Photo Cascadia Blog
April 15th, 2015
by Zack Schnepf
One of the most common questions I get on workshops and at art shows is how I got into photography and how I turned photography into my profession. In today’s article I talk about the journey that led me to a career in landscape photography. I always find these types of articles about other people fascinating. What circumstances led them to where they are now, what their upbringing was like, what they studied in school, who their influences were and who helped them get their first break? My own journey begins in the redwoods of northern California.
My early childhood was spent in the mountains, forests and beaches of northern California and the Big Island of Hawaii. My parents instilled a love and respect for nature from the very beginning. I grew up playing outside most of the time. My father was a professional artist and my mom was a stay at home mom who later became an occupational therapist. When I was nine years old, we moved to Portland, Oregon where there was a much better job market. Portland has easy access to mountains, the coast, the Columbia River Gorge, and the high desert. I spent a lot of time camping, hiking, skiing, snowboarding, skateboarding, biking, and generally recreating in all of these places. Those experiences have a lot to do with eventually taking up photography as a hobby. I remember feeling very frustrated when I would see an amazing sunset while camping in a beautiful location, because I couldn’t capture and share it with my friends and family. That frustration eventually led me to take my first photography class at Portland Community College. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was my first step toward a career in photography.
I loved my college experience, so much in fact, It took me 7 years to finally get a degree. The issue was, I really didn’t know what kind of career I wanted. Luckily, most of that time was spent in community college trying out every course that sounded interesting. Every aptitude test I took suggested I should be a biologist, or an engineer so I starting by pursuing biology and I really liked it. I really enjoyed art as well, but didn’t consider art as a possible career path at first. My father was an artist and most of our family friends were artists so you would think I might have considered that as an option. After a while, I couldn’t ignore how much fun I was having in my art classes and in art history. Along with more traditional art forms like painting, sculpture, ceramics and photography, I was also getting into video editing, web design and 3D animation. Eventually I decided on multimedia. It was a brand new program and seemed very promising and fun. I loved it. I was really getting into computers and software and this seemed like a great way to combine several interests. During this time I taught myself Photoshop, and started tutoring fellow students on some of the more advanced functions of both Photoshop and Final Cut Pro. I was also a teaching assistant for the Photoshop class as well. This proficiency in Photoshop really helped when I started getting into photography.
Once I graduated, I started doing freelance web design, and video editing. I picked up my first real camera during this time, the Canon 10D. I had been doing a lot of research and this camera was coming along at the perfect time for me. It was the first affordable digital SLR that seemed to produce high quality images. As soon as I got my hands on the 10D photography became an obsession. Using a DSLR and shooting in RAW helped me learn a rapid rate. Having the instant feedback and seeing first hand how changes in aperture, shutter speed, and ISO effected the image was incredible. I progressed quickly and was producing high quality images. At the time I was shooting everything I could think of. Much like my college experience, I started focusing on the subjects that were the most interesting to me. Because I was already a pretty outdoorsy person, I naturally was attracted to landscape photography. I also found it to be the most challenging kind of Photography, but I was still experimenting with many types of photography.
I was acquiring some studio equipment and soon found I could find paying jobs doing various types of studio work. I was lucky early on, I had some family friends in the art world who were able to get me some paying jobs with good clients. I had another family friend who was an artist representative, she saw the work I was doing and started to promote my work for me. She was able to land me some big clients like Nike and Hewlett Packard. Photography quickly took over and was my main source of income and just like that I was a professional. While I was doing commercial work, I was also trying to learn all I could about landscape photography. This was where my passion was and I was going on as many landscape photography trips as I could afford. I joined several web forums and groups related to landscape photography to help me learn as much as I could. Three of these were incredible resources for me: NPN, flickr and The Luminous Landscape.
NPN in particular was an incredible resource. Anyone who was a part of NPN during that time will tell you it was special. It was a place where you could get honest feedback on your work. It reminded me of critique sessions back when I was studying art, but with less ego. I met many of my photography friends on NPN including all five of the other members of Photo Cascadia. It was also a fantastic place to find inspiration. There were so many talented photographers contributing like: Guy Tal, Marc Adamus, Adam Gibbs, Marsel Van Oosten and so many others. We all progressed as a group, it was in invaluable resource to me and many others.
The luminous Landscape website and video magazine was also a huge resource for me. Michael Reichmann and his colleagues are incredible educators. I subscribed to the video magazine back then and it was fantastic. It was kind of like a video workshop following Reichmann and his friends on their adventures in the field and talking about the emerging world of digital photography. I eventually took several field workshops through the Luminous Landscape and found them to be tremendously helpful, so much so that I still try to emulate the experience in my own workshops today.
While I was enjoying landscape photography more and more, I was burning out on commercial photography. I had to make a tough choice. I could continue as a commercial photographer and make some decent money, or I could take a huge gamble and try to make it as a landscape photographer. To make this decision even harder, my wife and I were starting a family, I really struggled with this decision. I didn’t really have any idea how I would make a living in landscape photography, but I thought it was worth a try. It was a rough transition, and there were some lean years in the beginning, but I started to figure out a business model that would work for me.
Another photographer I met on NPN was Mike Moats, he encouraged me to give art festivals a try. Once I had honed my craft to a level I was really proud of, I started applying to juried art festivals. These are a lot of fun, but they require a large initial investment in show equipment and inventory and are also a lot of work. I was also starting to teach one on one and small group field and processing workshops. I also started teaching processing sessions online. I was working on building a library of images with several stock agencies and submitting images to publications as well as licensing images on my own. All these slices started making up an income pie. Most of the professional photographers I know have a similar business model. Some specialize more than others, but they all have diverse income streams. It took several years, but I was finally making about what I was making as a commercial photographer. The difference is I still absolutely love what I do and still get excited to get out and shoot. Even though it was really hard, it was definitely the right decision for me.
It’s been quite the journey. I hope you enjoyed hearing my story and the decisions that led me to where I am today. Cheers!
April 6th, 2015
Last week we introduced and welcomed Erin Babnik as a new contributor to the PhotoCascadia blog. This week we are proud to publish Erin’s first feature piece. Make sure to visit Erin’s website to learn more about her and explore her exhilarating photographs.
