Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Record drought in Texas leads landscape photographer Jeff Lynch to Big Bend National Park

Sugar Land, Texas, is just a short drive southwest of Houston, which would make it a great location for landscape photographer Jeff Lynch -- except for one thing. "Texas is in the middle of the worst drought in over fifty years," says Jeff, "with rainfalls all over the state averaging more than 15 inches below normal. Almost every county in the state is under a 'burn ban' and most have implemented severe water conservation programs for farmers, ranchers and homeowners. Wildfires have scorched millions of acres of ranchland from as far east as Nacogdoches to as far west as El Paso.

"You can imagine what this type of weather does to a landscape and nature photographer like myself. The once lush and green vegetation in my favorite spots all across central Texas has turned to a dull brown and gray color. The lakes and rivers I love to explore and photograph are either completely dry or so low that i can't actually get to the water to shoot it. In all my years photographing central Texas, I've never seen a drought like this.

"Texas, however, is a vast and diverse region and some parts have known this type of weather for millions of years. Deep in the southern-most part of West Texas along the mighty Rio Grande lies one of our nation's least explored and photographed wonders, Big Bend National Park. It's so vast it covers three distinct geological zones, the Chihuahuan desert, the Chisos mountains and the Rio Grande river basin. The park contains literally thousands of miles of hiking trails just waiting to be explored, enjoyed and photographed. Since much of the park is deep desert, this year's unusual drought hasn't really affected the landscape.

Grapevine Hills Balanced Rock

"One of my favorite trails in Big Bend National Park leads to a unique rock formation called Grapevine Hills, shown in the photo above. The drive in to the trailhead takes you deep into the desert just north of the Chisos Mountains but the hike itself is fairly short, although very rocky at the end. Once you reach the summit the view north through the balanced rock formation is stunning.

"Photographing a spot like this is not quite as simple as it seems. The bright sunlight in the deep desert tends to wash out the color and texture from most scenes as your DSLR's exposure meter works hard to 'average' the bright rocks, deep shadows and cobalt blue sky. Using a Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer not only helps cut down the glare but also adds back some saturation and texture in the rocks. For desert photography, it's the one filter I'm never without.

Chisos Basin Storm
"Some photographs take months of planning, hours of preparation and minutes of execution. Others happen at the drop of a hat and it’s only through luck that the image was captured at all. Most, however, fall somewhere in between these two extremes and the luckiest photographers seem to be those that prepare the most. Take this image for example. I'd been following a line of small storm clouds running along the US/Mexico border for several hours hoping to catch a developing thunderstorm or at least some rainfall. These clouds had led me on a merry little chase along the River Road (FM 170) when they turned sharply east and headed toward the Basin in Big Bend National Park.

"I drove through the park hoping to get ahead of the storm as it built up along the Chisos Mountains but it outpaced my best effort. Knowing that I couldn’t catch the storm, I drove along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive and decided to head for some higher ground I scouted the day before. I quickly setup my camera and tripod on a small rise facing the mountains and followed the storm as it swept across the Chisos basin and headed southeast towards Mexico. If I hadn’t scouted this area the day before as a potential location we would never have had the time to get these shots before the storm moved off. Our few hours of preparation and planning paid off in spades!

Santa Elena Canyon
"Here’s an image taken in bright sunlight (to illuminate the canyon) using a Singh-Ray 2-stop, soft-step Graduated Neutral Density filter with no major adjustments in post-capture processing. More proof that with the right in-camera techniques, you don’t need to rely upon HDR techniques or exposure blending to obtain an acceptable image.

"I was able to balance the exposure in this high-contrast scene by metering for the shadows and then hand-holding my graduated ND filter 'sideways' to hold back the sunlit side of the canyon and prevent it from being completely blown out. This technique of 'fooling your camera’s meter' is old school but works very well in high-contrast landscape situations like this. I use these filters at various angles to help balance extremes between bright and dark areas of a scene.

Sotol Vista at Sunset
"My readers know I’m an old-fashioned kind of guy when it comes to getting the correct exposure 'in-camera' as opposed to 'in post.' For me, post-capture processing in Lightroom 3 or Photoshop CS5 is simply a matter of tweaking the RAW image to help recreate what I remembered seeing when I took the shot. A graduated ND filter is used to balance the exposure between the background and foreground of an image. As such, it is an essential tool that every landscape photographer should learn to use early in their career (or hobby). Yes, I know I could accomplish the same thing using a photo-blending technique like HDR but it’s much easier to do this in camera while I am out in the field.

"The way a graduated ND filter works is very simple. It reduces the amount of light transmitted through a portion of the filter to your camera’s sensor so that the foreground exposure more closely matches the background exposure. They are not always perfectly matched mind you, just more closely. By positioning the graduated ND filter in front of the lens I can vary the amount of exposure balancing the filter does in each scene. I can position the filter by hand or by using a filter holder as shown in the image below.

"This is my typical setup for a landscape shot with my 5D Mark II on a lightweight but sturdy tripod (Gitzo Traveller using an RRS ball-head) and a Singh-Ray graduated ND filter held in place by a Z-Pro holder, mounted on a wide angle tilt-shift lens. The filter is generally a 2, 3 or 4-stop soft-step ND Grad made by Singh-Ray -- a company that, for my money, designs and builds the best quality photographic filters in the world."

Jeff leads groups of serious amateurs each spring and fall during the Texas Landscape Safari workshop. His blog, Serious Amateur Photography conveys his passion for Texas landscape and nature photography around the globe. He is the author of two books of Texas photographs, and his next book, Big Bend Landscape Adventures is due out this fall. You can also follow Jeff on Twitter and browse his portfolio on Flickr.

1 comment:

Matthew T Rader said...

Great blog post, I learned a lot from you. Definitely some new techniques I can incorporate in my photography. Thank you and Your photos are beautiful.