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Photography Documentaries I’ve Liked
By David Cobb
It’s been a long time since the days of the boring and staid documentary. We’re now in the “Golden Age” of this genre, and there have been a number of good photography documentaries released over the past few years. I find that sometimes it’s difficult to make a decision on a film when I love the images, but the quality of the documentary is not great. (Maybe there are poor production values, or the film needed an editor, or it’s just not that interesting. When that happens, I prefer to look at a book of the photographer’s images.)
All the films on this list are easily accessible for viewing, and for the purposes of this list I haven’t included any television series. What follows are a few photography documentaries that I’ve liked from the many I’ve watched.
- The Salt of the Earth – (2014, Director Wim Wenders) This film relives the career of Sebastiao Salgado and covers his major body of work and exhibitions. From the opening scene of images at the gold mines of Serra Pelada to his work on his most recent project Genesis, the film leaves no doubt that Salgado is one of the greatest photographers ever.
- What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann – (2005, Director Steven Cantor) An exploration into the creative mind of an artist. Sally Mann discusses her work through her successes, failures, her influences, and disappointments. There is something for every photographer to relate to in this film.
- Finding Vivian Maier – (2013, Directors John Maloof, Charlie Siskel) Possibly the most famous of all films on this list, Finding Vivian Maier is a movie about a woman who blended in and surreptitiously photographed non-stop for years with no one really knowing she was amassing a large catalogue of images. After her death her work was recently discovered, and the documentary pieces together her life from clues, photographs, and conversations with (now adult) children she looked after while fulfilling her job as a nanny. Her life is a bit of a mystery, but her outstanding photographic work shines a light into her spirit.
- Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry – (2012, Director Alison Klayman) Ai Weiwei is a multi-media artist and dissident with homes in the U.S. and China. He’s known in photography for his “giving the finger” images and also his selfies. He might be described as Warhol, Picasso, Calder, and Banksy, rolled into one. This isn’t truly a photography documentary, but it’s fascinating and thought-provoking.
- Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe – (2007, Director James Crump) A thoughtful film which brings to life the professional and personal relationship between Robert Mapplethorpe and his benefactor Sam Wagstaff.
- Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters – (2012, Director Ben Shapiro) The incredible production value, difficulty, and creativity of Gregory Crewdson’s photographs is on display in this mesmerizing documentary. The filming follows him during his work on his Beneath the Roses concept.
- Meru – (2015, Jimmy Chin, Chai Vasarhelyi) Ok, it’s not really a photography documentary, but photographer and videographer Jimmy Chin does a spectacular job of filming this first ascent. Teamed with Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk, the climb of the imposing shark fin of India’s Mount Meru gave me the willies just watching. There is a section of this film which showcases some of the climbing photography techniques that Jimmy Chin uses when on assignment.
- War Photographer – (2001, Director Christian Frei) A documentary of photojournalist James Nachtwey who lets his images do the talking. He’s won numerous awards and the highest honors in his profession, and this documentary captures him on assignment in Kosovo, Indonesia, Africa, and the West Bank. The film opens with an adage from Robert Capa, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,” and Nachtwey lives by these words. His photographic records of war, famine, and poverty are devastating, and his philosophy on why he’s a war photographer is fascinating.
- Bill Cunningham New York – (2010, Director Richard Press) A delightful film which follows photographer Bill Cunningham snapping fashion images on the streets of New York. Cunningham carries this documentary with his outlook on life, simple lifestyle, fashion eye, dedication, and his infectious exuberance. If you’re ever down in the dumps or want to get out of a photography rut, this film is a dandy pick-me-up.
- Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens – (2008, Director Barbara Leibovitz) This study in the life and career of Annie Leibovitz from her early days at the Rolling Stone to her work for Vanity Fair, Vogue, and her more personal work shows that even someone at the top of the photography world can still make mistakes and grow from them. Her work is astounding and her creative passion is an inspiration. The film is less in-depth than I would have liked, as some major portions of her life are discussed only on the surface.
- Inside Out: The People’s Art Project – (2013, Alastair Siddons) Street photographer JR takes his TED Talks Prize and gives it back to the people to create their own art. His world photography project helps humanize the disenfranchised from Pakistan to South Dakota as they produce giant portraits to post on the streets. They can no longer be ignored and must be seen, as they create their own power through imagery. The film is truly an inspiration to witness the influence of photography changing the common man on the street.