By Erin Babnik
The American conservationist Aldo Leopold famously said that, to people with imagination, the most valuable parts of a map are where it is “blank.” He was of course referring to wilderness areas, which most people never see and have to imagine in order to appreciate what is there, how it works, and why it matters. Although his message was aimed at the protection of these areas, he felt that humans should have firsthand experiences with them. It may seem counterintuitive for someone to encourage human presence in areas that need protection, but he believed that it was necessary for us to develop personal relationships with nature—after all, to quote one of Leopold’s contemporaries, “we can only love what we know” (Aldous Huxley). He therefore praised outdoor activities that imposed minimal impact on nature while fostering awareness and appreciation of it. Landscape photography at its best rises to the challenge of that noble goal, giving photographers at least one good reason to spread out and explore those blank places on the map. What about more artistic reasons, though? As I hope to explain here, the rewards of exploration and discovery can be well worth the extra effort that may go into approaching new horizons.
It is easy to think of a map as a display of straightforward, factual information, but it is actually an interpretation of a place, just like a photograph is. A map picks out certain areas and omits others, telling us what is supposedly important to know. In general, any point of interest that features prominently on a map will have a correspondingly large corpus of photographs representing it; the more famous that a place becomes through photographs, the more likely it will be to appear prominently on a map, and vice versa. Just like a map, a large corpus of photographs will ultimately interpret a location, typically establishing a norm for it that repeats in photographs like a resounding echo. These patterns emerge for good reasons, usually because they do a particularly good job of communicating what is special about a place, but they also amount to a kind of conceptual baggage, both for photographers and for viewers of their photographs. Whether we like it or not, a norm will haunt a place, even if we attempt to avoid it—we can accept or reject a norm, but our efforts exist in relation to it either way. This predicament then extends to the viewer, since the process of viewing a photograph will involve whatever memories a viewer may have of existing imagery.
While preconceptions can complicate the creative process for a photographer, they certainly don’t condemn it, of course. On the contrary, representing a well known view comes with its own set of benefits, and those include more than just the tangible rewards of popular appeal, such as predictable print sales or image licensing. Some creative strategies actually depend upon familiarity to serve as a premise, allowing a photographer to expand upon existing ideas or to engage in visual storytelling in ways that might not be possible otherwise. For example, a photo of a blooming meadow will take on a new layer of meaning if its location is best known for a lake that filled the space before it evaporated. Similarly, a photo of a famous landmark may be particularly interesting or meaningful if it shows that landmark from an ‘unusual’ vantage point. In either case, the ‘different’ photos benefit from familiarity by creating a sort of dialogue with it.
So while the photographer who strives for creativity will find much of value in approaching those bold points of interest on the map, doing so can feel like an act of negotiation, of working within certain creative limits. To be sure, there is room for discovery at any location, but venturing out to relatively unknown territory can throw the creative doors wide open. Any view that we find independently becomes a blank canvas of sorts; it presents a whole range of wonderful creative ‘problems’ to solve. What is the character of this place? What is particularly special about it? What conditions might best bring out its character? Which features here are essential to communicating the experience of this location? How can those features be presented most legibly? Answering such questions gives a photographer the opportunity to ‘define’ the location and to do so with a greater reliance on personal intuition—the less that we have to ‘think away’ other interpretations of a place, the more able we are to have a visceral response to it.
Naturally, more remote locations tend to offer the most opportunity for discovering seldom seen views, but even very accessible places sometimes have areas that get overlooked simply because they lie in the blank place on the map. Operating with an explorer’s mentality can land us deep in the wilderness or right in our own local ‘neck of the woods,’ but either way, we will be invoking a creative process that can be incredibly rewarding. Indeed, researching lesser known areas raises numerous questions that can get the creative gears churning before we ever even leave home. What might I find there? What would I like to find there? How might this place differ from others with similar qualities? How might this place be affected by the seasons? Thinking through the possibilities at this stage becomes a prelude to the visualization process that takes place on location, priming the mind for seeing opportunities upon arrival. In this regard, the photographer is led more by imagination than by knowledge, which is arguably more conducive to creativity. Regardless of where our exploration may take us, we are bound to benefit from the creative exercise, even if we don’t strike pay dirt on every outing.
For anyone who is inclined to explore more remote locations for landscape photography, there are a number of resources that can aid in the process. Using Google Earth to explore an area virtually can be a great place to start, allowing the identification of potentially photogenic features and alignments. Topographical maps can also be very helpful in this regard, especially when researching areas where elevation varies a lot and can have a big effect on the types of terrain that might exist there. For example, for mountainous areas, it can be helpful to know if a location is below the tree line, where forests may obscure views. Satellite imagery is another digital resource that any explorer should consult, with the understanding that older satellite images can be quite inaccurate. It is always a good idea to check the date of a satellite image and to look for multiple sources of such imagery. There are companies that sell very high-resolution satellite images that could be worthwhile investments if the images are very current and can aid in the location of desirable features. When exploring on foot, it is immensely helpful to have a good topographical map app that supports offline maps and the creation of waypoints; being able to mark discoveries and to navigate towards areas of potential interest with ease will increase both efficiency and the overall enjoyment of the process.
Although venturing into the unknown is always a gamble, the rewards can be tremendous. There is nothing quite like the thrill of discovering a vantage point, feature, or composition that provides a sense of creative pioneering. Whether an act of exploration takes us to distant lands or to an overlooked niche in our own neighborhood, it always takes us to a creative space that is destined to pay dividends in our future creative efforts. The suggestions included here for finding areas of photographic potential are just some of the more practical ones; anyone who has other recommendations is very welcome to include them in the comments below.
Erin divides her time between Cascadia’s Californian southern boundary and Slovenia, traveling and photographing extensively from home bases in both locations. Make sure to bookmark Erin’s site at www.erinbabnik.com. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter and 500px.
