Photo Cascadia Blog
Archive for the ‘Photo Travel’ Category
To start off I know Chip covered this camera in one of his recent posts yet I figured I would provide my thoughts and images for what it’s worth.
As I was packing up for a backpack trip this past spring my DSLR equipment seemed heavier than usual. Tip top shape I was not yet a lazy couch potato waking up from winter hibernation was not me either. At this point I figured it was time to start shopping for a mirror-less setup that would shave significant weight for backpacking, long hikes and other travel situations where lugging bulkier or heavier gear was less than optimal.
I looked at a number of models online reading many reviews and talking to some photographers as well. Eventually I settled on the Sony a6000 and Sony lenses, for a number of reasons. It’s the newest model in what has been known as the NEX series. The Sony a6000 is a 24.3MP APS-C HD CMOS with BIONZ X image processor. ISO range 100 to 25,600. Shutter Lag of only .02 seconds with 11 fps and weighing well under one pound!
I have had the camera for a couple months now on several outings, even to photograph a wedding for a family member. This has given me enough time to detail my thoughts and opinions which fall in both the good and the not so good sides.
What I like
Weight – One of the primary goals was to buy a good interchangeable lens system that shaved many pounds from my DSLR setup. Weight details come from weighing my gear on a mailing scale, not product descriptions. The lightness did not go unnoticed on my first backpack trip using this setup. I will let the data do the speaking here.
Size – Besides The Sony a6000 weighing in at less than half the weight of my Canon DSLR setup it’s about half the size too. This photo shows my typical Sony and Canon setups for comparison. As small as it is I can put it with the pancake mid-range lens in a coat pocket to carry around if desired (tad too large for most pant pockets). I am pretty sure I sounded like a broken record to my wife after explaining my excitement a half dozen times that I had to contact f-stop to send me their new tiny micro ICU because their “small” size I have was too big!
Speed - Shutter speed is lightning fast. I am very in impressed with it but I guess I shouldn’t be with the 179 point phase detection and 25 point contrast detection system. The double digit 11 fps from this sized camera is mighty good. The auto-focus works very well with good results. If the camera is on you can be that person that aims, focuses and snaps a sharp photo in… well, a snap. Notice I said camera powered on. If it’s not you will have to wait up to 5 or 6 seconds for the camera to power up which is a little slow.
Price – Considering I am used to spending $2k to $3k for just a camera body this one rings in lower than most lenses I use for my Canon setup. At $650 without lenses ($750 with kit lens) it’s hard to go much lower price wise. Additionally 2 out of the 3 lenses I bought, 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 OSS and 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS kit lens, that run on the cheaper side are decent lenses. The 55-210 I bought on sale for a whopping $148 and the 16-50 came with the camera for an additional $100. The 55-210 is better than I expected and the 16-50 does the job but is definitely soft on the edges, plan to crop about 10% to 15%. But what can you expect for the price!? The next best option with similar range is the 16-70mm for $1k which I am debating getting for myself. The 10-18mm f/4.0 is $850 (and the most I have paid for a full plastic lens) yet it’s a pretty solid wide angle. And for you prime users there are a number of options all with decent price points and good reviews when paired with this camera.
Menu and Controls – From all that I have seen prior NEX cameras had much less user friendly menu which is one reason it kept me at bay, picture oriented which for me is slower and takes longer to find what you need. That said I find the overall ease of navigating the menus a fairly short learning curve. It’s all text based now and similar to Sony a7 series. Adjusting the aperture and shutter in manual mode is easy and only a couple clicks for ISO adjustment. My hand grips the body rather well. It’s as small as a camera can go. Any smaller and it would be too small for me.
Dynamic Range – This is good too. What I am able to pull down from the highlights and pull up from the shadows is fairly decent. You still want to shoot to the right yet it’s good to know I have a little wiggle room here. Below is a sample comparison with the raw file and the single processed shot.
EVF – Although this also falls in the negative category the one advantage is that you can use this to image review for already taken images and zoom in for the details. Rather than separate setups for your large LCD, simply put your eye to the eye piece and the image review changes to the EVF automatically. This is helpful in bright situations where it’s harder to see the LCD.
Apps and Wireless – Although I don’t use them all it’s nice to have a myriad options for how you take photos and get them onto your phone or computer. For example they have a free phone app called PlayMemories (although limited in features) will allow you to trigger the shot and send a 2MB file to your phone if you choose.
IQ/ISO – This really is one that ends up in both the positive and not so positive category. Overall it’s amazing to see what a small camera with 24MP can produce. In the right situations and ISO it produces a very clean file with excellent detail. Not that I shoot much JPG yet the in camera processing produces a cleaner less noisy JPG vs RAW at higher ISO’s. That said I can clean up the noise pretty well on the RAW so that it’s almost as clean. Here are some examples around ISO.
Video – Although I am not a big video guy this seems to produce good videos from the little I have played with this feature. It’s full HD 1920 x 1080 with 30 or 60 fps.