If there are other films you think I might be leaving off this list, let me know. Fellow Photo Cascadia members Adrian Klein and Erin Babnik shared films they liked such as Salt and The Quest for Inspiration. I haven’t seen them yet, but I’m on the lookout for these two. I hope you enjoy the films I’ve listed; many are available on Netflix so they’re easy to find and most have shorter run times. Now curl up with a bowl of popcorn and learn from the masters.
by Zack Schnepf
Back when I was taking my first photography classes in college, instructors would ask me what I was trying to say with my images. At the time, I thought this was just something art instructors said. I came to understand that effective art is often able to communicate something to the viewer. Sometimes it’s an emotion, a mood, a sense of wonder, or an overall feeling you get when you sit and appreciate a work of art. I’ve felt disturbed by documentary photos in war torn countries, pure joy viewing a photo of lion cubs wrestling his brother, I’ve felt the cold in images of mountain climbers summiting massive snowy peaks and I’ve felt awe and wonder viewing photos of majestic moments captured in nature. I’ve had many profound moments out in the field photographing. I became a photographer so I could share these profound moments with other people as well as remind myself of some of my favorite moments. If i’m able to communicate some of what I’m experiencing through my image I consider it a successful image. In this article I’ll talk about trying to communicate through my images and how it effects how I capture an image in the field and how I process and image in post production.
In the field: There are already so many things to think about in the field; changing light, composing multiple elements together, difficult environmental conditions, not to mention all of the technical settings you have to balance as well. It can be chaotic. It can be difficult to also think about trying to communicate through your image. It doesn’t have to always be something profound you are communicating, sometimes it’s simple things. In this example, I loved the lines of erosion here in White Pocket in Arizona. I noticed if I composed with my camera about 8 inches off the ground It really accentuated the pattern of erosion and helped tell the story of these petrified sand dunes eroding away over time in the wind and rain. I also tried to compose to accentuate the natural curve and texture in the rock. To me, this helped communicate the incredible history of erosion that has taken place to create this natural work of art.
In this example, I was scouting for a workshop when I saw this lone tree out in the middle of these overlapping green hills in the Palouse. I put on my telephoto lens and shot at about 300mm to focus in on the this one solitary tree surrounded by these hills. To me, framing this way helped convey a feeling I was having looking at the scene. This shot was actually captured during the workshop in much more interesting conditions. A rain storm was clearing as the sun was rising creating this atmosphere that helped convey the emotions I was feeling even more. Even in the field I was struck with emotion as I looked at this scene. It seemed to communicate an independent strength and integrity. The backlight through the falling rain just reinforced this feeling. I knew when I worked on this in photoshop, I wanted to process this in a way that helped communicate those same feelings.
In post production: There is a lot you can do in post production to enhance your images, you can also accentuate elements that help the image communicate. With the lone tree image, I accentuated the backlight on the tree and hills to help the tree feel luminous and help it stand out even more in the scene. To me this is a very successful image, every time I look at it I still feel some of what I felt in the field.
This was my first time visiting Avalanche Creek in Glacier National Park. I was with my good friend David Cobb at the time. I was so enamored with this scene, I really wanted to capture it in a way that helped convey what a unique and special place it is. This is a very common theme in my photography, I love to share my own awe and wonder when visiting these special places and I try to capture them in a way that expresses that. It was also very peaceful and I felt a great wave of tranquility as I sat and took in this scene. I set up in a pretty unusual spot, I had to be very careful not to slip and fall in, but I loved the compositional flow that was created here. Again, this is a successful image to me, because every time I look at it I feel some of the tranquility, awe and wonder I felt when I was there. This is also a popular image at art shows, and people tell me they feel peaceful when they look at it.
This last example was just taken a few weeks ago while I was vacationing and photographing on the Big Island of Hawaii. My family moved to Hawaii for a few years when I was a kid and I was lucky enough to witness Kilauea erupt in spectacular fashion when I was five years old. It is an experience that is burned into my memory. This recent trip was my first opportunity to capture some of that experience in my own photography. Cj Kale guided me out to the flow on this particular morning and it was quite a show. It’s so dynamic watching a lava flow, it’s constantly changing, moving and doing unpredictable things. There was so much going on, the flow was changing, the waves were crashing and wind was blowing the steam all around. It was such a privilege to watch the creation of a new part of the island right before my eyes. I really wanted to capture a moment like this with the lava visibly flowing, the waves crashing and the steam catching the light of the lava. Its was extremely challenging, but rewarding. Again, to me the is a successful image. It captures just how dynamic and dramatic it was to watch the lava flowing into the ocean creating new land. It was a transcendent moment for me, one where I was reminded how small and insignificant we are, it was powerful to witness something that has been shaping our planet for much of it’s four billion year history.
I love being able to share moments like this through my photography. It’s why I became a photographer. Images like these are some of my favorites, because I feel something when I look at them and other people do as well. Trying to communicate through my own images has helped me become a better photographer and continues to make photography more rewarding. You can learn more about me, my images and the workshops and tutorials I offer on my website: http://www.zschnepf.com
Every autumn there is a great chance to see some of our national parks dressed in fall colors. This year I was excited to lead the group to Yosemite National Park. It is
known to have some of the grandest landscapes in North America. People from all over the world visit Yosemite at all times of the year, but no season is prettier than autumn. The park’s open meadows turn golden with the changing seasons, frost covers the layers of grasses, and the leaves on the trees turn vivid colors of yellow, orange and red. The scenic elements of Yosemite all come together during the autumn. Waterfalls gracefully stream down the larger than life walls of granite, framed by the golden leaves, making their way to the Merced River. The Merced winds its way from start to finish through the middle of the Lower Yosemite Valley. It is in this central heart of the park where everything combines that is the perfect place to photograph in autumn.