March 30th, 2015
This week on the PhotoCascadia blog we are very excited to welcome a new blog contributor, the talented and esteemed Erin Babnik. We became acquainted with Erin’s photography a couple of years ago. At the time she was doing a lot of work in the Julianne Alps of Slovenia and the Dolomites of Italy. To say we were inspired and moved by her elegant compositions and captivating visual storytelling would be an understatement. We also enjoyed how closely she shares our own love of adventure and exploration of wilderness. In addition to being an accomplished outdoor photographer, Erin is a scholar and talented writer. She has a deep background in art history and is a master Photoshop user and educator. We are ecstatic to add Erin to the PhotoCascadia blog lineup. Her articles will add a valuable new dimension of ideas, knowledge and perspective that we can share with our audience. Erin will be a regular contributor so watch for her articles in the weeks and months to come. Our goal for this first Q&A article is to let her share some details about her background and photography interests, as well as showcase some of her wonderful imagery so you could become acquainted with her. In addition to her photographs, Erin offers instruction and leads workshops. We know you will want to check out more of her work and follow her on the web. Make sure to bookmark her site at www.erinbabnik.com. You can also follow her on Facebook and 500px.
1. You have a background in art history and archaeology. How did those two fields come together for you, and how did you evolve from there into a career as a full-time landscape photographer?
My degrees are in art history, but with a specialty in the art of ancient Greece. Working with ancient art necessitates a strong familiarity with the contexts in which ancient artworks were created, put to use, and later discovered, and it also requires a good understanding of archaeological field technique in order to make critical use of excavation reports about those discoveries. I therefore participated in archaeological expeditions in Israel for four years in order to gain experience with fieldwork. During that time, I began photographing artifacts and archaeological contexts in order to produce my own archive of photos for research and teaching. I started out by documenting the small finds and architectural remains where I was excavating and ultimately visited museums and sites throughout Europe and in the Middle East to round out my archives.
Those photographic pursuits quickly expanded into assignment work since I had a rare combination of subject knowledge and a passion for photography that produced unique results, and those projects in turn led to a lot of licensing of my photos. So before long, I was very much a ‘working’ photographer, and the idea of making photography a larger part of my professional life became increasingly appealing. My focus on landscapes grew directly out of the years that I spent photographing ancient ruins; trying to make compelling images of beautifully-sited temples and sprawling architectural foundations greatly developed my understanding of outdoor photography and piqued my interest in capturing natural ephemera. It also caused me to seek out locations where I could be free of the access limitations that are imposed at most archaeological sites. That desire to find both beauty and freedom soon had me exploring the Alps and venturing to increasingly remote and obscure locations. For a long while I clung on to my academic career because I so enjoyed teaching, but I finally decided that teaching landscape photography workshops would satisfy that passion nicely.
2. Do you feel as though your experience as an archaeologist has benefited you as a landscape photographer?
Yes, absolutely. There is a great amount of overlap between the two activities. An archaeologist must travel to remote locations, start work before sunrise, spend a large amount of time outdoors, work in challenging conditions, endure physical hardship, exercise great patience, and be willing to get very, very dirty. Anyone who has spent much time doing landscape photography will be quite familiar with those realities of the art! My time spent excavating in the Middle East toughened me up considerably and exposed me to a lot of travel situations that made me better able face the challenges of working in extreme conditions and in foreign countries. Archaeology also instilled in me an enthusiasm for discovery, which helps drive me to find new views and compositions when I’m out with my camera.
3. You obviously put a lot of care into the processing of your images. At what point did you begin to learn post-processing, and what philosophy, if any, guides you in your approach to it?
My first experiences with image editing actually preceded my interest in photography. I even taught Photoshop classes at a couple of art institutes for years before I ever even thought about using a camera for any serious purpose. It all started when my father began writing for a computer magazine and had to review new hardware and software as it came out. He also wrote books on various software programs and asked me to collaborate with him. It was my job to figure out how to use the software and to create example images that could serve as content for his tutorials. That experience landed me a job at a young age in the prepress department of a large newspaper, right when digital prepress solutions were just emerging. Adobe took an interest in the experiments of our department and sent representatives to teach us this new program called Photoshop, so we pioneered its use alongside the continuation of traditional prepress methods. Therefore, without ever having produced any serious photographs of my own, I became quite proficient at both traditional darkroom work and digital image editing. Learning Photoshop from the first version onward made it relatively easy to master the program and then stay on top of it as new features came out, so I subsequently had no problem acquiring work as a Photoshop instructor.
My philosophy about processing my own photographs did not quite grow out of those experiences, however. It was more so the years that I spent in art school to study studio art and then in graduate school to study art history that really influenced my particular approach to processing. Being exposed to so much art and to the history of it all has made me value personal expression and interpretation above most other goals. Although I do not indulge in the creation of pure fantasy scenes, I also do not think of my landscape photographs as reflections of some absolute reality. I aim to communicate my own experiences of a place, which may mean subtly altering spatial relationships, tones, or colors in order to impart a sense of perspective or a certain mood. It may mean combining different exposures to achieve a certain field of view, depth of field, or a combination of photographic effects that a camera cannot pack into a single frame on its own. These techniques come together in post-processing, but they usually require a deliberate approach at the moment of capture—so in a sense, my approach to processing a photo often begins well before I’ve taken any exposures for it.
4. What do you find most challenging and most rewarding about landscape photography?
The challenges of landscape photography are many, but chief among them is probably the necessity to think on your feet when unpredictable situations occur, which is often. I prefer to have the luxury of thinking through a composition at my leisure, refining it, and then waiting for a great display of ephemera to go with it. Those sorts of outings are wonderful, but all too often a mad dash and/or extemporaneous composition is necessary to come away with anything worthwhile when nature decides to be uncooperative. I always agonize over the decision to abandon a composition that excites me when it looks like opportunity will be knocking elsewhere, and I dislike feeling rushed when I’m composing a photograph. Then again, it can be a real thrill when an act of compositional triage forces me into a gamble that pays off in the end.
As far as rewards go, I suppose it is a toss-up between the experience of enjoying a magnificent view while photographing it and the experience of making a final photograph that communicates the essence of that experience. I enjoy both ends of the process immensely. Although I am probably happiest when I am out in nature, those moments can continue to pay dividends through photographs that successfully register something special about a particular place and time. I love that moment when I’m processing a photo and it starts to ‘speak’ to me, expressing whatever it is that I feel is worth sharing. Moreover, seeing other people deriving enjoyment from what I was able to express in a photograph is incredibly gratifying.