Could Be Better
This is where most of what I like about the camera stops, albeit the positives are significant for me. Realize besides an iPhone for snap-shots I have been shooting with only a full-frame Canon DSLR for many years now so I tend to get picky about certain things. Also some of what I list is not meant to be a knock to the a6000 but rather things to simply be aware of. Below is my list in no particular order.
Battery Life – What can I say other than this thing EATS through batteries faster than a 5 year old eating through his Halloween candy stash. Keep in mind that although I have live view on my Canon DSLR I don’t use it unless I need to so I am used to a single battery lasting many days for most of my shooting. My perspective might be different if I was heavy live view user prior to this camera. For the Sony I would say plan on using 1 to 3 batteries a day depending on how much you are using your camera. Total battery life is around 90 min. If long exposures or video is your thing I would have an arsenal of batteries.
IQ/ISO – In Chip’s post he mentioned images looking good to ISO 400. I would say that is true, maybe up to 800 at most. After that it really goes downhill for me which is unfortunate. This will limit bumping up the ISO if you are into night photography or working with low light often. That said depending on your end goal cleaning up with noise removal tools has vastly improved the last few years and go a long way to making a decent image from the ISO 800 to 1600 range as long as you are using good glass. Using the cheaper lenses, not so much.
Weather Resistance – Keep in mind this camera is not weather resistant in any way, or the lenses I bought for it. I got caught in a major downpour on the Oregon coast only carrying my camera in my thin coat jacket pocket. I am sure it was quite a site to see me jogging with my four year old daughter in one arm and using my other to try and cover my pocket with the camera as we searched for cover. It survived but lesson learned.
EVF – I know some folks like electronic view finders (EVF) yet for me optical is much preferred despite one comment about the one piece I like about it. It’s very noisy in low light which gets tougher to ensure sharp manual focusing.
Battery Charger – Really this is lack of charger. Who plugs in their camera to charge!? I would have preferred Sony raise the price $25 and simply include the charger. It seems odd that I need to buy this separate. Not to mention there is no visible sign that the battery is fully charged without turning on the camera, another strike against direct charging. I bought the Wasabi Charger and extra batteries from Amazon and it’s working fine to also charge my two Sony batteries.
Sounds – I run my Canon as silent as possible. The only sound you hear is the shutter. That said I cannot figure out how to turn off the sounds for auto focus, timer, etc which I would rather not have. If you are reading this and I missed how to do it please email me. This would be welcome news to my ears.
Bracketing – For landscape photographers being able to auto bracket with timer is a big deal. I am used to using a remote trigger yet if I forget it or it breaks I know I can always use auto bracketing with timer on my Canon. Not an option on the Sony. Additionally from my testing don’t even bother trying to press the shutter for bracketing on a tripod. Your images are almost surely to come out soft or blurry. I bought the Sony RM-VPR1 Remote.
Weight – Of course you are wondering why in this section when the light weight was such a plus. Well it’s not a negative to the camera or lenses by any means. It’s simply something to be aware of which is that using a very light camera and lens setup on a lighter tripod is more susceptible to shakes and vibrations resulting in soft shots. Hanging your pack from your tripod can help yet it’s not fool proof. Don’t forget to chimp your images because what you think is sharp might be anything but.
Dial Size – For me it’s not an issue yet I could see someone with larger hands finding the controls tougher to work with, especially the dial on the back. That circle dial controls many functions and isn’t much bigger than a dime. Again I cannot blame Sony because with a smaller camera comes smaller buttons and controls. If you tend to shoot mostly in auto mode then this is less of an issue.
Lens Selection – Although able to buy a wide, mid and telephoto Sony lenses that are good, overall they need to beef up their lens selection (this applies to APS and full frame). It would be nice to buy higher quality lenses for all the same focal ranges I have with my Canon. Hopefully this is coming soon. My only real complaint with the current lenses I have is are soft in the corners. A little bit of lens correction and or crop goes a long way and still leaves a big file.
Overall it’s a good mirror less camera system with room for improvement to be great. For any hobbyist or photo snapper it’s a dream. For someone looking to high quality work for prints and stock it’s good to meet the needs with some exceptions that I covered above. I did not buy this to replace my DSLR system and I would not recommend that unless you have a old or bottom end DSLR. This is a great compliment to your DSLR system for when you have to or simply desire lighter traveling and still want great quality photos. The price is certainly right. I spent about $2,000 for my full setup which includes the body, three lenses, two polarizers, battery charger, four batteries and remote trigger.
Chances are you would rather be out exploring and enjoying outdoors whether curb side view, hiking miles into the woods, paddling majestic waterways or the myriad of other options instead of reading a blog post. I can relate, seeing amazing places in photos and videos is rarely enough.
Not long ago I was having lunch with someone that said something I could not relate to at all. He said seeing amazing places in videos and photos is good enough for him and he doesn’t need to go see them himself (obviously he is not a photographer or outdoor enthusiast). For me it’s the exact opposite. When I read, see or hear about locations that offer great adventures or fantastic photo opportunities I want to go. It whets my appetite for more. I may never get to a particular location I am viewing photos of or dreaming about yet it certainly fuels the fire to simply get out. Being an armchair adventurer is not the goal. Getting out is and that is exactly what happens!