The tour began when the group left the Fresno Airport and headed north for Yosemite. On the drive into the park we were met with autumn hues everywhere, especially as we got nearer to our destination. The fall foliage was at its peak and the group was soon motivated to get out and shoot. This fall season was a little different from other years—in a good way—as Yosemite had significant rainstorms, which caused a massive amount of water to flow into the valley. The iconic waterfalls, such as Upper Yosemite and Bridalveil Falls, were pouring out large volumes of water, making for a great combination of autumn color and cascading falls.
Let me give you a glimpse into one day in Yosemite National Park during autumn. On our first morning we headed to an area known to locals as Tahiti Beach on the mighty Merced River at the base of El Capitan and the Three Brothers for the sunrise. The group lined up against the shore of the river and photographed with their widest lenses looking for reflections in the quiet pools. This unique location provides several vantage points of the iconic peaks reflected in the river. Again, because of this year’s excess water from the rains, the group found all kinds of rain pools to photograph reflections of fall foliage and the granite peaks of Yosemite.
During the morning the waterfalls and mountains were photographed framed by the colors dressing the trees. Throughout the day we continued photographing along the Merced River, focusing on as much fall color as we could find. As the day warmed, and recent rainwater began to evaporate, the mist rose from the Lower Yosemite Valley. This made for fantastic atmospheric conditions, especially when combined with the colors from the trees.
The highlight of the day was when we came upon a single elm tree in the middle of a meadow with a “spotlight” shining down upon it. At the time most of the valley was in clouds, but an opening in the sky allowed light to shine on this one solitary tree. The combination of the mist, the fall colors, and the light created the perfect conditions. We shot the tree from all kinds of angles as the light lasted for several minutes before moving on. Then, a few minutes later, we found another meadow with atmospheric mist combined with frost. This time the sun peeked through the mist and the crepuscular rays illuminated through the wall of trees and showcased the frost and golden color of autumn.
After having a quick bite to eat the group jumped back into the van ready to locate more fall color in the park. Walking along the Merced River we made our way to El Capitan Meadow and El Capitan Bridge. Standing on the bridge you can photograph in any direction and get perfect fall reflections with the backdrop of El Capitan or the Cathedral Spires mirrored in the river. With the challenges of shooting due to the different kinds of light, the group took a shot at exposure bracketing and HDR. For some of the group this was the first time ever trying this technique. Exposure bracketing is the process of taking several different exposures of the same scene without moving the camera on a tripod. At the end you have several different exposures of a scene to combat the variety of different types of light in one scene. Later, during processing, all of these different exposures are combined into one for one evenly exposed image.
One of the many outstanding features in Yosemite is the number of stunning peaks that rise from the valley floor and are lined up next to one another. This makes for great landscape panoramas. Throughout the day the group put together several panoramas from several locations in the park.
For our sunset shoot we headed to the unbelievable scenic viewpoint at Tunnel View. As the sun began to set and the pink pastel hues began to appear the group waited in anticipation. With the combination of Half Dome, El Capitan and Bridalveil Falls all in one scene it was a memorable sunset shoot that no one would soon forget.
After a full day of shooting autumn color in Yosemite we headed back to our lodging for a group dinner and some well earned rest. And that was just our first day!
I have to admit, I have had a bit of sensor envy for the past few years. I have watched many people sell off all of their Canon gear and switch over to the Nikon D800, D810, and Sony AR7 and AR7II, many times never looking back. I have thought about it myself, but just didn’t want to go through the lengthy process of selling all of my cameras and lenses and then learn a whole new system. I just like my Canon gear, it is what I have always used, and it just feels right. Plus, the Canon 11-24mm F/4 is a really great lens and not something available from the other systems. But, I have to be honest, I would have loved to have some extra dynamic range from time to time, and my Canon 5D Mark II, and then Mark III, have definitely fallen short of the competitors in this category. Pulled shadows from both of these cameras just don’t look good. There is a clear loss of detail, exaggeration of noise, and some really ugly banding when going to extremes. I had been holding out with hope that Canon would come out with a new camera that could compete in the dynamic range category with the big guys. So, imagine my curiosity when I saw this posted online by DxOMark here:
From the graph, it appears that the 5D Mark IV, with its new sensor technology, can actually compete. The Nikon is the winner at the very lowest ISO’s, but the three cameras are almost exactly equal at a little above ISO 100 until about ISO 250. This is the range that I most often shoot in so this is good news! Even at more extreme ISO’s, the Canon and the Sony are very close, giving the Sony a slight edge. The Nikon falls behind both shortly after ISO 200, but not by much.
