Friday, November 18, 2011

Jon Cornforth returns from twelve weeks in Alaska this summer with a variety of wild images

When it comes to photographic adventuring, Seattle-based Jon Cornforth never seems to slow down. During the past summer, he's made four trips to Alaska for a total of twelve weeks. Enjoying the convenience and mobility of cruising the almost unlimited shorelines in his own 22-foot C-Dory, Serenity, Jon is ready for any wildlife or landscape opportunities that cross his path -- from whales and bears to wildflowers and glaciers. "I spent over 12 weeks in Alaska this past summer. While my photography is increasingly more focused on wildlife encounters, I still shoot dramatic landscape images whenever the conditions are conducive.

"One lesson that I have learned over the last decade of photographing Alaska is that the weather is almost always bad. This makes the occasional dramatic sunrise or sunset all the more special. The following images are from 3 different trips that I did around Prince William Sound, my 9-day visit to Denali National Park, and my 3 week expedition on the outer coast of Katmai National Park. I used my Canon 5D MkII with various Canon and Zeiss lenses as well as Singh-Ray filters for all these images. The resulting pictures are all single exposure RAW files that required a minimal amount of processing using Aperture 3 and Photoshop CS5.

"During my May visit to Cordova, Alaska, I was blessed with nearly a week of perfect weather. Of course, clear blue skies are never conducive to dramatic landscape images, so I kept my eye out for the occasional clouds at sunset. These mountains formed the dramatic backdrop for the prime shorebird viewing area of Hartney Bay. Since it was still early spring, they were still covered in snow almost all the way to sea level. Fortunately for my photography ambitions, high-tide corresponded with sunset which allowed the channels in Hartney Bay to fill with the incoming tide. Since there was almost no wind the night that I created this image, I was able to photograph a near perfect reflection in the calm waters. The clouds lit up with more dramatic colors as the sun set, but I find my photographic eye increasingly drawn to more fully illuminated landscapes with great light, rather than overwhelming neon colors and dark shadows. My Zeiss 50mm f1.4 ZE lens was fitted with the LB Warming Polarizer and 4-stop soft-step ND Grad to create this image.

"After visiting Cordova, I used Serenity to cruise from Whittier to the Columbia Glacier. I then spent a week anchored in Jade Cove located on the southeastern side of Columbia Bay during which I used my inflatable to explore the area. I spent much of my time photographing adorable sea otters during the day and then glacier landscapes at sunrise and sunset. Over the years, I have learned to appreciate photography in cloudy conditions in Alaska. Most of the time this is ideal for wildlife, but not so desirable for dramatic landscape images. However, just because it is cloudy doesn’t mean that there aren’t any images to be created. This image of stranded glacial ice on the Columbia Glacier's old moraine bar at low tide is a perfect example of creating an image in murky light conditions. Photographing the deep blues in icebergs requires overcast light and I took advantage of the calm, shallow water at low tide for a reflection. I created this image with my Zeiss 50mm f1.4 ZE lens and Singh-Ray 4-stop soft-step Graduated Neutral Density filter. I had to wait patiently for a perfect mirror reflection for more than an hour before I was eventually successful.

"I photographed this rugged view of Nellie Juan Glacier while cruising Prince William Sound with my dad in late June. I had scouted Nellie Juan Fjord several days earlier in rainy conditions and observed a few dwarf fireweed blooms high above the tideline on the granite cliffs. To get to this location, I woke up well before sunrise, navigated my inflatable boat through hazardous submerged rocks guarding the entrance to the fjord, motored through tons of floating ice, and finally tethered my inflatable to the base of a soaring rock wall. I then scrambled high above the water to get to this precarious perch. Once I was in place, I was fortunate to experience perfect landscape photography conditions with clear sky to the east and a few clouds hovering over the mountains to the west. My LB Warming Polarizer and 4-stop soft-step Graduated Neutral Density filter were used for this image.

"This is one of my images from my July visit to Denali National Park. I had been fortunate in receiving a Professional Photography Permit from the Park Service that allowed me to drive the park's 90-mile Wonder Lake Road in my own private vehicle. I had no ambitions to photograph Denali since I had already been successful in 2005 and 2006 when the weather was horrible. Since Denali is typically very cloud covered, I was mostly planning to photograph wildlife near the road. However, when the weather improved and the clouds parted, I switched back to landscape photography mode. This tundra pond is one of thousands located near Wonder Lake. This sunrise was gorgeous with the alpenglow illuminating Denali's summit at 20,000 feet while the clouds clung to the lower flanks of the mountain. There were a lot of water bugs disturbing the surface of this pond, but otherwise the reflection was as close to perfect as possible. I created this image with the LB Warming Polarizer and 4-stop soft-step Graduated ND filter mounted on my 50mm f1.4 ZE lens.