One way I get inspired is watching flicks that make me think about places I have been, where I want to go, how I take my photos. Below is a short list of movies that makes me excited about getting out for the next outing or capturing the next spectacular photo.
One Man’s Wilderness
Few of us will ever attempt (or even desire to attempt) what Richard (Dick) Proenneke does for many years of his life. After spending decades working in the rat race around age 50 he decides to leave it all behind for year-around living of solitude in the Alaskan Wilderness. He creates his cabin, tools and more documenting his journey in writing along with some video and photo work.
I first heard about the story when someone gave me the book as a gift and since then I have also received or purchased multiple documentaries on his story. I will likely never make such an extreme change in lifestyle yet it’s a great reminder to me how important alone time is outdoors for photography, for rejuvenation, for simply reflecting on life and escaping the hustle and bustle daily life brings for many of us.
If you are picturing Angelina Jolie as a Russian spy right now chances are you are on the wrong blog. During the summer of 2010 I was getting ready to head for bed one evening when I figured I would watch a few minutes of TV before calling it a night. There are not many shows I watch and considering our TV gets less than 20 stations (mostly CSPAN and community access) you can tell our family is not big tube watchers. That said a couple stations I do enjoy from our wide assortment includes OPB and Discovery. That night I clicked on OPB and was immediately engulfed with what was on…which I found out afterward was the short film SALT. I subsequently took the time to watch the full video less than a week later.
Murray Fredericks as a landscape photographer documents his numerous solo adventures on Lake Eyre in Australia. Besides stunning video and photos he talks about what he is thinking while spending weeks alone on this vast open lake including SAT calls with his family. I place this in the must-view-category for any landscape or adventure photographer.
Baraka and Samsara
Anyone that is serious into time lapse photography knows of the movies Baraka and it’s recent sequel Samsara. When I first met my wife over a decade ago she mentioned a movie Baraka playing at our local independent theatre that I would likely enjoy. Entering the theatre filled with mostly empty red velvet seats I had low hopes. Walking out I was in awe. 96 minutes of amazing footage with no words other than a few tribal chants.
Since then I have purchased Baraka and earlier this year my wife bought me the sequel which I have also watched and enjoyed just as much. If you have not seen either of these you are missing out. They are worth your time.
The Other Side of the Ice
There are two kinds of people, those that gravitate to the ocean and those that gravitate to land. I am naturally drawn to spending my time on land with a little water sprinkled in for good measure. I have full respect for those that can spend many weeks and months on a ship and little time ashore.
In The Other Side of the Ice a family successfully navigates the infamous Northwest Passage over a five month journey. It does not happen without amazing views, emotional struggles and close calls. I will say this is the only title in this post that I have not seen the whole movie. I read the book which I feel was very good yet all the reviews and trailers for the movie don’t excite me as much as the book. If you are not a book reader then the movie is an option.
There are very few of us left on planet Earth choosing to live without most of what the modern world offers… smartphones, high tech cars, piped heat/water, online ordering, the list goes on. This documentary shows the life of trappers and their families living in Bakhtia, the heart of Siberian Taiga. It’s a reminder that we don’t always need all the fancy gadgets of the modern world to survive and be happy. When I leave the house and forget my iPhone, and I wonder how I will do a few hours without it I need to remember and think of folks in this film. Although not the life for me to live day-in-day-out, they obviously do quite well with very little. What can you do without?
At home sick one day roaming Netflix streaming I came across this movie. I remembered hearing about it yet hadn’t taken the time to watch it until this point. Amazing documentary, plain and simple. If you are in search of adventure, good stories and amazing visual feasts look no further. It’s hard to watch and not want to back your bags the next day for exotic lands. When thinking of travel and adventure documentaries, 180 South is first to come to mind.
I leave you with a quote from another movie about adventure, Into the Wild. I love the book and movie yet it’s more main stream which is why I left it out of this post.
“The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure.”
- Christopher McCandless
What movies get you excited about getting outdoors for photography or fun?
By Adrian Klein
I stand there watching the sunset feeling as remote as one can be. No other people except my friend and I, enjoy the sounds and smells of nature. That is the beauty of the Badlands in Central Oregon for those that don’t want to involve a big backpack or hiking trip covering a large distance or elevation to escape. You feel very removed from it all yet only miles up the path and miles up the road is a bustling town.
Only hours earlier my friend and I were sitting in the sun at one of Bend’s newer breweries. No shortage of good ones to visit yet that is a different blog post. After finishing up our meal and IPA we set out on the highway. It was a short drive. About 20 miles and we were at the trailhead for Oregon Badlands Wilderness.
It’s May and as you step out of the car you quickly realize why this is no place to visit in summer. With the high expected of 70 degrees Fahrenheit it’s a cooker in my book when the sun pokes through the clouds. It’s the weekend yet the trailhead has all of three cars, including ours. This is my second time here and neither time was busy.