The next test that I came across by DPReview can be seen here, This tool allows you to choose between various different cameras and compare dynamic range while choosing ISO and how much the exposure has been pushed.
In this example, each shot has been pushed 6 stops at ISO 100. Pretty extreme but fun to compare. It looks to me like the Nikon and Sony have a noticeable edge here over the 5D Mark IV, but the 5D Mark III looks pretty terrible.
In this next example, each shot has been pushed 5 stops at ISO 200. Once again, very extreme. In this one, the Mark IV, Sony, and Nikon all appear pretty similar, with the 5D Mark III looking pretty terrible once again.
I have had my hands on a 5D Mark IV now for a week or two. Along with much improved dynamic range, the 5D Mark IV is showing improvements in high ISO over the Mark III, and the extra resolution is very nice for some added detail. I haven’t done any extensive shooting with it in the field yet, but so far so good. One more thing worth mentioning about this camera is the added Dual Pixel Raw technology. Here is an interesting writeup on what Dual Pixel Raw is and isn’t. Basically, Canon says that this technology “enables pixel-level adjustment and refinement for still photographs and includes Image Micro-adjustment to help maximize sharpness in detail areas, Bokeh Shift for more pleasing soft focus areas and Ghosting Reduction to help reduce aberrations and flare.“ None of this really sounds that useful to me as a landscape photographer, but digging around one day I came upon this article over on Rawdigger.com, and this article over on Imaging-Resource.com . Basically what they are saying is that there exists an extra stop of dynamic range in the highlights within images captured in Dual Pixel Raw mode. Now, at this time Lightroom doesn’t support Dual Pixel Raw, but they have said they are working on support and it will become available in the near future. It would be pretty cool if they also figured out a way to access that extra stop of dynamic range in the highlights!
by Zack Schnepf
I think the histogram is one of the most important and useful tools in all of photography. It’s a tool I rely on throughout my entire workflow, but I notice it’s a concept that many students have a hard time fully understanding. It can be confusing at first, but once you understand your histogram, you can master your exposures. In this article I’ll share how I use the histogram and why I find it so usefulI. I’ll discuss how I use it the field and in post production.
What is a histogram, how do you read it, and what information does it gives you? Basically, a histogram is a graphical representation of the tonality of an image. It shows what tones and colors exist in an image and the concentration of these tones. Here is the basic anatomy of a histogram. This histogram is from the image below of First Snow on Gothic Peak. The left edge of the graph represents pure black, any tones beyond the left edge have no detail in them. Conversely, the right edge represents pure white, any tones beyond the right edge have no highlight detail, they are just pure white. The middle of the graph represents the mid tones of the image. So, left to right is the luminosity scale, or how bright or dark the tones are. In this histogram you can see overlapping graphs of the three color channels RGB(red, green, blue) The height of the graphs indicates the concentration of tones of color and luminosity tones. For instance, in the histogram you can see I have a spike in the blue channel toward the left side, that tells me I have a lot of dark blue tones in this image. There is also a spike in the red channel right in the middle which tells me I have a large concentration of red midtones which you can see in the red foliage of the image. The Height of the peaks is not important for judging exposure, so don’t worry how high the peaks are. One of the most important things I look for in the field and in post processing is information that might be getting lost in either the shadows, or highlights. In this histogram you can see that all of the information is being contained. I can tell, because none of the color channel graphs are bumping into either edge. I’ll elaborate on this further in the sections below.
In the field, I rely on my histogram as a guide to give me an accurate assessment of each exposure I capture. One of the biggest mistakes I see when teaching photo workshops is a student judging an exposure using the LCD on their camera. I’ve been burned by this too many times to count. I’ll be shooting in a low ambient light situation, take a quick look at the image on the LCD and think it looks great, but when I get home and view it on my computer I realize it’s way underexposed. The low ambient light makes the image on the LCD seem really bright. The only way to truly judge an exposure in the field is to check the histogram. Below are 2 bracketed exposures of the same scene. One exposed to capture the tones in the bright sky and the other exposed to capture the tones in the foreground area. In the field, the darker exposure looked good on the LCD, you could even see detail in the foreground grasses, but one look at the histogram told me those foreground tones were way too dark. You can see on the histogram for the darker exposure, the highlight detail is being captured well, there is no information being lost in the highlight, but there is a large spike next to the left edge of the histogram. This indicates a high concentration of dark tones that contain very little detail. I wanted to take another exposure to capture detail in the shadows.