"While visiting Denali, the week started out with terrible weather, but quickly improved and kept getting better every day. With all the clear weather I experienced, I took advantage of every moment the summit was visible. I created this spectacular image on the last day of my permit. After staying up all night for several days and barely sleeping, I had lunch at the Kantishna Roadhouse. After lunch, my intention was to start driving back to Anchorage, but as I was nearing Wonder Lake the mountain was again entirely visible. So much for driving that afternoon. I had scouted several nice patches of fireweed during the week, so I decided to set up my camera for the rest of the day and see what would happen. Not only was it sunny and warm with almost no wind, but the mosquitoes disappeared entirely. This allowed me to comfortably sit at the side of the road while working on my tan with my shirt off. Anyone who has ever been back to Wonder Lake during the summer will appreciate how incredible this sounds. Over the course of 6 hours waiting for the sunset, I listened to some of my favorite music, waved at the occasional bus passing by, and waited for the clouds to part again in order reveal the summit of Denali. Everything came together perfectly about 1 hour before sunset. This image was captured with my LB Warming Polarizer and 3-stop hard-step ND Grad filter.

"Later in July, I used Serenity to return to Prince William Sound and visit Harriman Fjord. I was eager to photograph wildflowers blooming near the tidewater glaciers. My timing was perfect and the weather was spectacular. I had seen a few images of this patch of dwarf fireweed from Alaska photographers that I admire and easily located it during my first reconnaissance of the fjord in my inflatable. I returned the next morning and was rewarded with beautiful sunrise light and clouds. I created this image with my 28mm f2 ZE lens, LB Warming Polarizer, and 3-stop hard-step Graduated ND filter.

"I created this bold image of dwarf fireweed at sunset when I returned to Columbia Bay in July. I was so captivated by the dramatic and wild nature of the place in May that I had to return. It is now one of my favorite locations that I have ever visited in Alaska. I experienced much better weather during this visit and there were loads of wildflowers, especially the hearty dwarf fireweed. This plant grows in areas recently exposed by glacial retreat. This particular patch of flowers was located on the northwest tip of Heather Island along the edge of the old glacial moraine bar. Before settling on this composition, I ran around like a madman trying to find the best group of wildflowers that would complement the dramatic sunset that was unfolding. For this scene I used my 28mm f2 ZE lens, LB Warming Polarizer, and 2-stop hard-step Graduated ND filter. During brief but dramatic moments like this, a photographer must be comfortable with his/her equipment and methodically use the skills that have been mastered through years of practice.

"My August expedition to the outer coast of Katmai National Park was incredibly dangerous, but it allowed me to create some unique images. I took my boat on the ferry from Homer to Kodiak and then used it to cross treacherous Shelikof Strait in order to spend several weeks living with the brown bears. I spent the entire trip as close to brown bears as anyone has ever been. This probably sounds insane to most people, but brown bears are not going to just run up and eat you for no reason. However, they must be respected at all times. One of the new techniques that I employed was using PocketWizards to remotely trigger my cameras so that I could shoot wide-angle images of the bears. Guessing where to pre-position my cameras was the challenge, but I got better at it as I learned the bears' routines. While visiting Kuliak Bay, I noticed that certain bears regularly walked past this location, so I placed one of my cameras on a tripod low to the ground and waited. I remotely triggered the camera whenever a bear walked in front of it. I created this image using my 2-stop hard-step Graduated ND filter to balance the exposure for the bright sky with the foreground.

"During the past eight years, I have increasingly focused my photography ambitions on Alaska. My long-term goal is to gather enough images and experience to publish a book about Alaska. My short term goal is to continue serving the needs of the travel and calendar market with fresh wildlife and landscape images that reveal Alaska's many natural attractions. It's a big land, and a big challenge for all of us outdoor photographers."

"As I mentioned, I have been increasingly focused on wildlife photography. This past summer, I swam with wild Atlantic spotted dolphins in the Bahamas, and served as co-leader for my first Polar Bear Photography Tour with Steve Kazlowski. We will be expanding our polar bear tours in September and October of 2012. I will also be co-leading an incredibly unique tour along with underwater photographer Tony Wu in July and August 2012 when we will take clients to photograph humpback whales in both Alaska and Tonga. However, I am really looking forward to refocusing on landscape photography this December when I visit the US National Park of American Samoa and spend the holidays with my family on Maui. I look forward to photographing remote tropical beaches that I will have all to myself. There is nothing quite like the solitude of a beautiful ocean sunrise with the waves crashing against the shore."

Jon is currently realigning his entire website this winter. He is also a regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer and Popular Photography as well as being very active on social media. Please visit him on Google+, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, 500px, and YouTube where he regularly shares his most recent adventure as well as provides photography tips.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Alec Johnson traces his Silver Bay landscape image from pre-visualization to post production

Alec Johnson is a commercial architecture and portrait photographer based in Saint Paul, MN. He's also an enthusiastic and inventive teacher of photography. "I thought I would offer a basic case study explanation of how this image of Silver Bay was created from the pre-visualization stage to the final post production steps. My basic motivation to create this image was to test an idea that's reflected in many landscape photographers’ work.