5. Your style of photography is quite adventurous, involving a significant amount of backpacking and wilderness camping. How do you typically go about choosing these types of destinations?
I usually choose my destinations after poring over topographical maps to identify potentially photogenic features and alignments. I find that I can get the basic sense for an area most quickly by looking at maps of it. Once I find an area that looks promising on paper, I then explore it ‘virtually’ using satellite imagery and Google Earth, and I look for snapshots that might provide more detailed information about a location or about terrain at an elevation that I’m targeting. Working in this manner usually means that I’m setting myself up for some surprises, and they don’t always work out in my favor. One time I planned a backpacking trip to photograph a glacial tarn that ceased to exist the year that I went to find it. It wasn’t until I had driven seven hours and hiked up nearly four thousand feet of steep terrain that I learned that there was no tarn because the glacier had finally become too small to produce enough runoff to fill the basin below it with water.
I also end up in a lot of interesting places simply because I enjoy the company of likeminded photographers who share my interests in exploring obscure locations. For years I resisted shooting with other people because I wanted to minimize distractions and complications, but lately I have swung the other direction. I have been lucky to make friends with some very intrepid photographers who have introduced me to locations that they have researched. Sharing the experience of exploration and discovery with inspiring photographers is possibly the greatest fun that I have ever known, and doing so has expanded my wanderings to areas that I may never have found by following my own nose.
6. How would you describe the qualities that are typical of your work?
The one thread that probably runs through most of what I produce is an interest in seldom seen locations and compositions. I think it’s my love of discovery and of solving puzzles that drives me to experiment with new locations and vantage points. While I marvel at familiar scenes as much as anyone else, I always have this urge to find out what lies beyond them. As far as basic aesthetics go, I tend to gravitate towards scenes that provide a strong sense of visual hierarchy and of timing. Although I enjoy images that do a compelling job of featuring all-over patterning or of eschewing temporal specificity, I don’t tend to produce them myself. Counterbalance, atmospheric effects, and dynamism all feature quite regularly in my images, and despite having a great amount of respect for black-and-white photography, I prefer to work in color.
7. When you are not photographing or processing images, what do you like to do?
I like to stay active as much as possible, so I do a lot of running and enthusiastically seize opportunities to go swimming when they arise. I really do enjoy the whole range of outdoor activities associated with photography, including hiking and camping, and I sometimes like to indulge in them without any photographic agenda governing my time. In addition to keeping my body active, I like to exercise my mind as well, so I regularly get out to museums and galleries, and I love to read philosophical musings about photography wherever I can find them. Judging photography competitions also provides me with an outlet for exercising my eyes and mind in ways that producing photographs cannot, so I accept a number of invitations to commentate and judge at competitions around the Bay Area each year.
8. What photographic projects do you have planned for the future?
At the moment I have a workshop in the Dolomites with co-leader Enrico Fossati scheduled for July 5–11 and several private workshops planned in the summer and Fall. I also have been invited to write a feature article for a magazine to recount my adventures on a month-long trip through the southwest that I recently completed. Those projects and my usual photography travels will keep me quite busy, but I hope to make plenty of time this year to finish an e-Book on photographic expression that I have been plugging away at for years now.
March 23rd, 2015
As our newsletter subscribers might know over the last last year we have taken turns pointing the lens on each of us to provide more insight to us personally. Since these were spread out among a half dozen newsletters we thought it would be good to post a recap that includes all of them. Besides we were not always good on following up to mention the myth found from a handful of truths of for the prior newsletter. Now we are rectifying that with all of them here.
If you did not receive the newsletter here is a speedy recap what we did. We published a listing of five things about one PC team member in a newsletter. One of the five is a myth, simply made up. four are true. The goal was to allow newsletter subscribers to guess which is the false one. If a person did respond correctly they would go in a drawing with others that guessed the same for a free 8×12 print of their choice. I don’t have a list of who all won yet I know some were guessed correctly by one or more viewers yet not that was not the case for all team members. Some are easier than others.
Without further rambling here they are for reading pleasure with a photo of each team member in their element… outdoors. Answers are separate at the bottom of the post for those that would like to take a stab at guessing.
- Failed the only photography course he ever took.
- Made ski movies when he was younger.
- Traveled around the world as a DJ.
- He likes to eat vegetables and seafood.
- Just out of high school bought a Porsche.
- Has performed onstage with Ray Charles, Natalie Cole, Ben Folds, Brandi Carlile, and Peter Cetera.
- One of his cars is a red 1988 VW Cabriolet.
- Has never used a traditional film darkroom
- Was a child actor and in a commercial for Burger King.
- He is not afraid of bees, but is of spiders.
- He reads 25-50 books per year on average.
- He grew up in the redwoods of northern California, but has never been back to photograph.
- In addition to photography, he enjoys surfing, mountain biking, snowboarding, and backcountry exploration.
- Has never used a traditional film darkroom.
- Owned cameras made by the following manufacturers: Sony, Canon, Nikon, Minolta, Apple, and GoPro.
- Did wedding and portrait photography full time for over a year before deciding to move back to landscape photography.
- Almost got blown off a mountain summit with his wife. The tent was sideways and he could not see where he was when he woke up. He ripped open a mesh window to get out.
- Has traveled to all the National Parks in the states of Oregon and Washington.
- First backpack experience felt a big adventure he embarked on. He now takes his young kids to the same location. It’s only 2 miles and 500 ft of elevation gain.
- Grew up at the mouth of the Columbia River Gorge playing in a creek on his property catching crawdads and hiking through the woods.
- He owned a music distribution company.
- He’s an avid guitar player.
- He’s held two state swimming records.
- He walked across the Yukon and NW Territories.
- He played in baseball’s Babe Ruth World Series.
- Pole vaulted in China.
- Reached the summit of Mt. McKinley on two separate expeditions.
- Lost a $5 bet with Galen Rowell when Galen successfully ran cross country at high altitude in time to capture his famous Rainbow Over the Potala Palace image in Tibet.
