflatable he noticed this shell-covered beach and decided to photograph it later in the day. The reason there were so many shells was because of the thriving sea otter population. When the clouds started to part in the early evening (sunset is at 11pm during June), Jon was ready to take advantage of the fleeting light. Here the clouds still enveloped the Beartrack Mountains as the golden light illuminated the shells. Jon used his 2-stop hard-step ND Grad filter to balance this scene.

Anyone who happens to be on the water in Alaska this summer might want to keep an eye out for Jon and his boat Serenity. He says, "It's the perfect way for one to three photographers to head out on adventures for a week or two at a time, although it's certainly not a luxury cabin on a cruise ship. The inside of the boat includes a small kitchen with a stove that doubles as a heater. The main cabin keeps me warm and (mostly) dry from the torrential rains. The back deck is fully enclosed which allows me to remove and store wet gear before entering the cabin. There is no shower, but there is a porta-potty. I keep food in the ice chest on the back deck. Frequently a block of ice will last for over a week, since the air temperature is not that warm. Of course ice can be added simply by capturing a small iceberg floating in the fjords! The main engine is a 90-hp outboard. My Achilles inflatable has a 15-hp outboard which allows me to explore an area more thoroughly and get onto the land."

One of Jon's images also recently had the cover of the March issue of Outdoor Photographer! He photographed the mysterious moving rocks of the Racetrack in Death Valley National Park using his Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer. To see more of Jon's work you can visit his website and blog, or follow him on Twitter.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Veteran sports photographer successfully switches to shooting landscapes for a living

For more than 20 years, Don Smith operated his freelance sports photography business based in the southern Bay Area of California. Then his career began to move in a new direction. "Throughout my sports photography career," says Don, "I also pursued my passion for landscape photography. It served as my escape from demanding editors as well as the pressures of deadlines and late-night travel. Then in June of 2001, while vacationing in Mammoth Mountain, CA, my family and I drove to the newly opened Mountain Light Gallery in nearby Bishop. I had been a fan of the late Galen Rowell’s work, but as I roamed from image to stunning image hanging on his gallery’s walls, I was absolutely transfixed. I recall spending about three hours studying his prints. I remember telling my wife I was so inspired that I was going to rededicate myself to photographing landscapes.

"To master even one kind of photography generally requires a lifetime of effort, study, and discipline. Some would say that trying to deal with two is borderline insanity. Well, there are days I definitely feel certifiable because that is exactly what I have been doing for the past seven years as I transition from a world of sports to more and more landscape photography.

"When I decided to study photojournalism in college, I supported myself by working part-time for three small newspapers. Being the part-time guy meant shooting nights and weekends, when most sports are played. I discovered that I was blessed with a gift of hand/eye coordination – one either had it or they didn’t. This was obviously pre-autofocus days, and to make a living as a sports photographer required not only a knowledge of the game, but a mindset of an athlete and some quick reaction times to match while using 400mm and 600mm lenses.

"Ultimately I worked my way into stock agencies (Allsport and Getty), and a 5-year stint as a stringer for Sports Illustrated. From there it was on to serving as team photographer with the San Jose Sharks (still going strong after 19 years) and a 14-year stint as a baseball and football card photographer for Score, Upper Deck and Fleer Trading Cards. I have also spent 8 years as a contract photographer for the NBA.

"Until recently, photographers were allowed to sell their images with no restrictions. A freelance sports photographer could actually make a decent living. Now the leagues control everything. A nasty legal term, 'work for hire,' has found its way into virtually every contract one could sign -- relegating one’s images as the property of those paying the day rate.

"Although I loved shooting sports, I realized I could no longer turn over my images to those imposing such restrictions. I was far from burned-out, but I knew it was time for a career change. Four years later I had a portfolio of over 1,000 landscape images. I contacted an acquaintance at Getty Images, who in-turn passed my portfolio over to the agency's creative directors in Los Angeles and London. After some 8 months of having my images reviewed and re-reviewed, I was pleasantly stunned when I was awarded a contract to shoot both sports and landscape imagery. That was a little over three years ago and I have not slowed down since.