The Badlands is high desert. There is no water source when you are out there unless you consider putting out a bucket to catch rain drops that infrequent the area. The lack of water is made up by very easy hiking even with a full backpack. The elevation is basically flat. Our 3 mile hike maybe gained a hundred feet. Well in all reality lost 100 ft too so let’s just call it even.
The few trails throughout the wilderness are easy to follow. That said a GPS and map would be helpful if you venture too far off trail. Everything looks the same and I could see getting lost while off trail as an easy achievement whether intended or not. Here is a map for more details.
Now to the photography aspect, this is a blog relating to photography after all.
- Spring – The wildflowers are out usually in April and May and the temps are comfortable.
- Summer – Avoid unless you like very hot dry conditions, without a water source, and no flowers. This place would not appeal to me for photography in summer.
- Fall – The temps are back to comfortable and Rabbitbrush will add some nice color to your images.
- Winter – Going when a light layer of show has fallen appears to be the right choice. I plan to try it this winter.
Overall you have options every season except summer. My personal opinion of course.
Points of Interest:
- Views – If you want to get up “high” your only options are a few large rock formations such as Flatiron Rock that will get you up just high enough to see over the trees and out to the mountain ranges.
- Flowers – As mentioned the spring season will bring a variety of flowers. My photos only show a few types that you will see.
- Trees – One of the highlights of this place is the endless assortment of knotted and gnarled juniper trees. Not as cool as the timeless bristle cone trees yet I saw many that remind me of them.
- Rocks – Some of the rock formations were rather interesting. I saw a number of cool colors/textures that would make for possible triptych photos as well as the more common anchor for your foreground when taking landscapes.
- Weather – Going in spring increases your chance of more dramatic skies. All seasons except summer has a decent shot to experience something except dull gray or crystal blue. We were fortunate enough on our trip to get some thunder and lightning rolling in around sunset.
In summary if you are looking for an under-visited desert with compositions that take a little time to find (but are worth the time finding) then this is a place worth taking a trip to. We chose backpacking to be close to where we wanted to take the photos yet hiking in early or later in the day is certainly an option as long as you are well equipped to find your way.
For the last five years I’ve taken spring trips down to the Californian Redwoods. Each year I take the trip with the hope of photographing the stunning rhododendrons with the fog and mist that occurs frequently in spring and summer. The last few years I have either been too early or too late. I have witnessed some stunning weather conditions in terms of fog and mist, which produced stunning crepuscular rays but no flowers. From past experiences it seemed to always occur in late morning light as the fog would rise and the sun breaks through.
This year I had the fortunate luck to have some fellow Photo Cascadia members teach a workshop down in the Redwoods a week earlier. They reported the rhododendrons we’re just about at peak and if I were to head down right away I would be arriving at the perfect time. So I packed up my bags and convinced the wife when needed a getaway. With some begging and pleading we headed down to California. As usual, we made a few stops along the southern Oregon coast and made the most out of the trip. In terms of weather reports I usually scout out a week early to see if the conditions are favorable but this this time I had to just head straight down there with no delays. The last four years I’ve seen crepuscular rays almost every day I’ve ever visited the redwoods in spring. So now all I needed to do was find a pleasing composition with both the fog and the rhododendrons, and possibly a burst of sunrays to top things off.
If you have never been to the California redwoods it is an oasis of larger-than-life trees. Knowing where to photograph if you’ve never been or not done your research beforehand can be very challenging. With the Redwoods being as large as they are, it helps to know the best trails to capture all of the elements in one scene. The redwoods are broken into several areas that are quite spaced apart. Although similar to each other, each has its own distinct look when it comes to the layout. Every year it changes quite drastically in terms of where the rhododendrons are best for photographing. For my visit, the first thing I did was go to the visitor center and seek advice. They were very helpful in suggesting several trails that were excellent at the time. They also advised me in terms of where to be and when tin terms of placement of the breaking sun and fog.
Although I saw several sets of rhododendrons along the main highway in Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, I would suggest not stopping along the highway as the cars came to close to the side to comfortably photograph. As in past years, I was recommended to hike the Damnation trail, which had several stunning areas of rhododendrons with the trails not being too busy with other people. To avoid crowds I suggest getting there first thing in the morning. Going early allows time to find a pleasing composition while waiting for the light to be just right. On a side note, many cars early in the morning were broken into in the parking areas as the highway is right there and is quick access for the thieves. On both mornings I was there cars have been broken into before I got there.
When it comes photographing, the rhododendrons in the California redwoods it helps to pre-visualize some possible compositions or scenarios you would like to shoot. I never visit a place with just one composition in mind, but I do research on the Internet beforehand. This allows me the opportunity to see what others are doing, and trying to take it on step further in terms of creativity and impact. For example, one of the images that stuck with me, was an image of the rhododendrons taken from the ground looking up at sky to also include perspective of the gigantic Redwood trees. The combination of these two together when photographed properly really brings a story to life. When light is available I always strive for mist or fog because this seems to really enhance the pink in the rhododendron flower and makes it pop in the image. Shooting later in the afternoon when the sun is out can be almost next to impossible to really get the impact of the color due to the harsh light. So to maximize the color in your images strive to photograph when the mist is present in the morning.