- Played in a 1990s bagpipe marching band, kilt and all.
- Partied with Woody Harrelson and his posse at a U2 concert.
Answers – the following are not true.
Kevin #4 – He likes to eat vegetables and seafood. Kevin does not like either of them. I know first hand from traveling with him.
Chip #5 – He is not afraid of bees, but is of spiders. Chip does not like bee’s at all but doesn’t mind spiders.
Zack #5 – Has never used a traditional film darkroom. Although he became an expert in Photoshop early in the DLSR age Zack has spent time in the darkroom.
Adrian #3 – Has traveled to all the National Parks in the states of Oregon and Washington. He has not been to the North Cascades NP yet.
David #2 – He’s an avid guitar player. David does not play the guitar.
Sean #3 – Lost a $5 bet with Galen Rowell when Galen successfully ran cross country at high altitude in time to capture his famous Rainbow Over the Potala Palace image in Tibet. He wishes he did but it’s not true.
March 16th, 2015
Thrills, chills, and a bit of spilled milk, but I attended the 19th Annual NANPA (North American Nature Photography Association) summit in San Diego to be inspired, make connections, meet old friends, and greet new ones. I was not disappointed. This year’s keynote speakers listed a number of heavy hitters from Nevada Wier to Dewitt Jones to Frans Lanting. Fighting L.A. traffic, I arrived late to the summit but caught a keynote address by NANPA’s 2015 Outstanding Photographer of the Year–Steve Winter. The work and dedication he put in to photographing snow leopards and other big cats was mind-boggling and impressive; and his images were fabulous.
The next day Nevada Wier took the stage to show images and recollect stories from her many travels to remote and distant lands. Her love of varied cultures and its peoples shows through her work. Backpacking into isolated valleys rarely visited by anyone, she has photographed untouched clans for months on end. Her National Geographic assignment to raft the Blue Nile in Ethiopia and photograph the cultures along the river consisted of a remarkable set of images. She also presented a number of her new infra-red cultural photographs which showed cultures in a new light.
Before and after the keynote addresses there were breakout sessions that ran the gamut from processing to copyright protection. You could attend photo walks or field trips before the first keynote address, and get a portfolio review. And of course no summit is complete without its exhibitor trade show, which also had a demonstration area.
It’s always great to head south for warm weather in February, so next year plan on attending the 20th annual NANPA Summit in Jacksonville, Florida.
March 10th, 2015
While starting out in photography I owned nothing but Canon cameras. I owned the Canon 5d Mk1 and moved way through the series. It all started with the Canon 5D Mark 2, where I would religiously bracket at least three images for every scene. The results I got with my Canon when I just shot a single exposure for the scene was often not enough coverage in terms of tonal range. What was happening was that I would end up either blowing highlights or blocking the shadows.
It was the general consensus that several years ago to capture dynamic range in any photography scene you needed to take several photos. This would range from-3 under exposure to +3 overexposure. I would bracket at 1-stop exposures so that I included the wide spectrum of tonal values in the scene. At the time, several third-party applications were coming out as well as Photoshop that would be capable of merging several images into a single Image. When arrival of these applications, HDR (high dynamic range) became the big thing. It was really fascinating to capture so many images and merge all of them into a single file. The results for the time we’re Incredible and people started to compare it to medium format photography. But like a lot of things in photography, HDR went too far and quickly received a bad name.
So I chose to explore a few applications and found one called exposure fusion within a program called Photomatix Pro which merged all images together to include all the dynamic range and yet receive realistic result. I was very happy with the results once I learned to fine tune the application but nevertheless took a lot of time to post process images in HDR.
I realized that I was spending a good portion of time now post processing and lot less time in the field shooting so I was always looking for a better solution.
A few years had passed and lots of people still were involved heavily with HDR even though cameras were getting better and better. Digital cameras were now getting behind the movement of more megapixels. The change came for me when Nikon decided to put out a D800 at 36 megapixels. I waited and waited for Canon to follow suit but it never happened. At this time I chose to make the move over to Nikon from Canon because the Nikon D800 had been receiving rave reviews. For my business this was perfect. I could now make larger prints and have the option to crop within the image. This cropping would allow me to eliminate things from the image and still have enough resolution in the image to print large.
In the beginning, the transition was hard and slow moving from Canon to Nikon but eventually it was a saving grace. One of the most unexpected benefits was the dynamic range of the Nikon D800. I immediately noticed that I was capturing the whole scene in terms of tonal range in a single file. For a while I thought this might be a mistake. But exposure after exposure I was able to post process the images from the single file.
As time went on, I began to grow more confident in being able to take a single exposure. Eventually I was not even bracketing as a backup except for situations of extreme contrast. I even noticed I was able to under expose the image and then bring out the shadows in post-processing. With the Canon if I had tried to bring out the shadows I would always have noise that would show throughout the image. This was not the case with the Nikon, which was pretty amazing to see and still is nice to demonstrate to people who shoot Canon.
Shooting one single exposure allows you really to focus on the composition and light. It has also had the added benefit of really allowing me to get into the scene and not worry whether I have everything I need in terms of exposure.
I now own the Nikon D810, which is even better and such an amazing camera when it comes to controlling highlights and avoiding blocked shadows in a single exposure. I shoot freely in low light situations and don’t worry about covering the tonal range of a scene.
When it comes to the histogram on the Nikon D810 I am often asked one should look for when shooting one exposure. Through trial and error I have found excellent results with the histogram if I aim to most of the data and information just to the left of the middle, which would mean I slightly underexpose the image. I know this goes against everything we have been taught from before with exposing to the right, but the Nikon D810 is a revolution and is changing the game. Aiming to have my information on my histogram slightly to the left I do need to make sure I don’t have any clipped highlights as the Nikon is much better at shadows then it is with clipped highlights. So when focusing on a landscape scene I generally will set the exposure on my foreground and go about a half stop to one stop under while making sure I don’t blow the highlights in the sky. I always like to review my histogram after each image just to make sure all the information is present.
