Friday, September 24, 2010

Jon Cornforth's landscapes of Iceland show why he often goes for the not-so-wide-angle image

Continuing his report on the two weeks he recently spent in Iceland, Jon Cornforth notes that he experienced mostly gloomy weather during the entire trip. "While living in the Pacific Northwest, I've grown accustomed to lousy weather, but in Iceland, it did provide some incredible lighting conditions for landscape photography. At times, I was disappointed to find the colorful hills still covered in ash from the eruption of the volcano Eyjafjallajökull just a few months earlier (that shut down air traffic in Europe for days), but there was still plenty of spectacular scenery to shoot everywhere I looked.

"The photo above was taken during my visit to the rugged area known as Landmannalaugar (pronounced Land-mann-a-loi-ger). I saw some photos of this dramatic area prior to my trip, but didn't research it extensively. I was excited that the road had just opened upon my arrival in early June, so I decided to make a visit. The nice thing about visiting early in the season was that the tourist hordes were noticeably absent.I had almost the entire camping area to myself and there was not another soul on the trails I explored. For any blog readers considering a visit to Iceland, keep this early season in mind.

"Landmannalaugar is located about 4 hours from Rekjavik, the capital and largest city in Iceland. The road is paved all the way except for the final 40kms. Two shallow river crossings (with a rental car!) were the final obstacles between me and the scenic beauty that I was about to experience. I always try to get to a new location early enough to scout the area, but it was definitely time to start shooting as soon as the car was parked. The sky was full of perfect cotton-candy clouds and the sun danced across the scene. I grabbed my camera gear and quickly set out to explore the river bed to the east of the campground. Within half an hour of my arrival, I focused on this composition (at top). I used my 2-stop hard-step Graduated ND filter on my 28mm f2 lens to balance the exposure. This not-so-wide-angle perspective allowed me to maintain a pleasing balance between the size of the hills in the distance and the stream bank in the foreground. Another technique I employed was waiting for the direct sunlight to go behind a cloud, so I could have more even light on the rocks and stream without the sun casting my shadow.

While camping at Landmannalaugar for 4 days, I found the main challenge was to get my sleep during the day. I always wonder why photographers would visit the Arctic during the summer and sleep at night rather than stay up to experience the long sunset-sunrise? Except for my travel buddy, I had Landmannalaugar all to myself each night from 8 pm until 5 am.

"This is another of my favorite images that I created after hiking up to the Brennisteinsalda steam vents. The clouds lit up with color right before midnight. Through trial and error, I was able to capture the steam emanating from the steam vents in this pleasing pattern. I anchored the scene with this prominent volcanic rock and used my 3-stop hard-step ND Grad to balance the exposure. I chose my 28mm f2 lens so that I could shoot fairly wide while including the dramatic sky without rendering the distant hills as tiny specks.

"I explored the main hiking trails from the campground and became particularly enchanted with the geothermal steam vents at the base of Brennisteinsalda. I returned to this surreal location 2 nights in a row and was rewarded with this dramatic image when the clouds parted and the sun illuminated the summit of Blahnukur in golden light. Originally, I was using my Carl Zeiss 28mm f2 lens to crop in tighter on the mountain, but once the dramatic light began to illuminate the distant hills and clouds, I switched back to using my beloved Canon 17-40mm f4 lens. I zoomed out to 22mm to compose this grand scene and used my 2-stop hard-step ND Grad filter to balance the mountain and dramatic clouds from the foreground steam vents. I also had to wait until the wind occasionally blew the steam emanating from the base of the rock in front of me away from my fogged up camera to trip the shutter.

"The images in this story and in the one postedhere three days ago were all selected to make a specific point... that just because we have a wide-angle zoom, we don't always have to use it at its widest setting. By questioning more carefully if wider is actually better in terms balancing the prominence of the subject in the foreground with whatever appears in the background, I have discovered that it often pays to back off a bit."