This lighter exposure has plenty of detail in the shadows. You can see in the histogram, the detail that was being lost in the shadows is being captured well. There is now plenty of detail in the foreground grasses and stream. On the other hand, the highlight tones are blowing out. You can see there is a huge spike on the right edge of the histogram and it goes right up to the edge and beyond. Anything beyond the edge has no detail in it. This is what is known as a high dynamic range scene. You could try to compromise and get an exposure in between and use Lightroom and Photoshop to recover the tones that are being lost, or you can bracket exposures and try to combine multiple exposures that contain a lot more information. Either way, the histogram is the tool that will tell you if you have captured the information you need, or not.
In post production the histogram helps me determine which tonality adjustments to make. Below is an image captured while teaching a workshop in the Palouse this spring. You can see on the histogram, most of the color and luminance tones are concentrated in the middle and left side of the image. This indicates that it is a low contrast, dark exposure. This is important information to determine what post processing this image needs. I would like to add contrast, but also brighten the image.
This is after one contrast adjustment. I was able to increase contrast, brighten the image, and control some highlights that were getting too bright. You can see the tones in the histogram are more spread out, but the highlights and shadows have plenty of detail information in them. From here I can decide if want to add more contrast. I can also lighten, or darken the overall exposure. Either way, the histogram will help guide me to the finished image.
You can learn more about Zack and his instructional videos on his website
There are a number of reasons I’m drawn to photographing ghost towns. Perhaps it’s something to do for a change of pace, maybe it’s photographing the history of a bygone era, or possibly it’s my fascination with dystopian literature. But mostly it’s just fun. I’ve photographed ghost towns from Alaska to Mexico. Most of them exist from the boom-and-bust of the mining era, while others are from the days of Manifest Destiny gone awry; leftovers from a time when Americans thought if we moved to arid lands for cultivation then the rain would follow.
The ruins these people left behind are in different states of disrepair. Some are preserved as parks, some are not and are left to crumble, and others are resurrected as artist colonies for an affordable place to work and live. Whatever their state, there is always something to explore and photograph.
I’ve explored and photographed the well-known ghost towns (i.e. Bodie) to the little-known towns (i.e.) Farlin. Hell, I even did a ghost town long-distance walk across the Yukon and Northwest Territories on the 221 mile (355km) Canol Heritage Trail, and followed a World War II oil pipeline through the wilderness. The walk past little-used and abandoned autos, pump-house towns, and work stations was fascinating. Additionally, I walked the 33-mile (53km) Chilkoot Trail from Dyea, Alaska to Bennett, British Columbia that follows a land of artifacts and relics from the Klondike Gold Rush. But you don’t need to walk long distances for most ghost towns; they’re on maps and a good AWD vehicle will get you to most of them. Just remember that the majority of ghost towns are at a higher elevation and not lowland valleys, so you might need to wait until summer for access.
Upon arriving for the first time, I like to get that establishing shot. Maybe it’s an overview of the entire town from a nearby highpoint, or possibly it’s a shot of one of the more prominent buildings in town like the mine itself. If the light is not right, I’ll come back to that establishing image as the light improves, but at least I’ve found what represents the town as a whole. Once I have the establishing shot, I begin to look for the intimate. Ghost towns are known for what’s left behind. It could be a table setting, an old poster still on the wall, or implements hanging from the ceiling, but I look for those things that might tell more of the story of the place I’m photographing.
Ghost towns usually have plenty of texture and plenty of rust that can create interesting patterns of shape and color. I look at the old boards for details of pattern and rusted old cars with peeling paint can offer a myriad of abstract compositions too. If artists are moving into the area, look for the weird. Near a Nevada ghost town I photographed, there was a whole field of cars planted in the ground grill first. The exposed sections of the autos were covered with graffiti art exploring life, politics, and the exotic.
Since this is a ghost town, also look for the creepy. I had one ghost town all to myself in the middle of Montana. I walked into an old abandoned hotel to look around and then heard something upstairs. When I walked upstairs I just saw a long hallway of light and dark, and thought to myself, “I’m not going down there.” But I did try to capture in a photo the way I felt at the time.
Also when you’re visiting a ghost town look for the cemetery; there is always one nearby. Some can be quaint, others historic, and still others a bit spooky. Any way you capture them, the images can be interesting and will also help tell the story of place. Ghost towns are also a great place for night photography, and light painting the old buildings while photographing the stars overhead can make for a fun evening shoot. If you’re photographing at night, use common sense and leave the steel wool at home. Sparks from these efforts can level a whole town, and enough historic relics from California to Florida have already been lost to photographer’s fire.
In 2017 I’ll be returning to Montana to conduct a photographic loop of the western ghost town locales. I hope you can join me. You can click here for more information.
Recently, my wife and I took our two-year-old son on his first backpacking trip. We spent four nights in Wyoming’s Wind River Range, hiking 22 miles round trip to Shadow Lake, just west of the famous Cirque of the Towers. Are we crazy? Maybe. Probably. But it was one of the most memorable, awe-inspiring, and fun experiences of my life. Even though, weeks later, we’re still getting all the dirt out of our hair.
