Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Adventures In Photoland

How the Westcott 6-in-one Saved My Life......by Don Gale

The following is an unsolicited testimonial. We'll offer stories such as these from time to time...as a keen reminder of the inherent dangers faced daily, by those brave and sometimes heroic landscape photographers......


On a recent expedition, my sherpa and I were blown off a 200 foot cliff, and into a raging, undiscovered river, which was hidden, under the cravasse in the valley below.

We splashed and bobbed in the freezing liquid for what seemed forever...wrapped only in the zippered Westcott panel case....luckily, the fabric is waterproof and rip resistant.

Thru his experience and quick thinking (along with a lunch consisting of coca leaves), Bwanashara was able to construct a makeshift raft, by duct-taping together all the components of the 40 inch Westcott 6-In-One kit, (which we each always carry). And, using the silver surface of one of the remaining panels, we signaled a private plane, which was able to land and fly us back to camp.

Digital White Balance Basics

One of the big advantages that digital offers over film shooting is the very precise White Balance control....at the time of capture. And best of all, no filters are needed, because it's all done electronically.

So what's the big deal about not needing filters, you say? Well besides the hassle of attaching 'em, and keeping them clean....there's the monetary savings...so you can buy more of what we all want.....LENSES !

Plus, because the filters absorb light, there is an increase in exposure required. Which typically requires a longer shutter speed, and the resultant inability to freeze the motion. This In-Camera, electronic filter thing is really cool.

What I'm showing here is a very straightforward example of how to fix one of the most common and recurring lighting challenges. Keep this in mind: If your onboard white balance pre-set is configured to "Daylight"...or "Sunny", the colors captured will respond the same as regular color neg or slide film. So the images will look the same as if you were using a regular film camera. So, for the most part, if you're pretty comfortable shooting film, you can leave the pre-set at Daylight, and you won't be surprised.

So, for these two images shown here...they were both shot with the exact same shutter speed and aperture, and the ISO was also constant. The only change was the in-camera white balance.

Taken at night, under a picnic gazebo, the only light source was the overhead household tungsten bulb...probably 100 watts.

My camera still had the white balance set for Daylight...which was from several hours ago, when we were out in a boat, actually catching these trout! So, there's a white-balance-mismatch, here. The camera thinks were shooting in mid-day sunlight....but, the light source is actually tungsten. A much warmer light. As a result, the first image is WAY too warm.

The camera was on a tripod for the long exposure, and once I realized my mistake, a simple Pre-set change was all that's needed. Once the camera was re-set for "Tungsten"...or "Incandescent" the colors were rendered accurately, and we could now have dinner!

There are other, even more precise ways to capture accurate colors...but, this is a good start.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Off-Camera Flash as a Main Light

This ancient wooden door on an Italian castle was very interesting as a potential extreme close up. The challenge facing me was the extremely flat, overcast lighting. None of the wonderful texture of the wood was defined...and the rustic brass ring was almost camouflaged against the similar value of the dark background.

The solution was to increase the contrast and keep an authentic look to the direction of light. One possibility was to use a pop-up reflector. But that wouldn't have had the desired effect in this extremely soft, flat light. Just not enough there to bounce efficiently. An off-camera flash seemed to be the logical choice....and the only place to position the flash head was to the right of the Brass Ring...no room to the left. I wanted the resulting image to have a nice feel of directional light, without extreme contrast and deep shadows added to an already dark subject. So, by attaching a small soft box to the flash head we were able to achieve this precisely. I carry this LumiQuest bounce attachment with me at all times...it's extremely lightweight, attaches with velcro and folds flat to fit into the large rear pocket of my vest.

I was shooting at a fast enough shutter speed to eliminate all the ambient light. So, all we have left is the nice light from the large source, in very close.

Thanx to David Fisher from Bogen for the "action shot"

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Telephoto vs Wide Angle

Choosing a suitable subject for a photograph is never the problem. Interesting stuff is everywhere. The challenge is sometimes making the call as to which lens to use. It's not ever as simple as ..."use a wide lens and move in close". Or...." use a long lens and move back" Both of these techniques will work assuming your only concern is to fill the frame with the subject.

Optical distortion, and the way this can affect your images is an important tool for all photographers....especially nature and landscape shooters. Since we are shooting outdoors, we oftentimes can choose several locations to position ourselves to shoot the same scene. And as the distance between the camera and subject will vary..so will the focal length needed to frame up the identical elements.

I've chosen these 2 examples for this comparison because in each image, we're shooting a series of "like-sized" objects. And with ANY lens, if all the items are the same distance from the camera, they would be rendered the same size......moving further away, they get smaller.....closer, the size increases. Pretty basic stuff.

So.....for the cruise ship deck chairs, a super wide lens was chosen, because I wanted the closest chair to be huge, and decreasing in size fairly quickly as the pattern repeated in the diagonal line.