One of the challenges of shooting the rhododendrons is that many are located very high up on the tree. For this reason I would photograph with a lens that is medium telephoto. When I photographed with my ultra wide angle (14-24mm), the rhododendrons got lost in the scene. So I photographed with a 28– 300mm lens that allowed me to really bring the rhododendron in tight and maximize impact.
Because of the telephoto lens, compression also enhanced the important elements in the image. If you do shoot later in the afternoon when the sun is out, you will have to shoot multiple exposures or HDR. This is due to the extreme total contrast between the shadows and the light areas, which can be very challenging in the forest. I did shoot quite a bit in the afternoon, using multiple exposures. Unfortunately I was not happy with most of the results from shooting at this time.
So in summary, photographing the California redwoods is one of the highlights of my photography journey. Until you see them in person, it’s hard to grasp how tall these trees really are. When you combine these tall redwoods with all the elements at the same time it is pure heaven. To have success photographing the redwoods do your research, find where the rhododendrons are and try to time your visit with early morning sessions. But the most important thing is ,be patient and wait for early-morning weather changes when the fog rises and the sun breaks. This is more frequent than you would think, always leads to some spectacular images.
Tips for Photographing Waterfalls
By David Cobb
Last fall I spent the day with Outside Explorer in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge. The finished video below supplies a number of tips and tricks to photographing waterfalls.
Tips for Photographing a Japanese Garden in Spring
By David Cobb
Recently I took a stroll through the Portland Japanese Garden to admire the cherry blossom blooms, and I took my camera along in case something caught my eye. When photographing for the book “Quiet Beauty: Japanese Gardens of North America,” I noticed the spring and fall seasons were different in the garden. The light was better, the garden seemed fresher due to recent rains, and there was much more color. Here are a few tips for photographing a Japanese garden in spring.
Get there early: The earlier the better in spring to take advantage of that beautiful light. Gardens are best to photograph in soft light, so mornings, overcast days, and sunset can bring the best light to your garden photography. Mornings are preferable because spring days can bring windy weather later in the day.
Watch your red channel: The histogram on the back of your camera is an average of your red, green, and blue channels. When photographing the red spring blooms of azaleas, rhododendrons, and camellias you’ll need to be aware of your red channel. The average on your histogram might look fine, but your red channel could be clipped off the charts. This means you’re losing detail in the blossoms of those flowers, and when you lose detail the flowers look like sheets of color.
Backlighting: This can be the best and most dramatic light in the garden, and the most difficult to photograph. When photographing backlighting I often use a lens hood to avoid image flare, but when it’s captured correctly the backlighting adds a beautiful glow to an image.
Don’t include the sky: There are few reasons to include a sky in your garden image, unless you’re interested in a sun star or to include a fabulous sunrise or sunset. When you visit a Japanese garden or any garden, photograph the garden and minimalize the sky.
Photograph water features: For some reason water features in a Japanese garden seem cleaner and fresher in the spring. Maybe it’s the spring rains or maybe it’s that the gardeners have caught up on all their chores, but spring is a wonderful time to include water features.
Use a polarizer: I can’t stress this enough in garden photography, and a polarizer will make or break a shot in a Japanese garden. There are a lot of reflective plants and leaves in the garden, so a polarizer will cut down on those reflections and help saturate the color of the garden image too.
Photograph blossoms by structures: There are a number of structures in a Japanese garden, so I always try to compose a few blossoms near them to give a hint of the spring season. A few flowers and a little greenery also go a long way to help soften the harsher angles and elements of a man-made structure.
Change your perspective: This tip is good for any season or for any type of photography, so change your perspective and quit shooting at eye level. Crouch down, get on your belly if you need to or get high and shoot down, but change the viewpoint to create a more interesting and dynamic image.
I know I have written about this in the past, but wanted to share some images from this past winter that I took down in the Palouse. Photographing the Palouse in the winter can be kind of tricky. It seems like more often then not, a good dose of snow will hit the area, and disappear as quickly as it came. Other times, it will snow really hard, but be so windy that it will blow all of the snow off of the hills, leaving them bare and brown.
Another problem is accessibility. They don’t plow most of the roads down there, and they never plow the road up Steptoe Butte. Therefore, the only two options are to snowshoe up, or attempt the drive in a 4WD vehicle with good ground clearance and good tires. I have snowshoed and skied up the hill, but this year I was able to make it up on each of my attempts in my FJ Cruiser. It was a bit sketchy a few times, but I didn’t get stuck.
My favorite time to head out is in the afternoon on a day when a storm system is moving out of the area. This gives me a chance to catch the sun at a low angle, but still high enough in the sky to light up the hills. I learned early on that, heading out only just before sunset can result in missing some of the best light of the day. Often times I find the light more interesting when the sun is high enough in the sky to light up the hills, which just doesn’t usually happen right at sunset.