Jon is based in Seattle, WA, and can be found all over the internet. In addition to his blog, check out his Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, and YouTube pages. More recently, he was invited to become a contributor to the Outdoor Photographer Blog. And of course, you can visit his website to see more photographs and learn about his photo tours.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Jon Cornforth recently photographed Iceland for 15 days -- or, more accurately, let's say 15 days and nights

This past June, landscape photographer Jon Cornforth had an opportunity to return to Iceland. "I had previously visited this unique and rugged country 9 years ago when I was beginning my photography career," says Jon. "At that time, however, I did not have a clue what I was doing with a camera. Return trips like this prompt me to look back on all the lessons I've learned since my previous visit. The three images of Iceland in this story relate directly to one lesson that's taken a while to fully sink into my head.

"These three images encourage me to hope I've learned to avoid shooting my landscapes at excessively wide angles. I've noticed than many photographers instinctively gravitate toward using the super-wide, short-focal-length end of their lenses. I routinely see my photography tour clients set up their camera as high as their tripod legs will extend and try to include absolutely everything in the image that's in front of their lens. So what's wrong with that?

"It's taken me many hours of reviewing my own photographs as well as those of many others to become aware of how easy it is for our very-wide-angle lenses to reduce the important background features -- the cloud filled sky, the distant mountain range or powerful waterfall -- to tiny parts of the overall scene. Let's consider the focal lengths I primarily use these days when shooting landscape images. I primarily shoot a full-frame Canon 5DmkII and for the past year I have used my Canon 17-40mm f4 lens. I have found there are certain images that require a very-wide-angle focal length. But, over the years, I've gravitated toward the modest 28-35mm range. In addition to my zoom lens, I now own the slightly sharper Carl Zeiss 25mm f2 and 35mm f2 prime lenses. I find that this more limited range allows me to shoot my wide-angle images with more equal prominence between the subjects in the foreground and the distant background images. Let's look at some examples from my recent Icelandic photos.

"Shooting conditions in Iceland were incredibly difficult due to the constantly cloudy weather. Also, because it was summer in the Arctic, the sun barely dipped below the horizon between midnight and 3 am. This made for long nights of shooting, which meant that I slept during the day. I began to appreciate the demanding schedule of vampires.

"One of the locations I was determined to photograph was Jokulsarlon. This spectacular glacial lagoon is choked with icebergs that have calved off the Breidamerkurjokull glacier. It is an abstract photographer’s dream. I created this atmospheric image (photo above) when the sunrise briefly illuminated the tops of the thin layer of clouds at 3 am. I used my Singh-Ray 4-stop soft-step Graduated ND filter to balance the exposure and my 35mm f2 prime lens for a wide-angle perspective that cropped in on the primary iceberg and reflection while not reducing the clouds or distant icecap to tiny subjects off in the distance.

"Prior to my trip, I had seen many photos of icebergs stranded on the beach in front of Jokulsarlon, but this location was not a priority for me to shoot. However, I ended up scouting it a few times in the middle of the night while waiting for the sunrise over the more dramatic lagoon. Most of the time, the clouds were oppressive and the light was terrible. I either did not shoot at all or deleted most of the images once I got home. However, I created this surprisingly beautiful photograph at 12:30 am on my last night at Jokulsarlon. I love the color that the clouds reflected from the midnight sun on the northern horizon. This translucent piece of ice made for a nice foreground subject, as well as the repetition patterns of the larger icebergs behind it. I used a 3-stop hard-step Graduated ND filter to balance the exposure and my 35mm prime lens to give this wide-angle image a closer-to-normal perspective.

"In total, I visited Jokulsarlon five different nights during my 2-week trip, hoping to photograph an epic midnight sunset or sunrise. On the night that I finally created this image, the magic light had threatened to overwhelm the clouds for several hours, but finally only made a brief appearance. I created the previous image of ice stranded on the beach 2 hours earlier, but I don’t remember how I occupied my time until 2:45am when I was set up and ready to photograph the sunrise light radiating underneath the heavy clouds and illuminating the mountains above the iceberg choked lagoon. I used my Singh-Ray 4-stop soft-step Graduated ND filter to balance the exposure by placing the soft edge of the transition on the top of the foreground ice. I also used my 28mm f2 lens to shoot a perspective that exaggerated the prominent iceberg sculpture while still not shrinking the distant subjects.

Jon is based in Seattle, WA, and can be found all over the internet. In addition to his blog, check out his Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, and YouTube pages. More recently, he was invited to become a contributor to the Outdoor Photographer Blog. And of course, you can visit his website to see more photographs and learn about his photo tours.