Our son, who is 27 months old, is pushing 30 pounds. Although he walked short distances on his own here and there, he spent most of the hikes on my wife’s back in a Deuter baby carrier. That left me to carry pretty much all our gear. With my photography equipment in my pack as well, it was very heavy. Keeping weight down any way we could was crucial. My gear is already really light: ultralight tent, sleeping bags, sleeping pads; titanium cookware and 2-ounce canister stove. I swear by my Steri-Pen UV water purifier, which is very light. Our son loves drinking milk, so we brought powdered milk, and we brought some individually wrapped snack cheese for extra nutrition with minimal weight. He also loves oatmeal, so we packed a few instant oatmeal packets for him. Besides that, he pretty much shared our backpacking meals with us. But of course the biggest kiddo-related weight issue would be diapers. I did some research and discovered GroVia diapers: they’re “hybrid” cloth diapers with disposable, biodegradable inserts. The inserts, while not quite as absorbent as our usual disposable brand, were light, packed tiny, and worked surprisingly well. We bought two of the cloth diaper “covers” and rotated them throughout the trip. This system saved us so much space and weight.
Giving our son a chance to hike a bit, especially in the flat, sandy-trailed meadows, was a lot of fun for him, and a nice break for my wife’s back. It gave him an opportunity to stop and smell the wildflowers, and point out all the butterflies. My wife: “what does a butterfly say?” Son: “butterfly say I love you.”
Seeing him take joy in bugs, clamber up a granite boulder and giggle with pride, and greet the tiny baby trout in a crystal-clear mountain lake (“hi littley fishy!”) are things I’ll never forget. There’s nothing in the world like witnessing my son experience the wonder of the wilderness.
Our sleeping arrangements took a bit of planning. As we were just above 10,000 feet elevation, nights got pretty cold. Our son slept in an REI poly base layer long-sleeve tee and socks, under fleece footy pajamas, in a fleece sleep sack (like a sleeping bag with arm holes). We tried having him sleep in his toddler Patagonia down coat, but that didn’t seem to be comfortable for him, so we wrapped my down coat around him like a blanket. He slept between us on his own kid-size Thermarest sleeping pad.
Backpacking with a toddler is a challenge. I’m not gonna lie. Our packs were heavy and our backs were sore. But it was so worth it. I hope to give my son the opportunity to, as Emerson said, “live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air.” I want him to feel the exhiliration of the wilderness; to wonder at the stars and feel the ancient earth under his feet. I want him to know the calls of ospreys and the peeps of marmots. And, hopefully, I want to experience this with him again. Soon!
I have to admit, I am a bit of a coffee nerd. I am pretty picky about my morning coffee. Also, if you don’t know me, I get really into the things that I love 🙂 I have tried pretty much all of the options for the outdoor coffee enthusiast so I thought I would share some of my findings.
The most simple and lightest weight option is instant coffee:
Instant coffee has come a long way since Folgers Crystals, but it still just doesn’t do it for me. I just can’t get over the slightly burt flavor and bitterness compared to coffee brewed with fresh beans.
I used to use a french press like this one:
It is called the GSI Outdoors Java Press . It only weighs 10oz and will make 30 oz of fresh pressed coffee. All you need is access to hot water which is fairly easy to come by if you have a camp stove. I have used this for many years and it has been my main source of morning coffee while camping or backpacking up until recently. For some reason, I have never really enjoyed french pressed coffee as much as the drip coffee I make at home every morning, and my wife hates it. It just seems too bitter and over extracted for my taste. I have tried everything too, including a more course grind, shorter brewing time, etc, and, I usually drink my espresso straight so I am used to a pretty strong product.
This year I set out to see what other options are out there. My first thought was to try and seek out a drip coffee maker that would run on 12 volts for use while camping in our [email protected] travel trailer. A quick search on Amazon revealed that this wasn’t the best option. There were few available and they all had pretty bad reviews. I also learned that, due to the large amount of current they draw, the only way to make coffee from a home drip coffee maker in the outdoors is to have a huge power inverter of a couple thousand watts, and a bunch of 12 volt battery’s. Needless to say, not an option either.
All this digging around lead me to a method of brewing coffee that I had heard of in past but never really tried. The “pour over” method. I guess I always thought it would make bitter coffee just like my french press. But, oh boy was I wrong. I have recently come to the conclusion that in my opinion this the best tasting and most compact method for making coffee in the outdoors and at home. This method of brewing coffee involves manually pouring water over the grinds though a filter and filter holder, allowing complete control over the brewing process and highlighting the unique character of the coffee. After some extensive research, I learned quite a bit about this technique. It is actually kind of an art form. Check out this YouTube video and you will see what I mean. Many of the products are Japanese and they even have brewing contests in Japan for this method of brewing coffee! The best thing about it is, it is cheap, portable, and very tasty. There are a couple of things that are very important keep in mind when brewing pour over coffee. The first is kind of obvious. Start with fresh quality coffee beans and clean tasting or filtered water. The next thing is the grind. It would be easiest just to forgo the grinder and buy pre ground beans, but freshness starts to suffer almost immediately. It is important to use some type of burr grinder. Hand burr grinders are fairly inexpensive and readily available on Amazon. They take a bit of elbow grease, but I don’t mind that too much. The first one I tried is the very popular Hario Skerton. At about $25 this produced pretty good results but its main flaw was that the burrs didn’t line up very well so the grind was somewhat inconsistent. Further research lead me to the Porlex JP-30:
This one is a little bit pricier at about $50, but the results were far superior to the Skerton. Its capacity is just enough for one generous 16 oz cup of pour over coffee. At 11oz, this is even an option to take backpacking if you are a real coffee nerd.