The usual things still apply for photographing the Palouse during winter, such as a good strong setup with enough capacity to hold things steady in the wind. This means a very sturdy ball head, and very sturdy tripod. I use a Gitzo 3 series tripod, and a Markins M20 ball head for my telephoto shots. I also use a tripod collar, and have rigged up a steel plate extension and set screw for added stability to the barrel of my lenses.
This last image was actually shot last April, so not really winter but still some snow. As you can see, snow is a possibility even into April. This is the first time I have ever seen conditions like this in April. Usually during March and April, there is heavy rain and hail storms that move through the area. These are great fun to watch from high vantage points.
Despite the challenges involved in making good images, winter time in the Palouse is definitely one of my favorites. Last winter, of all the times I went down to photograph, I didn’t run into a single other photographer. I do see people around though, mostly locals, especially up at Steptoe Butte. My last trip down I ran into a local farmer and his wife up on their 4 Wheeler just taking a trip to the top of Steptoe Butte. We had a great conversation on their way down. Winter is definitely a peaceful time of year in the Palouse.
More of my images can be seen on my website: Chip Phillips Photography
Many techniques used on these images are demonstrated in my editing videos available here: Image Editing Videos
In February I had the great fortune to instruct a photography tour/workshop on the Big Island of Hawaii. In the realm of winter photography, my experience and images stand out in stark contrast to the ones Kevin McNeal shared of photographing the aurora in Norway in his most recent article. Our Hawaii tour was organized by a trailblazing eco-tourism company from California called Destination Earth. Handling the photography instruction along with me was my good friend and colleague, David Cobb. As we have come to expect, our group of participants were fun, talented and ready for anything. It’s always the people that make our photography workshops such a wonderful experience. It was an amazing week long photography adventure with excellent housing, meals and transportation, as well as an adventurously full schedule, all organized by Destination Earth.
Click on images to view them larger. Use the back button to return.
The Big Island really is…well, big. To quote from www.gohawaii.com, “it is the youngest island in the Hawaiian chain and is also by far the biggest, nearly twice as big as all of the other Hawaiian Islands combined. You’ll find all but two of the world’s climatic zones within this island’s shores. This is the home of one of the world’s most active volcanoes (Kilauea), the tallest sea mountain in the world at more than 33,000 feet (Maunakea) and the most massive mountain in the world (Maunaloa). All but two of the world’s climate zones generate everything from lush rain forests to volcanic deserts, snow-capped mountaintops to beautiful black sand beaches. The lush east-side town of Hilo gets more than 130 inches of rain annually, while the Kohala Coast near Kawaihae usually gets no more than five inches a year. Ranging from the fern forests of Puna and the cool, misty breezes of Waimea, to the sunny lava plains of Kona and the dry heat of Kau, Hawaii Island is a place of stunningly distinct environments.”
Stand-out features of the trip were how much of the island we were able to see, how much diversity of landscape and climate we experienced and how varied the photographic opportunities were. We visited both well known and off the radar corners of the island and were able to experience Hawaii in ways that most beach vacationers or tour groups never get to.
While instructing photography in the field I don’t photograph with the same kind of focus and stubborn determination that I do when traveling on my own. My priority is providing instruction, pointing out photo ideas and being on hand to answer questions. But I do make a point of getting out my camera and putting some effort into my own photography as well. I find that I’m better able to evaluate light and composition and provide helpful suggestions if I’m in photographer mode and sizing up the scene through my own viewfinder. I also find that one of the best instructional tools in the field is to teach by example and actively demonstrate my approach and techniques.
Thanks to our expert guides and the action packed itinerary I had the chance to photograph locations I might not have otherwise visited and take photos using techniques and lighting which are outside of my usual golden hour light, tripod mounted comfort zone. I find that changing things up and operating outside the comfort zone is important for learning and expanding one’s mind creatively. As a result, I feel that the images I’m sharing in this article represent something a little different than my usual fare. Photographically they stretched me a bit and were stimulating and energizing to visualize, capture and develop. I have also thrown in some sunsets and waterfalls for good measure. I hope you enjoy viewing them.
One of my dreams has always been to photograph the Northern lights under a fresh blanket of white snow. A few years ago I got a chance to photograph the northern lights in the Canadian Rockies. I happened to be on a workshop at Abraham Lake shooting winter landscapes when we received an unexpected stunning display of lights. At this point I had no experience and was not sure even how to do it; all I knew was the photography mantra, “expose to the right always”. So I made the mistake of shooting the northern lights for thirty seconds or more to get the scene exposure on the right side of my histogram. During my moments of excitement and panic I did not even think to look at the images, just the histogram. I learned a hard lesson that night as the final result was a series of images that had all been overexposed. This overexposure caused all the Northern lights to blend together with no detail or patterns. A lot has happened since then in terms of camera equipment technology and photographer progress. With the year 2014 being a great year for Northern Lights I thought I would write a brief article on my experience and what I have learned.
When it comes to locations and where to find the right places to shoot the Northern Lights there are a few places that always win the hearts of photographers for their visual beauty. As most know the Northern Lights are called that for a reason, because they are seen in the higher areas of the Northern Hemisphere. The areas that I find the truly most scenic are Iceland, Norway/Scandinavia, Alaska, and Canada/Yukon. Each has its pluses and minuses which are beyond the scope of the article.