"I'm referring to the idea that the photographer can control where the eye of a viewer first enters the image and the path that the eye follows while looking at the image. The goal is to hold the viewer's attention as long as possible. You might say that we’re taking control of the viewer’s brain. Here's the theory: The human eye is drawn through various parts of an image in sequence; going first to the areas of greatest brightness, then through areas of high contrast (tonal or color), then on to warm colors (these come forward) and then cool colors (these recede), and finally to the darkest parts of an image. Furthermore, lines can control your mind’s movement through an image, so composition is obviously a factor as well. All this is a subtle form of 'brain control.' And trust me, resistance is futile. Let me walk you through some ideas of my approach to good digital black and white photography.

1. Seeing in Black and White
"'Do you see in black and white as you're photographing in the field?' I frequently get this question and my answer is yes. Those new to photography or those who don’t shoot black and white may have a hard time understanding this, so I’ll elaborate a little.

"Black and white photography IS color photography. Tonal relationships in black and white arise from two sources: Tonal relationships in the scene and color relationships in the scene. Often, a scene may have some necessary minimum tonal relationships, like this image, but be very thin on color relationships. Why? The blue sky was reflecting in the water, making it blue –- water and sky are my two biggest subjects and they are in the same color space. The rocks had some useful warm tones due to the late afternoon sun slipping through on them, but I wanted more. So, first I separated the sky and water using a Singh-Ray Gold-N-Blue polarizer, then added strong color back to the scene where I wanted it -- in the water. The following raw-converted file, used in final production, shows warm tones and cool tones in the sky, as well as warm tones in the water. I can get good tonal separation in the sky without introducing a lot of noise in the blue channel. This is critical to understanding the approach. The blue channel has a lot of noise when converted to monochrome. The Gold-N-Blue allows me to shift the color pallet in favor of less noise.

2. Add the Motion Effect
"It was around 5:30 PM when this image was taken. I noticed the cloud movement and decided I wanted to slow things down to blur the relatively uninteresting cloud formations and see if I could put them more in favor with the composition. To do this I stacked a 3-stop and a 4-stop Singh-Ray 4×6 ND Grad in front of the Gold-N-Blue polarizer and after some experimentation I found that an exposure of about 1 minute was good for the cloud movement. I liked how the movement brought my eye into the island furthest from the camera. I hand held the grads to minimize the vignette effect created by stacking, but again that is personal preference.

Mid-Steam Summary
"I've pre-visualized the scene as black and white because it lacked any strong color relationships. I used my Gold-N-Blue Polarizer to add back some useful color relationships and used more filtering to slow the exposure enough to create blurred motion effects in the sky and water. These effects are intended to enhance the overall composition and soften the water. Essentially, I’ve created an image in the field heavily influenced by what I intend to develop in my post-production technique for black and white images. So, let’s move on to post production strategy.

Multiple Raw Conversions
"The first step in the digital darkroom is to set up the relationships I want by stacking the two color versions into layers and using a layer mask to establish a difference between the sky and the water. This part came through experimentation. I was losing detail in the cloud movement, so I went back to the color corrected version for the sky and that met my needs for tonal contrast and preservation of detail.

Black and White
"I'll develop different, localized parts of an image differently in black and white using Black and White adjustment layers and careful, detailed masking. For me, this is essential work and is absolutely akin to the work done by the print masters in the darkroom. If you are unfamiliar with these techniques, then I highly recommend the “5 Essential Adjustment Layers Tutorials” produced by super Photoshop teacher, Mark Johnson.

"For the sky I utilize 64 points of brightness on the magenta channel, but utilize 104 points on the water and rocks, hence the need for layers and masks. Likewise, I can manage the brightness relationships in other color channels, for different parts of the scene. This allows me significant control over tonality, which gives me control over where you move your eye through the image. Yes, essentially I’ve taken control of your brain.


The Final Step To Brain Control"Well, it's not the final step. I'm not giving you that today, but we're close. Seldom does a digital image have the contrast I like after completing my work with Black and White adjustment layers. To really finish off the mind control, I like to enhance localized contrast as well as establish black and white points in a monochrome image. This is really a necessary step. It prevents the entire image from falling into the mud hole of tonality. How much of your image should be black? Personal preference. How much should be white? Personal preference. Nonetheless, there should always be some black and some white in your image. Your histogram will tell you if you have a black and white point. In this last step I performed some dodging on a neutral density gray fill layer (set to soft light blending mode), a Curves Adjustment Layer to fix some specific mid-tone areas in the sky and Levels Adjustment Layer to establish a desired level of tonality in the middle and foreground.


"Perhaps the most important lesson here is this: This case history represents my approach, and you’ll soon discover your own personal approach to these issues. I would hope, however, that you might take a few nuggets from this case study to weave into your own workflow."

You can find more about Alec's photography and his schedule of Lake Superior Landscape Photography workshops by visiting his blog and viewing his commercial work on his website. He started offering location landscape photography workshops several years ago and is a regular speaker with Twin Cities camera clubs.