And for the lobster trap floats, a long telephoto was used. The desired effect here was for a similar size relationship between the closest and furthest. Neither resulting image is right or wrong. This creative choice is part of the artistic control we have as photographers. A good argument for always being prepared with a wide variety of lenses with you at all times.

Gecko Macro session

Some of the most original photos are often taken with no planning or forethought. Being inspired to shoot spontaneously by an interesting subject can really get your adrenalin flowing. And, the combination of dramatic light along with this unusual and colorful lizard made for an interesting half hour.

My son, John, who raises exotic reptiles, walked in my office the other day ....."hey, dad, check this out. It's a really cool Tokay Gecko...can we get some shots?"

So, within minutes we were in the studio setting up lights for this unplanned session. Since the gecko was only about 6 inches long, I set up 3 small Westcott softboxes...all coming from different angles, to cover our butts, as the gecko proceeded to run and change direction constantly. Meanwhile, John had grabbed a small piece of tree bark to act as a logical background...and he was holding this in amongst the lights, so we could TRY and get the best angle between numerous leaps to the floor by our un-cooperative subject.

The lights were set in place and remained in their initial location....and after taking an incident flash reading, we had to try and keep the subject-to-light distance constant, to avoid under or over exposure. This was John's job! I was busy enough trying to frame and focus. So, when the smoke cleared, we loaded the CF card into the computer and analyzed our efforts. We had gotten some pretty interesting results....in fact these shots would be just what I needed for the upcoming NANPA (North American Nature Photographer's Assoc) Conference , the following weekend.

We chose the most dramatic shot and used it as the subject for a limited, signed edition print to be given away to visitors to Tamron's booth. It was shot with their 180mm lens, and the detail in the skin texture and verigated eyes is unreal. The final print was a 13 x 19 inch inkjet version using the HP 9180 and their Hahnemuelle Aquarella fine art paper. Considering it's printed on very porous and thick paper, the details and vibrancy were amazing!

Thanx to my friend and Photoshop whiz, Kevin Connery, for the tech assist with the layout.

Minnehaha Falls

Digital Infrared is certainly gaining attention. It's made what used to be a really tricky undertaking into a very controllable and fun experiment. If your particular digital camera has the ability to see some of the Infra Red spectrum...you'll need to attach a filter to eliminate all the normal, visible light. Now, with only the IR
light hitting the sensor, you'll be recording ONLY the infrared rays. Pretty easy.

The first thing I noticed was the native files were fairly flat and lacked contrast. So much in fact, that I was afraid the results wouldn't be acceptable. However, after a few simple Curves and Levels adjustments in Photoshop, the image takes shape, and the results are really dramatic. Much easier than the old IR film technique!
Here's an example of a file, right out of the camera taken at Minnehaha Falls...literally just a few minutes from the Minneapolis Airport.
Here's the final result.....about 2 minutes in Photoshop is all that was needed.

We had stopped in to scout this location the day prior to a Tamron seminar at National Camera last fall. On the way back to the car, we ran into these young men on a school field trip. They were intrigued with all our cool digital camera gear, and probably were looking for an excuse to get away from the botany lesson being given to the other students.

They were sitting on the stone wall shooting the breeze, and it looked like a great location for a casual portrait. However the light was a little contrasty, and coming from the back. The leaves looked great, but coming from this direction, it put their faces into the shade. All that was needed was a little off-camera flash fill to balance the contrast problem. The shutter speed and aperture were the same for both images...the flash is the only difference.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Neutral Density Grad Filters

After years of shooting outdoors, you'd think being able to accurately judge contrast and varying brightness levels would be a snap. Not always the case....especially in this situation.

Last summer I was conducting a workshop on Rabbit Island in British Columbia. It's a very small island, just a few miles east of the harbor town of Nanaimo. And on this particular morning, our group had taken a short boat ride to a neighboring location to shoot the sunrise. Just as we were about to jump onboard for the return trip, I spotted this awesome starfish, and the multi colored kelp and seaweed covered rocks. I was so intrigued with these few elements, that the background with the dramatic sky and small lighthouse went un-noticed until I was positioning the tripod for a low angle shot. Quickly switching lenses to a wider zoom and repositioning the camera even lower to emphasise the foreground....the shot was really starting to come together. And the image thru the viewfinder was incredible. The sky was extremely dark and cloud filled. And my best guess was that the lighting balance between the foreground and background was about even. Boy, was I wrong. Notice how blown-out the sky is in the second image.

This problem was fixed using a 2 stop ND grad filter with a hard transition. And, if you've never used one of these filters, they work a little differently than the normal screw-in type. They're actually a rectangular piece of optical resin with a darkened grey area covering about half the filter. They come in different strengths, depending on how much correction is needed. You simply slide it in the track of the Lee filter holder, and move it down until the brighter area of the sky is properly darkened.

Thanx to Mike Laffin and "Limo" John Janson for taking the "behind the scenes" photos.

Pacific Northwest

The far northernmost portion of Washington state offers some amazing opportunity for truly unique photographs. Besides the rugged coast and abundant wildlife, there's an incredible rainforest located on the Olympic Peninsula. And, even in a relatively dry year, it's still VERY lush, green and loaded with great subject matter.