If you have access to a power inverter that is at least 200 watts wired directly to a 12v battery, and have the room, an electric burr grinder is also an option. I tried out two different burr grinders, first the $50 Cuisinart Supreme Grind Burr Mill, which was lacking in consistent grind and very noisy. The next grinder I tried out and am very happy with is the highly recommended Baratza Encore. At $129, this grinder is more expensive but well worth the extra money. It produces a very consistent grind, and is quite a bit more quiet than the Cuisinart. Build quality is also top notch.
Next, on to the coffee maker. For lightweight travel I use the very compact GSI Outdoors JavaDrip:
At $12.95 you can’t beat the price, and at 4.8oz it is extremely portable. For filters, I recommend #2 unbleached paper cones. This device sits directly over your favorite lightweight coffee mug. My mug of choice is the GSI Outdoors Infinity Backpacker Mug.
I like this method of brewing so much that I have invested in the iconic Chemex pour over coffee brewer for use at home:
At $40, this won’t break the bank and should last forever if the glass doesn’t break.
I you are a real nerd like me, you might want to invest in a gooseneck kettle like this one. This allows for more precision during the pour. It isn’t absolutely necessary, and is not really an option while backpacking, but can be used at home and for car camping. The last piece of equipment that isn’t totally necessary but I have found very helpful for determining coffee amounts is a cheap gram scale like this.
That is basically all the equipment this really needed to start brewing pour over coffee in the outdoors. The process is fairly simple and I have found it to be very satisfying.
-First, start with the proper amount of freshly ground coffee. I use about 30 grams for a 16oz cup. This is about 1/4 cup of beans. The grind should be medium to medium course, about the consistency of sea salt.
-Next, warm up to a boil 16oz plus a little extra for wetting the filter and warming the brewer and cup.
-Once your water has reached a boil, remove it from the stove and pour the extra into the empty filter to rinse and warm, leaving about 16oz behind.
-Pour the grinds into the filter and add enough water to soak the grinds and let them “bloom”.
-After about 30 seconds, start slowly pouring water in a circular motion over the grinds until all of the water is gone.
That is basically it! The whole process should take about 3 minutes from start to finish. If it takes longer, grind a bit courser, and if it is too quick try a finer grind. If you are a real nerd, for a more detailed description of the process check this out.
Hopefully you have found this helpful, and I highly recommend that you give the pour over method of brewing a try sometime.
I don’t pretend to be a wildlife photographer; I do enjoy photographing wildlife and observing the behavior of animals in their habitat. If wildlife wanders into my landscape image I enjoy including it, and when I photograph wildlife I prefer to include it as part of the environment as opposed to creating a portrait image. Including an animal in the scene gives the viewer a gauge by which to measure the grandeur of a landscape; creating a sense of scale. It also tells the story of their habitat and under what conditions they live, which is far more interesting to me than a portrait. Of course, some wildlife is small, so the landscape adjusts accordingly to maybe a handful of leaves or the grasses of a prairie and entry to the den.
If I plan on photographing wildlife in a landscape, I first increase the ISO of my camera to 400 at a minimum. In addition, consider opening the f-stop up to f11 or even f5.6 for more shutter speed. Obviously this will create a shallower depth-of-field, but photography is always about trade-offs so consider what’s best for the image before you shoot. By increasing the shutter speed, the animal’s movement won’t be blurred. Of course, if you want to capture the motion of an animal with image blur, then keep your ISO on a slow setting and just pan your camera with the animal to capture the sense of movement. (I find this works best between 1/15th of a second and 1/40th, depending on the animal’s speed.) Be careful when approaching an animal, since it is wild, unpredictable, and there is no need to cause it undo stress–all good reasons to keep your distance and capture it in its environment.
As a general rule it’s best to have the animal walking into the scene in order to create a suggested line of site, and to lead the viewer’s eye through the composition. A catch-light in the animal’s eye is also important since it suggests life. Keeping the eye sharp is key, so focus here first and then recompose if necessary. I also try and separate the elements; I may wait for the animals to spread out a bit or shoot before and after my subject is behind that tree and not while the tree overlaps my subject. I also wait until the animal has a clean background. I don’t need branches or sticks protruding from the back of my subject’s head, so I keep it clean and I keep it simple.