This year has been predicted to be a fantastic year for Northern Lights so I decided to plan several trips based around photographing them. For my first trip I visited the countries of Sweden, Finland, Norway, and more specifically the Lofoten Islands. I had never been there and had seen all the images with fresh snow and snow capped mountain peaks. It was exactly what I had been looking for. From research I knew driving would be extremely difficult in the Lofoten Islands so I decided to take a photo tour where I would not have to worry about that. If you have ever photographed with me you know that was a smart decision. It was nice to be able to just be taken to places without worrying if I would end up lost and frozen somewhere in the night. Some nights it was -28 and a few seconds in this temperature and you felt the numbness already. The other advantage of taking a photo tour is the instructors will know the best places to go when the Northern Lights do happen. The last thing you want to be doing is trying to find a place when the lights occur. Not only was this advantageous to have instructors take you to the right places but they also have the knowledge of where the lights are most likely to happen and when. This was really helpful so that you did not have to stay up all night looking out the window when you have already been shooting all day.
So how are you supposed to photograph Northern Lights? With experience the following is what I have found works best.
The first thing I want to talk about is shutter speed and how long you should expose the image. This depends on the light available at each scene and the elements of the scene. The most important aspect I found to be essential to shooting aurora is to make sure you don’t overexpose. What I found works best to capture detail in the Northern Lights is anywhere from five to twelve seconds. Any more than this and the lights just blur into one another and you lose the stunning movements of the lights. I adjust the shutter speed based on how fast the lights are moving. When you get high action movement in the lights adjust your settings to have a shutter speed of five seconds. This short shutter speed will allow you to capture all the stunning patterns and movement of the Northern Lights. When the lights are barely visible I was up around twelve seconds. I adjust my ISO so that I would be able to get the proper shutter speed. I photograph with a Nikon D800 with a 14-24/2.8 lens, a good camera and lens combination for night photography. I found that most of my images were taken at ISO 1600 and a few at ISO 3200 for the short bursts of light. In hindsight most of the images that I took at ISO 3200 are too noisy for large printing. It goes without saying that newer cameras will do better with noise and low light situations. I also recommend using a lens that has an aperture of 2.8 or less. Shooting an f/4 lens I was not able to shoot the lights with minimal noise and fast enough shutter speed. If possible an aperture of 1.4 or 1.8 would be even better. For focal length I always use as wide angle a lens as possible. Using a 14mm lens I was able to capture most of the patterns in one image. I have seen plenty of fantastic images with a fish-eye lens as well.
So, what happens to the rest of the elements in the image when shooting specifically for the Northern Lights?
When shooting just for the lights, the rest of the elements went completely dark and had no detail. This meant I had to do another exposure just for the rest of the scene and manually blend the two images together in post processing. It is vital that you use a strong tripod with a sturdy ballhead to prevent any kind of movement during the shot especially when shooting on the ice. The first night of shooting Northern Lights we visited a frozen lake surrounded by mountain peaks. The creativity of shooting Northern Lights has been improving and the best images today almost always include the foreground. So being that I was on a frozen lake I looked for ice cracks that would provide great leading lines to connect the foreground to the background. To properly expose the complete scene you need to take at least two images. One image should expose for the Northern Lights and a second image that exposes for the foreground and the other elements in the image. A critical consideration for exposure in the foreground is the elements present. If there is plenty of snow, especially in the foreground, your exposure will be much less. After the images are taken I usually shoot another image with my hand in front of the lens to signify the end of the series of images. Later in Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Bridge I can stack those images as the same set or series. This is very helpful later on when trying to sort what image goes with what. So I shot the Northern lights at ISO 1600 for nine second and then exposed for the foreground ice, which was anywhere from thirty to sixty seconds. I then manually blended the two in Photoshop.
The next component to photographing Northern Lights successfully is Aperture and focusing. Aperture is a constant from my experience. I need to be at an aperture f/2.8 (lower if I had a faster lens) always to get a fast enough shutter speed to capture the patterns in the Northern Lights. Combining an aperture of f/2.8 and ISO 1600 allowed me to achieve a shutter speed of less then ten seconds. The trickiest part for me was the focusing. I started by focusing on the background first to make sure I got the Northern Lights in focus. I set this up by looking at my LCD live view and focusing on a star in the distant sky. I go in at 100% preview until I find a bright star and then rotate the focus until it is sharp. Once that has occurred you can shoot the background Northern Lights with the assurance you have those sharp. Double check after by checking the LCD review of the image at 100% to see if all the stars are sharp. You know you are in the right area if you are focusing on infinity and then pulling back a smidge from that. If that all seems like too much work you can practice test shots during the day and marking on your lens where the background is in focus and use that mark on the lens later when shooting Northern lights. There are other ways that people use to focus on background stars but I found these methods worked best for me. Once you are confident the background Northern Lights are sharp, refocus for the foreground without moving the tripod or the camera position. If you are going to later blend the two images together in post processing there can be no movement in the camera. In my experience this was the hardest part in the process. I tried a couple of images where I shot one image focusing only on the background but all my foreground elements would be soft. So I would say it is imperative to refocus for a second shot. Once I got the hang of that process I took it one step further and took several images focus bracketing at several different increments blending all the images in post processing.
