Assignment Shoot Marathon

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End of day ride back to Whittier, Alaska after a full day of adventure in Prince William Sound

Three days after arriving in Alaska a shoot we’d been planning for weeks luckily fell into place.  Talent, available boat, and weather all aligned in our favor.  Operating on the typical Alaska summer sleep deprivation, we shot 3,600 frames in 30 hours at 3 locations with 8 talent.  Great shoots!  Looking forward to more shoots like that.

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Family jumping onto lingering summer snow on top of Alyeska Resort, Girdwood, Alaska

Our 12-hour day in Prince William Sound with Captain Mike of Lazy Otter Charters had to be one of the best days ever in Prince William Sound.  We had three fine folks for talent for a variety of adventure and tourism themes to create.

 

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Kayaking in front of Coxe Glacier in Harriman fjord, Prince William Sound, Alaska

Keeping mental focus.  I am very fortunate to have a client that gives me a lot of creative freedom.  Investing the money and time I did without a shot list seems risky or foolish but it works.  The challenge was to have fresh ideas and sharp focus and keep the talent motivated all day.  Here is how I stack the odds in my favor.

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Checking out glacial ice and icebergs at low tide on the beach at Harriman Fjord, Prince William Sound, Alaska

First, casting dependable and self-motivated talent, most of whom I’ve worked with before was a huge step toward a successful shoot.  Knowing the area and light was also a key component.  The only uncertainty is, as always, dealing with weather conditions that are not favorable to what the client wants.  We had a bit of flat light and ominous clouds in late morning.  Remaining flexible I was able to adjust my shoot ideas to work around this.  The rest of the day was just grand.

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Hiker hitting the beach in Harriman Fjord in Prince William Sound with Lazy Otter Charters from Whittier

Instead of a shoot list, I come up with a “concept” list short enough to keep in my head.  This allows me to take in the environment, the light and mood of the talent to generate ideas on the fly that convey the client’s visual message.  I also go after the ideas they want shot the most first while we are all fresh.  This approach along with good planning resulted in a successful but exhausting shoot.

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Sunrise at Portage Lake, Alaska enroute to Whittier

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A rare sight: sunbathing in Harriman Fjord in Prince William Sound, Alaska

 

 

Winter Solstice Alaska Assignment: Wireless Speedlites in Extreme Cold

Winter scenic near Anchorage, Alaska

Sun at solar noon, shot at Otter Lake near Anchorage, Alaska near winter solstice

Only 3 days from the winter solstice I was on assignment shooting environmental portraits of 2012 Iditarod Champion Dallas Seavey near his kennels near Willow. With the sun reaching only 5 degrees above the horizon at mid-day I was lucky to be nearby a lake where the trees were far enough away to give us some beautiful open sunlight. This time of year that meant about 3 hours of unobstructed sun. This far north, clear skies in the dead of winter mean only one thing: cold. This was a short trip (only 4 full days) and luckily the weather held for another day giving me a chance to spend an afternoon shooting winter landscapes around Anchorage. It was good to get re-acquainted with the Alaska winter landscape.

Winter scenic near Anchorage Alaska

Mid day sun on Otter Lake and Chugach Mountains near Anchorage, Alaska

My main concern was the cold. It was -22F (-30C) in Willow that morning and this time of year the daily temperature range is usually 10 degrees or less.  We started shooting about 12:30 and it had warmed very little.  Being on a lake, a low spot where cold air pools, it was -15F (-25C) max.

Canon Wireless Speedlights: This shoot was the first time I would use the Canon 600EX-RT speedlights fired wirelessly with the new ST-E3 transmitter in extreme temperatures. Knowing that alkaline and my rechargeable nickel metal hydride batteries would die quickly in this cold, the speedlights, the external power packs, and the transmitter were all outfitted with lithium AA batteries which have the best cold weather performance.

On assignment in Willow, Alaska in sub-zero weather. Lynn Wegener and Karen Combs with Canon 600EX-RT speedlights equiped with Spinlight 360 light modifiers with Michael DeYoung shooting environmental portaits of 2012 Iditarod Champion Dallas Seavey.

Photographer Michael DeYoung on assignment doing environmental portraits of 2012 Iditarod Champion Dallas Seavey near Willow, Alaska in sub-zero temperatures.

The lighting plan was simple. Use the beautiful sub-arctic sun as sidelight and backlight, and fill the shadows with the speedlights. The RT wireless system worked flawlessly in the bright light and cold for about two hours when the recycle time started getting over 20 seconds. I love being able to control the ratio and mode (Manual or ETTL) from the transmitter though I still had to take my hands out of my gloves to make the changes. In these temperatures, I got about 150 shots before the recycle time became intolerable. Luckily the shoot was winding down.