We were up there last fall, at the end of a pretty dry year, and all the locals were complaining about the drought-like conditions. Well, for me, it still looked tropical... and the ferns, moss and streams were in fine shape for photos.

Of all the places I've shot in, this forest, with it's thick, dense canopy presented the biggest challenge for color accuracy. As the light filters it's way in through all the branches and leaves, it takes on the color of all the surrounding foliage. So, there's a very yellow-green cast to the light all the time. And, this varies as the day progresses. It's a very similar phenomenon to shooting in the slot canyons of Arizona...with the overhead light bouncing it's way through the high, vertical walls, and taking on all the warm reds of the sandstone. But, in that case, the warmth is a wonderful effect, and even enhances the mood and drama. But, green? I don't think so.

This is a situation where you'll definitely need to do a Custom White balance...and the Expo Disc worked perfectly in this situation. It samples the ambient light, and creates a specific, in-camera filter, which renders all the colors absolutely accurately. Auto white balance will come close, but you'll get varying results, even when shooting in the same light. So, once the color accuracy issue was solved, there was still the issue of the overall QUALITY of the light, which was extremely soft and diffused....with no apparent direction or identifiable source. The first few images were extremely flat and lacking contrast...especially some of the close-up stuff.

But, fixing a low contrast problem when shooting at a close distance is no problem. This is the perfect use for a flash....specifically, off-camera, and modified with a mini soft box, so the contrast increase won't look fake. I'd spotted some very colorful fungus type growth on the bark of one of the moss covered trees....very unusual subject....but, again, the soft light wasn't helping. It needed a little boost, and this is where a flash can add just the pop needed. And using the Metz flash in Manual mode,

I was able to experiment with various output settings, all the way down from full-power to 1/256th power! Once the overall ambient reading was locked in, the fun begins. And, working on a tripod with the self timer firing the shutter, this leaves me with two hands free to move around with the flash, and experiment with varying light patterns. Very cool!

We headed north, and found this old boat, landlocked and tipped over at low tide. The barnacle patch on the side was interesting, but the overall flat light wasn't helping to define the intricate detail. Same solution, the LumiQuest soft box attached to the off-camera flash, and it's perfect.

Early the next while driving back to Seattle, we dropped down into a valley, and ran into a real nice fog bank that was starting to burn-off, as the morning sun warmed things up. These shots were literally taken from next to the highway. And there wasn't much time to waste....once the sun starts penetrating the layer of airborne vapor, it's just about over. But, man, those few minutes of the backlit fog, with the sun's rays streaming through sure make for some fine shooting.

Once back in Seattle, it's always a safe bet to head down to Pike's Market at the water's edge. This vintage farmer's market hasn't changed much in years, and all the fresh flowers, produce and seafood are excellent subjects for shooting......as well as eating!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Digital Infrared

For the past few months I've been experimenting with a revolutionary new DSLR....it's designed to capture specifically the Infra Red and Ultra Violet spectrums. And, man is it easy! Fujifilm has converted an off the shelf version of their S-3 and it's solely designed for this purpose. The LCD is actually a live, interactive viewing screen. So, you can see a live, real-time preview of exactly how the image is being recorded. And, there's a magnified close-up view available to confirm focus accuracy....which has always been a big problem in IR.

Most of the typical problems usually encountered with IR capture have been addressed and remedied. The nicest feature is the extremely short exposures. Normally, because of reduced sensitivity to this wavelength, the shutter speeds, even in direct sunlight were unacceptibly long. Several seconds. Which was a big problem with tree branches and leaves being recorded as blurs....and even slow moving clouds were always soft and stretched.

Some of the landscape images that we've taken have been remarkable in quality, and very easy to print, using the newer inkjets.

If you're not familiar with IR shooting, it's a great way to fill in the part of the day that normally doesn't produce many decent images. Midday! Since this type of shooting relies on heat for recording the images, the middle of the day works great. Some of the most popular subjects are foliage of any type, and blue skies with big clouds. The results can be stunning.
A couple of these shots were taken in Sedona in mid day direct sun....the leaves really appear to glow, and the sky goes almost black.

The 2 photos above were taken while the wind was gusting at over 30 mph....pretty tough subject matter for traditional IR shooting. But, not with the super sensitive IRUV model.
I was able to shoot at fairly small apertures, like 11 and 16, with shutter speeds at 1/125th


On our way home from the NANPA Summit in Palm Springs a couple days ago, my wife Sue, and I stopped to take a couple shots of her and the giant dinosaurs right off the freeway. Nothing special, just Black and White IR snapshots....but when I looked at them closely....she wasn't wearing her sunglasses. Or, at least it looked that way. They're actually black, thick rims with super dark lenses. But, here they are totally transparent...and notice how the skin tone near her eyes is exactly the same value as the area of her face that was fully lit! Unreal.

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