How do you focus in the foreground when everything is in complete darkness? The answer is bringing some sort of light like a LED light or your headlamp. Find an object in the immediate foreground you will want to include in the image, shine the your light on it and then focus on that. Use the LCD preview at 100% to make sure everything is sharp. There are many techniques that people suggest when it comes to focusing on subjects in the foreground, but for me I chose the most important element of the foreground I wanted and used that. This works well except if you are in a group or a workshop where everyone is photographing in the same area. Shooting with several other participants in the workshop in a wide open space with head lamps buzzing everywhere lead to contamination of light in most of my images. Even though people are spread out, any kind of light that people use can show up in your images. No matter how far away I seemed to get away from the group I could see other photographers flashlights in my images. So be wary if in a group situation. For this reason I tried to avoid using any light and use my best estimate for focus. This proved to be a big mistake and I lost several images to the foreground being soft.
To overcome this obstacle I decided I needed to wait till the next day. I would practice during the daylight and mark my lens where the optimal sharpness point should be; choosing to focus on something one-third into the foreground scene. When testing I looked for a similar situation that I would find myself in while shooting the Northern Lights. I was looking for something where the foreground element would be similar such as a rock, ice crack, etc. This foreground subject would be right in front of me with the mountain peaks in the far background. Once I found the spot of optimal sharpness I marked this on my lens. I could then go straight to that focus point the next time I was in the dark and shooting in a group situation. I want to note this was not the ideal situation and the focus was not always a 100% but it was the best I could do under the circumstances.
The last thing I did was take some time to just enjoy the Northern Lights without doing any shooting. Just enjoy the amazing show that so few people ever get to see!
If you have any tips that you have found helpful when photographing the aurora consider sharing them in the comments as I’m sure others would love to read them.
By Adrian Klein
Starting this month when we send out an updated newsletter we will including a featured photographer. To keep the newsletter itself from becoming too long and large we will include the full interview on the blog and only the initial part in the newsletter.
This month we welcome Paul Marcellini. I got to know Paul and his work through NPN and we met briefly when he was in town a few years back. Like many of us I am interested in work that helps me experience new places. In this case it’s the swampy parts of Florida. I have respect for someone that can get within inches of strong jawed crocodiles and wade around in swamps. Somehow hiking and backpacking in bear country rarely concerns me yet the thought of crocodiles is not very inviting to me. One of these days I will make it down that way to experience it myself. Until then I will continue to enjoy Paul’s photos.
AK: You have some pretty amazing images of the Everglades area and associated wildlife. Have you always been interested in exploring the area or did it come after getting into photography?
PM: Actually photography came second. I love nature and photography is my current way of expressing it. Before photography, I painted. The Everglades is my backyard essentially, so it was my first base of exploration and is the “old familiar” but I seem to fall in love with most places I visit that offer a feeling of wilderness.
AK: What do you think is the biggest challenge to being a landscape/wildlife photographer today?
PM: Creating work that stands out and is new and original. I try to find unique scenes and luckily, Florida is not a state full of natural icons. The gear is better than ever so technically perfect wildlife photography is much easier, but getting an artistic image still is very much dependent on the photographer.
AK: I am sure it’s hard to pick one yet do you have a favorite location to photograph and if so why?
PM: Iceland comes to mind immediately. It is like another world over there, even with pretty bad weather, I had a blast. It is the current hotspot it seems, but there is a big reason for that.
AK: What are your top 3 personal favorite images and why?
PM: The three that make me the most money! It is hard to pick, but I would say Holy Sunstar!, Welcome to the Jungle and Wizard of the Hoh. All three depict a lot of mood and I think the compositions really worked. I personally like more complicated imagery, even though the simpler stuff is what usually sells.
AK: With nature photography weather and other elements can be unpredictable. How do you work through these challenges to create engaging photos?
PM: I really enjoy chasing the storms in the summer. These are definitely unpredictable, but knowing the terrain helps to get last minute compositions squared away. I usually don’t have set images in mind, I am very reactionary and I think it helps to keep a flexible mindset.
AK: What is the most important piece of photo or computer equipment that you simply cannot live without?
PM: A wide-angle…it is the basis of my photography. Many of my newer images are stitches of the Canon 17mm tilt shift for what I am guessing is about 10mm view on full frame.
AK: Any tips you are willing to share for photographers new to photography, especially in swampy places like the Everglades?
PM: Anything unknown is daunting but the Everglades is not as scary as everyone thinks. Get your feet wet and be cautious. Slow down and look around. I like the complicated nature of the swamp, digital speeds us up so much, that this forced slower pace is beneficial to my art.
To see more of Paul’s work check out his website – http://www.paulmarcellini.com