SpinLight360: This was also the first shoot that I’ve used the new SpinLight 360 Extreme light mod system in these temperatures. I was concerned with the plastic becoming brittle and breaking during my typical hard use of my strobes. This system is mainly targeted for wedding and event shooters but I have really taken a liking to this system. Once the base unit spin ring was attached to the flash with Velcro ,which is very secure, the modifiers (dome, snoot, grid, bounce cards) were easy to attach in the cold with gloves on; a big plus in extreme conditions. I used a the diffuser dome, the grid and snoot and I am really impressed with the quality of light from these mods as well as their light weight and ease in attaching and removing various mods.

Photographers with Canon Speedlites and Spinlight 360 light modifiers near Willow, Alaska

On assignment in Willow, Alaska in sub-zero weather. Lynn Wegener and Karen Combs with Canon 600EX-RT speedlights equiped with Spinlight 360 light modifiers with Michael DeYoung shooting environmental portaits of 2012 Iditarod Champion Dallas Seavey.

Near sunset, with the temp dropping I wanted to get a shot with Dallas and two of his dogs hooked up in front of his sled. I set up my 2 speedlights with snoots with the group B:A ratio of about 3:1. Group B, operated by my assistant Lynn, lit Dallas’s face. Since this was a wide angle shot Lynn had to maintain a fair distance and thus the snoot worked better than a grid by not reducing the light output as much. I aimed group A on a separate stand at Hero and Porter, also champion athletes in the foreground. The snoots did a very good job at focusing the light on the dogs and keeping unwanted light off the snow.

Dog musher at sunset near Willow, Alaska

012 Iditarod Champion Dallas Seavey with sled dogs Hero and Porter at sunset near Willow, Alaska.

I also got to spend an afternoon shooting landscapes around Anchorage where I had a mix of sun and fog. The image of Otter Lake shows the mid day sun at how low it stays in the sky. From the same vantage point is a side-lit shot of the Chugach. An hour later near sunset I found this scene –  the frozen birch forest and peaks behind Ship Creek and Arctic Valley – diffused by the lingering freezing fog and stratus.

Frozen landscape close to winter solstice near Anchorage, Alaska

Winter landscape close to sunset, frozen birch-boreal forest looking up Ship Creek Valley and Chugach Mountains near Anchorage, Alaska

This short trip reminded me of just how nice winter landscape photography can be in mainland Alaska. Here is the shot I missed: Mt. McKinley, Hunter and Foraker glowing in warm light with beautifully lit snow-covered forest near Willow in the Susitna Valley. I didn’t stop because we were running a little late for our shoot and the client was more important than a landscape. But it was probably near the best I’ve seen of a winter view of the south side of McKinley and the Alaska Range.

Photography and Patience: What is The Longest You Waited to Get a Photograph?

Aerial view of Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park, Alask

Arieal view of Mt. Fairweather (15,300′) and Grand Plateau Glacier near Alsek Lake, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

Whenever possible, I offer my meteorological abilities and skills to my clients to advise when to shoot to get the best possible conditions.  This has been a big asset for my tourism clients.  Many shoots, however, have to be scheduled far beyond accurate forecasting range.   In Alaska, based on climatology and years of experience, I plan 7 days on location to get one evening or morning of nice light.  Getting more than one nice day in a given week is a bonus!  This is especially true anywhere in coastal Alaska and around Mt. McKinley in Denali National Park.

The longest I’ve had to wait to get a shot has been 12 days in the very inappropriately named Dry Bay!  The mission was to get a series of shots of the equally inappropriately named Fairweather Range and and the glaciers that flow into Alsek Lake in the northwest corner of Glacier Bay National Park.  Mt. Fairweather is one of the loftiest mountains rising from sea level to 15, 300’ in only a few miles.

In mid August we flew in to Dry Bay from Haines (in the rain) where we met Brabazon Expeditions to boat us up the Alsek River to the park boundary where we planned to canoe, camp and shoot for 7 days.  After 2 days of continuous rain with more rain forecast for the next 5 (we had a marine radio) we decided to paddle the 11 miles back to Dry Bay to hole up at Brabazon’s wood frame and tarp roof bunkhouse.

 

Canoeist of Alsek Lake, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska.

Lauri in a 14 foot inflatable whitewater canoe from Grabner in Austaralia navigating with map and GPS on Alsek Lake through icebergs toward the outlet where lake ends and the last 11 miles of the Alsek river flows into the Gulf of Alaska at Dry Bay.

That proved to be a good call.  On the three hour paddle back to Brabazon in a hard driving continuous rain dressed in $1200 each of high tech Gore-tex raingear and fleece base layers and we still got soaked (mainly from perspiration) and were border line hypothermic upon arrival.