The Original Camera Raw Image One Stop Underexposed
Histogram With Information Underexposed 1 Stop to the left
The Long Exposure On The Water
I will be very curious to see in the upcoming months if the new series of Canon 50 Megapixel cameras will focus on dynamic range or will it just be a megapixel monster?
Needless to say I am a very happy with the results of the dynamic range of the Nikon and look forward to get out and shooting lots more now that I don’t have to bracket!
March 6th, 2015
I just received my new Canon 11-24mm f4L ultra-wide angle lens. This is Canon’s widest lens to date, and Canon claims it has the widest view of any rectilinear lens currently on the market for full-frame cameras. The reviews I have read of this lens are very good so far. I thought I would share some of my own results, and some comparisons to my 16-35mm f4L, which is an excellent performer.
Here are some examples of the 11-24mm f4’s field of view. The difference between 16mm and 11mm was pretty surprising to me. Even the difference between 11mm and 14mm is quite noticeable.
Here is a corner comparison with the Canon 16-35mm f4L. Once again, this is very unscientific. I did use a steady tripod, a level camera, mirror lockup and ISO 100 for each shot. I noticed a tiny bit more chromatic aberration with the 11-24mm, which to me isn’t a big deal. I corrected for this, along with white balance. If you look closely, at least to me (especially in the horizontal lines) it looks like the CA corrected better with the 11-24mm f4L. No sharpening or noise reduction was added. All images were shot in Raw, corrected for white balance and chromatic aberration in Lightroom, and resized in Photoshop. These examples are all the extreme lower right corner, cropped in from the left and top. The first image is an example of the setup.
This test gives me a rough idea of corner performance, and it looks to me like the 11-24mm f4L results are pretty similar to the 16-35mm f4L, with a slight advantage to the 16-35mm f4L. Both lenses are very sharp in the center. I did some test shots with both lenses at 16mm and the 11mm-24mm f4L came out ahead (zooming in a little helped with resolution for this test). Also, I did tests at f16 and f22, and the results were similar just with diffraction added to the equation.
Here’s a quick comparison of the extreme upper right corner of each lens, with a bit more distance from the target. Both images were shot at f8, ISO 400, 11mm with the 11-24 and 16mm with the 16-35.
This lens is heavy, expensive, and awesome. I have a feeling many photographers are going to find a way to get a hold of one. I am not much of a gear guy, so take this review with a grain of salt. If you want to read some more technical reviews, they are starting to pour in. Here are a few good ones:
I like to mostly focus more on the picture taking aspect of photography, and am excited to take this lens out into the field and see how it performs in real world situations.
February 22nd, 2015
This week on the blog I am sharing a complete chapter from the new edition of my Developing for Extended Dynamic Range tutorial series. In this chapter I demonstrate how luminosity masks and a technique called masking-the-mask are useful in creating better tonal balance in high dynamic range exposures. Dynamic range is one of the many challenges we face as outdoor, natural light photographers. Dynamic range is the visual contrast (difference between the darkest and lightest values) in a scene or an image. A common way to handle extreme dynamic range light, in the 12 to 25 stop range, is by bracketing exposure values and blending the exposures in Photoshop to create a properly exposed final image. While I find multiple exposure blending to be an essential technique, with advancing camera technology it isn’t needed as often as it once was. Some current digital cameras have the ability to record a dynamic range of 11 to 14 stops, unimaginable just a few years ago. A dynamic range of 13 stops equates to a contrast ratio of over 8,000:1 and 14 stops, a contrast ratio of over 16,000:1. Such contrast range means it is possible to capture many high dynamic range scenes, which were previously out of reach, in a single exposure. Unfortunately, the dynamic range of the best monitors is only in the 1000:1 range. Prints can only achieve a dynamic range between about 50:1 up to perhaps 300:1, depending on paper, printing process and lighting. So even if our cameras can record a wide dynamic range in a single exposure, we still need to work with shifting the the bright and dark tones in the image to create tonal balance and retain tonal detail, while still giving the perception of the actual dynamic range that we saw.
There are many tools and techniques available for shifting tonal values in an image for better tonal balance, including raw highlight and shadow recovery, dodging and burning and the Shadows/Highlights adjustment in Photoshop. A common tool I use is Curves or Levels adjustments guided by the use of luminosity masks. In the video chapter below I demonstrate the great control, precision and flexibility that luminosity masks provide when working with targeted tonal balance in a single exposure image. It also provides some great extended instruction in the use of the TKActions Panel. I hope you find the information helpful in your image developing. Make sure to view the video in 720p HD!
This chapter is one of 36 in the updated edition of the Developing for Extended Dynamic Range tutorial series. The series takes a complete look at working with high dynamic range light from capture to single and multiple exposure developing methods. You can go here if you would like more information or to see more chapters. I’d be glad to field any comments or question you have in the comments section below.
February 17th, 2015
by Zack Schnepf
There is a feeling I get when I’m deep in a forest. An experience that quiets my mind and opens my senses. I have this experience in all wilderness, but there is something special about being surrounded by a well balanced ecosystem that is teeming with life. Sadly, there are fewer and fewer true wilderness areas left, but that is the subject of another article. The forest is my church and always has been. Ever since I was a little boy exploring the mountains of Northern California, or trying to discover where the waterfalls came from in the Columbia River Gorge. I’ve always had a special appreciation for the experience I have inside a forest. This experience is something I try convey when photographing in the forest. I think forests are one of the hardest types of scenes to capture well, but also one of the most rewarding. Below are some of the images I’ve captured of forests that convey some piece of my own experience.
One of my favorite experiences is sitting by a stream in a forest. I’ll sit quietly and let my mind wonder. The rhythm of the running water and the symphony of the sights and sounds in a forest are hypnotic. There is an awareness that comes over me, as if my senses come alive. All at once, I’m aware of the entire ecosystem around me and I can feel myself as a part of the ecosystem. It’s in this moment of profound awareness my mind can find peace and my body can fully relax. In this meditative state the trivial concerns of everyday life fall away and my mind is free to think clearly. This is my favorite state of mind to photograph in as well. I do some of my best work with a quiet mind and I also enjoy the experience very much. Often times if I’m struggling with a composition, or having a hard time making a decision about how to shoot a particular scene I will sit in one spot and quiet my mind. it’s not always easy to do, especially if the light is changing quickly and I don’t have much time, but it’s almost always worth the time spent to change my perspective.