When it comes to wildlife photography ethics automatically come into play, and for me I think it’s best to be an observer and not a participator in the scene. I don’t want to stress an animal, I’ll never bait it, and I won’t call out to it for better eye contact. I figure wildlife already has it hard, and I’m not there to make it any harder on them. If an animal changes its course or behavior because of me, then I’ve failed in my approach. If you’re photographing in a group, keep your distance and don’t surround your subject. Always give it an outlet for escape, which will create less stress in the animal, better photographs, and probably more time with your subject. There are enough stupid photographer videos online already, and we don’t need to add to the collection.
Hopefully these handful of tips will better help your photography and also the wildlife you’re there to photograph-enjoy and observe.
This winter I got to visit one of the top premier resorts in Montana called Paws Up Luxury Ranch just outside Missoula Montana. A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to be asked my the media team at Paws Up to do a commercial shoot during spring photo shoot. I really enjoyed my time on the ranch and hoped I would get the chance again to photograph the location but in winter time. This winter I was fortunate enough to be asked again to photograph the property to highlight the stunning winter landscapes of the ranch. They were looking for images that showcased the facilities at its best including the stunning dining area, the warm lit cabins at night, and the many winter activities available. While on location they were generous enough to set myself up in one of their luxurious cabins as well as a SUV for transportation to get around in. From the client, I had a list of things they expected from me. It was laid out from most important to least and clearly what they expected from me. There main objective from me, was to photograph the ranch in the best available light. We had established a contract beforehand of things they expected and a fee that would be appropriate for the job. It is critical that when dealing with commissioned jobs that you have a well laid out contract that clearly establishes what each party is responsible for. Things always can go sideways when employed to do a job and thus, a contract is there to protect both parties involved.
My contract stated I would be photographing at the ranch from Thursday to Sunday with an extra day to increase my odds of getting at least one morning or evening of light. Upon arrival I wrote down a game plan of how I wanted to do things and make sure I was at the right place at the right time. Looking to photograph the locations at the top of the list and work my way down. The first night I choose to photograph the main buildings at night under the warmth of the lights at night with the fresh snow. My adjective when shooting areas with a lot of foot traffic in winter snow is to avoid signs of human presence. To be more specific I want to avoid footprints in the snow and signs of cars. So I had to carefully compose the images to avoid these elements and yet capture the essence of each place. The clients specific instructions was to do my best to avoid human footprints in the snow. I always try to tell a story with my images and this includes when shooting architecture. My job as a photographer is to create a mood and present a story to the viewer. So when shooting buildings or cabins in winter I want to express a feeling of cozy, warm, shelters to escape the cold winter nights. I try to include smoke coming from chimneys, lights turned on in all areas of the building, and visual opening to the door. This is essential to my objective and will ask management to make sure as many of these things settings are present when photographing. I also like to do most of shooting just after sunset during what I call the blue hour when the sky is going dark but has a cooler blue cast and really complements the warmer colors coming from the buildings and cabins. At the end of the night I managed to capture most of the ambiance I was trying to achieve.
The next day my objective was to photograph clients enjoying the resorts activities. The first objective is to photograph the guests being escorted around by horses and sleds in the fresh snow. Here is it vital to capture the smiles on the guests’ faces as well as the horses. I take both intimate and wide-angle shots to make sure I capture the moment. I make sure when photographing activities to capture as much as I can. In the afternoon I setup a photo shoot where I shoot some of the employees on the horses making there way through the winter forests. Here I am looking to focus on the relationship between the cowboy and the horse. As many riders know a bond between a horse and a cowboy is special so I really want that to show in my images. Once I was satisfied with my cowboy images I turned my attention to the sunset and being at the best places I could. I also wanted to photograph it from as many places as I could in the small window I would be provided. With a list of places to shoot I shot as from as many places I could in the time given until dark settled in for the night.
On my last day, I woke up early for a spectacular sunrise with the fresh snow that fall over night. I was able to get to all the places I needed and when the weekend was over I had achieved most of the goals I had set out to get.
By the end of the trip I had jotted down a list of things I learned over the weekend that would make my next adventure better. Most importantly, I realized how vital it is do have a plan from most important to least; this also includes having a backup plan if the weather does not cooperate. Also whenever doing a job that has been commissioned make sure that you and your employer have a clear understanding of what their objective is. In my particular circumstance it was to capture the ranch in a way that was inviting to viewers especially in wintertime where it would colder conditions would make this a harder job. After I finished processing the images and the client was able to see the images they picked out a set amount of images that had been agreed upon beforehand. They used this images for there brochures, website, and everything that was used for their marketing. Lastly, I made sure that I honored everything that was set out in the agreement to achieve and on their part they did the same. In the end, the ranch and I were both happy with the results.