"What I like about shooting nature is the ability to work with light on my terms, something that was impossible to do with sports where I had to accept whatever light I was handed. Singh-Ray filters help me modify and balance the exceptional light that I love to capture. The image at the top of this story was the first of only four frames I captured at Julia Pfeiffer Burns McWay Falls during a recent workshop I taught in Big Sur, CA. It was the group’s first location shoot of the workshop, and I was busy making sure I was attending to the needs of the participants. As I moved to the last group, one participant pointed excitedly at the sky as the sun began to burn through the menacing fog bank that had greeted us. I quickly metered the sky, then the water in McWay Cove, and deduced that a 4-stop, soft-edge, Graduated Neutral Density filter would balance my exposure. I already had a Singh-Ray Neutral Polarizer on my lens and this was the result.

"I never used filters when photographing sports. As I mentioned, I had to work with whatever light I was handed. When photographing baseball games in California at high noon in mid-July, the light was about as harsh as any photographer could ever be faced with (especially shooting color film with its limited latitude). On the other hand, when photographing my landscape images, I can modify the light by patiently waiting for the quality of light I want in my images.

"For example, while photographing this Western Redbud in the Merced River Canyon west of Yosemite National Park, I wanted to bring out the vibrant color of this flowering tree. Keeping an eye on approaching Pacific storms allowed me to time my visit to the Canyon when there would be overcast, mostly rainy skies. I spotted this redbud in front of a seasonal waterfall just off Highway 140. The wind was very calm and I tried many compositions. I then switched from my Singh-Ray Neutral Polarizer to my newly purchased LB ColorCombo Polarizer/Color Intensifier. I was immediately impressed by the boost in color of not only the redbud, but also the green grass alongside the falls. I settled on an aperture of f/5.6 on my 70-200mm Canon lens to allow the redbud to remain sharply focused while rendering the falls and background slightly out-of-focus. The ColorCombo's built-in polarizer also added a bit of warmth to the scene that was dominated by cool UV light.

"In keeping with my springtime theme, I went for another drive along Carmel Valley Road that winds through the coastal hillsides east of Big Sur. What I love most about this scenic route are the moss-covered oaks that line the rolling hillsides. I began my trek approximately two hours prior to sunset and was treated to this scene near the Tassajara Hot Springs (about the half-way point of the drive). Fortunately these colorful Foothill Shooting Stars were just starting to make an appearance. I loved the play of light as the late-afternoon sun was dropping behind a nearby mountain peak. I used a 24-70mm lens at f/16 and focused just beyond the first band of flowers which I gauged to be the hyperfocal distance. I was able to improve the color saturation by again using the LB ColorCombo. This unique filter not only warmed the scene but it also allowed me to record the color in the scene the way I had envisioned it. The filter also removed the annoying glare from these flowers. I can tell I am really going to like this filter!

"This last image takes us back out along the Big Sur coast for a moonset at Garrapata State Park. High swells restricted my shooting position to the safety of the bluffs, which were alive with spring color. As sunrise neared, the skies warmed and the clouds parted enough to reveal the full moon. By taking a low camera position, I accentuated the interesting foreground which helped add the visual depth I wanted. After balancing the bright sky with the help of my 3-stop, hard-step ND Grad and a Singh-Ray Neutral Polarizer, I captured this image.

"All of these images required very little processing time other than some global corrections in Photoshop. Shooting for stock means processing many images on a daily basis and, with the help of my Singh-Ray filters, I can capture the images the way I want and forget about fussing with them in post-processing. That provides more time to be back out in the field creating new images! At this stage in the transition, 70% of my time is spent working with my landscapes and 30% with my sports. I plan to continue working for the San Jose Sharks for at least the next five years. I just hope we win a Stanley Cup by then!"

Don Smith leads a number of landscape photography workshops in the western U.S., including trips along the spectacular Big Sur coastline. To learn much more about Don's photographic activities and his 2010 schedule of workshops, be sure to visit his website and blog.