As I mentioned before, forests can be extremely challenging to photograph. Forest scenes tend to be very chaotic and don’t always lend themselves to a two dimensional medium. I’m always trying to find a way to simplify the scene and add more dimension. Here are some of the techniques I use to capture a compelling forest image.
- Try to find areas with more space. Forests that are really dense usually don’t photograph well. Having space between trees and other objects helps add dimension as well as simplify the scene. Look for areas that are more open.
- Eliminate elements that don’t add to the overall structure of the scene and avoid distracting elements.
- Use foreground, middle ground and background elements to add depth and dimension.
- Use s curves and c curves to help the eye flow through the frame.
- Light. Overcast light can help flatten out the tonality range in a forest and allow you to capture the scene in one exposure. Harsh sunny afternoon light is probably the worst light to shoot a forest in. The best light for any scene depends a lot on the mood you are trying to capture. Some of my favorite forest light is partly sunny, or high overcast. This is dynamic light, but filtered enough to control the tonality. Sometimes my favorite light is clear twilight. This can produce moody, saturated, rich tones. Also, early sunrise light can be really excellent, especially before the direct sunlight is able to hit the scene.
The serenity of a well captured forest scene is something that resonates deep within me, it’s something that I admired in the photographs of some of my photographic heroes and something I strive to capture in my own images. For this reason, forest scenes are some of my favorite images to print and hang on my own walls. I love being able to look at an image of a forest in my own home and feel the serenity I felt in person. An image that can evoke that kind of feeling in me is a successful image.
For more information on the techniques I use to process these images click here: http://www.zschnepf.com/Other/Videos2
February 9th, 2015
With the latest interview and featured photographer spot on Photo Cascadia blog we bring you Marsel Van Oosten. Although based in The Netherlands, and area with little in the way of grand landscapes, he truly paints a picture of what it’s like to be a photographer leading adventures around the globe. I was first exposed to Marsel’s inspiring work about seven years ago on Nature Photographers Network (NPN). It was his great photos of Namibia that lured me in. Although I heard of the location before and seen photos, I realized he had some unique takes on the area. Along with photographing remarkable and exotic locales he has an exceptional wildlife portfolio. For years I have listed him on my website as a photographer that inspires. You will see why in this interview and his photographs.
1. Tell us about your life before photography or have you always been behind the camera?
I finished art school with a BA in art direction and graphic design, and then worked as an art director in advertising for 15 years. When I was in art school, I didn’t care much about photography. I could choose it as a major, but I couldn’t see myself messing around with chemicals in my bathroom all day to develop arty farty black and white prints. During my career as an art director, I worked with a great many professional photographers, and that’s when I really learned about the power of photography, how to look, how to select, how to work with light, and about post processing. Over the years it developed from a harmless hobby to a full blown obsession. My photographic style is greatly influenced by my graphic design education and my career as an art director.
2. You have some amazing nature and wildlife photos, which is your focus. What draws you to those subjects over everything else?
Thank you. I love nature, I love animals, I love being outdoors – always have. In advertising, everything was fake. At first, nature photography was a way for me to escape from the pressure and hectic life at an ad agency. The peace and quiet was therapeutic and it was nice to work with real stuff – trees, rivers, skies, animals. The creative challenge was interesting as well. Nature is chaos, and I liked trying to create some order. In many ways nature photography is like graphic design – you have a whole bunch of elements that need to be organized so that it makes sense and looks attractive. For me this is still one the most interesting creative aspects of what I do.
Working with animals is both amazing and frustrating. If you’re a landscape photographer, you have all the time in the world – you walk around, pick a good spot, wait for the magic light, and click. And if the weather does not cooperate, you return the next day – the landscape will still be there. With wildlife it’s completely different. I have no influence over my subject, all I can do is wait and hope for the best. When the light is perfect, the animal doesn’t show up, or when the animal is doing something amazing, it’s usually too dark, facing away from the camera, or hiding behind a tree. It’s very rare to get everything just perfect. And that’s exactly what makes it so addictive – there is always room for improvement and you never know what you’re going to get. It’s the anticipation. You’re looking at a scene, you see the light is perfect, you’ve already figured out the composition, the animal is walking into the right direction, and you’re hoping for those few extra steps to get the perfect shot. It can be really exciting. And when something interesting does happen, it’s usually over before you know it. You have to work fast, make the right decisions in a split second. It’s a lot of fun.
3. Speaking of subjects you have one of the best collections of Namibia photos I have seen. How do you continue find ways to push yourself creatively and come back with different and unique images after visiting the same place many times?
As a nature photographer you have basically two options: you photograph an unfamiliar subject, or you photograph a familiar subject. The first option is by far the easiest – if you subject is unfamiliar, you’re bound to end up with an original photograph. The second option can be very difficult from a creative point of view, especially when you’re photographing iconic places or subjects. I really like the creative challenge that places that have been shot to death give me. You really have to push yourself to your artistic limits to come up with something that feels original, even though the subject matter really isn’t.
When I first visited Deadvlei many years ago, there were hardly any photographs of it anywhere. People could not believe these places were real – they thought it was all photoshopped. After we set up the world’s first photo tour to Namibia, things started to change. More and more photographers visited the country and photographed the same subjects that I had. Every year it became more difficult to return with something original, but every year it became more interesting for me as an artist.
Nobody knows these places better than I do. When I see a photograph taken in Deadvlei for instance, I can show you on Google Earth which trees they are exactly, and at what time of the day the shot was taken – it’s pretty scary. I like visiting a place multiple times, you have to get to know a location to be able to fully understand the creative potential. But the most important thing you have to do is: think. Most of the photographs that I shoot in Namibia I have already pre-visualized at home. I don’t want to waste time walking around, thinking about what I’m going to do if I already know the location. Before each visit, I analyze the shots that I’ve taken there on previous visits, and decide what can be improved upon, or I try to come up with something that’s never been done there before. That’s how I decided to create the first time-lapse from Namibia that was shot entirely at night. Later this year we will visit Namibia probably for the 20th time or so, and I’m still looking forward to it again.
4. If you had to pick your three favorite images, what are they and why? (they are the three in this post)
Resurrection: I’m very proud of this image, because it was the result of creative vision. I had pre-visualized this image years before I was finally able to shoot it, and at a time when all landscape photographers told me that it would be impossible to shoot anything new there anymore – it had been shot to death. It is so difficult to shoot original images at iconic places, but it is extremely rewarding when you pull it off. So many photographers are obsessed about their gear and processing technique, but in the end the only thing that really matters is creative vision. As a matter of fact, this image won an award in the Creative Visions category of the Wildlife Photographer Of The Year Awards. That was a real bonus.
Brave Elephant: Victoria Falls is yet another icon that has been photographed by millions. On my first visit there, I almost decided to leave my camera at the hotel, thinking about the kazillion images that had already been shot there. When I heard from the locals that an bull elephant had been spotted the day before in the vicinity of the falls, I decided to stay a few extra days and try my luck.
Photography is all about making decisions. Anyone could have made this shot, but very few people would have made that same decision. This is the only photograph in the world, apart from the horizontal version that was featured in National Geographic, that features an elephant this close to the edge of Vic Falls. It is also the perfect example of my ideal photograph: a spectacular landscape image with an animal in it.
Invasion Of The Dunes: Another one from Namibia. My first publication in National Geographic – a double page spread, 10 million copies worldwide. I was ecstatic. This was shot at a time when few people knew this place existed. Daniella and I were the only people here for days. The sand was pristine everywhere, which is no longer the case unfortunately. You can only get this light at a very specific time of the year, as the sun needs to rise at a certain spot to shine directly into the middle room. This room is difficult to find, but it’s the first one that people start looking for when they go here. It is by far my most copied shot ever.
5. You lead workshops around the globe from Namibia to Antarctica. What can one expect on a workshop with you?
We know the locations that we visit very well, so you can expect to be at the right place at the right time, fully briefed on all the creative challenges and possibilities. People that travel with us, usually do so because they like my work and they want to learn from me, see me at work. I like to help people to improve their photography, and teach them to analyze a scene. I have a very specific way of looking at spaces and dealing with shapes, so I try to bring that across. Composition is very important for me, more so than light, so I always give a presentation on that.
Also, part of every Squiver tour is image reviews – each participant selects up to three images from the previous day(s), and I analyze them in front of the group. These sessions are incredibly interesting and educational, also for me. We get people of all experience levels, which is great. We all learn from each other, also from the beginners.
But the main reason that people keep traveling with us, is the fact that we are a husband and wife company – we always lead our tours together. It’s a completely different group dynamic. Photography is a very male dominated thing, but we tend to get relatively more women than other companies because of that. The result is that there is less tech talk, which is good – I don’t like to talk about buttons and sensors all the time.
6. Is there any artist, photographer or otherwise, that has been a big influence on how you photograph or your creative process?
The one artist that has inspired me most, is German landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). His paintings characteristically set a human presence in diminished perspective amid expansive landscapes, reducing the figures to a scale that directs the viewer’s gaze towards their metaphysical dimension. When I first saw his work back in art school, it made a big impression on me, and it’s been a source of inspiration ever since.
But there are so many other great artists around – the internet is filled with talent. I don’t look at much of it, only when I’m going to photograph something specific – I like to know what’s already been done so I can at least try to do it differently.
7. I notice you have entered (and won) a number of photo contests over the years. What are your thoughts on them; are they still a good avenue to stand out? And what contest gave you the biggest exposure?
Most photography competitions are only in it for the money, or to get their hands on your photographs for free. There are many contests out there, and most of them are completely useless. However, I do believe that contests can be helpful.
Photography is an art form, and art is subjective. If you’re a marathon runner, you can tell how good you are by looking at your best time. If you’re a photographer, you can’t. Family and friends always think your photographs are amazing, but they can not be trusted. When I was still working in advertising, I struggled with this phenomenon. I wanted to know whether my images were any good, so I decided to enter a couple of competitions to see what would happen. After I won prizes in several major contests, I knew that my images were good enough to stand out from the millions of others – in the end this was what gave me the confidence to switch careers.
I still participate, primarily because it’s nice to know whether other people certain images are as good as I think they are, and because it looks good on my cv. I know that I’m a good photographer, so I don’t need the ego boost – I hardly ever visit the award ceremonies. If you want to become a professional photographer, participating in any of the major contests is a good way to find out if your images stand out from the rest. There are already so many photographers out there, so if you want to make it, you need to be better than most of the others.
As a nature photographer, there are only five contests in the world that I think matter; Wildlife Photographer Of The Year, European Wildlife Photographer Of The Year, Travel Photographer Of The Year, International Photography Awards, and Nature’s Best Awards. Those are the competitions that publishers, galleries and stock agents look at. My recent win in the Wildlife Photographer Of The Year gave me the most exposure, mostly because the picture (of a snow monkey holding an iPhone) appealed to many people and because the contest has a big reach.
8. When you are not photographing or leading a tour what do you like to do?
I like to watch tv series like Game Of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Homeland, and House Of Cards, and I like to listen to Death Metal. Septicflesh rules.
9. Quick questions:
- Nikon or Canon? Nikon
- Apple or PC? Apple, never worked with a PC
- Photoshop or Lightroom? Photoshop
- Favorite book photography related? Before They Pass Away, by Jimmy Nelson
- Where do you want to photograph that you haven’t? Niger
10. Lastly what is one mistake you made early on whether it was with the photos itself or the business side that you really learned from, and others can learn from as well?
The biggest mistake I have made, is that I haven’t made the switch to photography earlier. I had been thinking about it for years before I finally took the plunge. Making a living with nature photography used to be a lot easier, and it’s virtually impossible now. If you really want something, follow your heart and don’t wait too long. Life is short, and you should do the things that you’re passionate about. Nothing else matters.
I would like to thank Marsel for his time to do this interview with me. To see more of his work and workshop listing visit http://www.squiver.com