 

Dry Bay and Mt. Fairweather, Alaska

Brabazon Expeditions rafters hut in Dry Bay, along the Gulf of Alaska coast below Mt. Fairweather (15,300′) and the Fairweather Range. We spent 12 days waiting for a view of the peaks.

Monitoring the marine radio daily, horrified by the forecasts, we were pinned for 10 days waiting for the weather to clear!  We lived off of food left behind by rafting parties who didn’t want the weight for the flight back.  During the 10 day wait, Yakutat, the nearest reporting station 30 miles west, reported 16 inches of rainfall which is more than a year’s worth of rain in Taos!

Alaska Brown Bear, Dry Bay

Chocolate colored brown bear near our hut at Dry Bay, Alaska. These guys were digging up roots of eskimo potato roots all around the area. I stood under the covered front porch for about 30 minutes waiting for this young bear to get closer until I got a decent shot with my 300/f4. After one shutter click the bear turned and ran away.

 

On day 11 with a forecast of brief clearing, we were shuttled back up river in early afternoon.  We shot like crazy spending the night on Gateway Knob for sweeping views of the lake and Mt. Fairweather then paddling back down to Dry Bay again where FlyDrake would pick us up and return us to Haines before the weather closed in again.

Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska.

Dusk view of Mt. Fairweather (15,300), and Alsek Lake Glacier and Lake in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

 

Wilderness camp at Alsek Lake, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska.

Camp at Gateway Knob above Alsek Lake with view of the Fairweather Range. We hiked about 1/3 mile and 400′ above the lake from our boat to get a commanding dusk and dawn view of the lake and Fairweather Range after waiting out 12 days of rain and low clouds.

Why did we stay so long?  I am tenacious when it comes to getting my shots and just hate giving up.  Another trip would have cost more in both time and expense than just waiting it out even though our trip length doubled.  Being flexible allowed us to adjust to the prolonged wet weather regime.   In the end, we got the shots and that’s what counts the most.

Aerial view of Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

Arieal view of Mt. Fairweather (15,300′) and Grand Plateau Glacier near Alsek Lake, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

 

Behind the Lens – Sheri, an Inupiat Eskimo, as a full page in Alaska Vacation Planner

I only spent a few hours photographing Sheri on a typical cool, wet, and windy July day near Nome, Alaska. Of the hundreds of folks we meet on the long assignments we’ve done for the Alaska Travel Industry Association (ATIA), Sheri was one of the most enjoyable and unforgettable people we’ve worked with. I’m glad to see her featured in a full page image in the 2012 Alaska Vacation Planner.

Female Inupiat Eskimo artist from Nome, Alaska wearing traditional kuspik dress

Sheri, an Inupiat Eskimo artist in Nome, Alaska appears as a full page image in the 2012 Alaska State Vacation Planner. Shot on assignment in 2011

A kind and gentle soul with a soft pretty face, Sheri had a striking presence about her. At the time she was working at the Nome Visitor Center. She agreed to model for us in a traditional Kuspuk and with some of her artwork which consisted of her handmade sealskin purses and boots. An Inupiat Eskimo from Northwest Alaska, she is an amazingly talented artist.

Sheri is from the village of Shishmaref, 100 miles north of Nome on the windswept shores of the Chukchi Sea about 20 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Summer here is a mere fantasy, more accurately described as a “thaw season” where waters turn to liquid for 8 weeks. Shishmaref is a “bush” village meaning it is not connected to the road system. The nearest contiguous road is the Dalton Highway some 500 miles east. Shishmaref is close to where it all began some 20,000 years ago when native peoples walked across the Bering Land Bridge to inhabit North America.

The subsistence lifestyle, primitive infrastructure (many homes without modern pluming) and extreme isolation she grew up in is simply unimaginable to most people – including me. She grew up among caribou, musk ox, wolves, grizzlies and the occasional polar bear.

With her upbringing, I thought nothing I would ask could phase her. I was wrong. When I asked her to sit among the beautiful field of wild iris, she was reluctant and concerned about mice being down there. I had a warm fuzzy chuckle, thinking up to this point, that only “city” girls would be concerned over the possibility of a cute little rodent running around your feet. Luckily I was able to stomp out the area where I wanted her to sit which she eventually did and we made some great images.

The technical aspects of the shot were quite simple. More often than not in Alaska, you are shooting in flat light. The flat terrain meant not much background to work with. (Unfortunately, Russia was not visible from where we were.) The flat light meant soft skin tones but limited contrast. All I could do was fill the frame with Sheri and let her presence and the colors of her kuspuk and iris carry the shot. The breeze lifting some of her hair was icing on the cake. This image is a good example of the 80/20 rule where 80% of the success of the shot took place before the camera even came out of the bag.

Like most of the fine people we’ve met and photographed on our Alaska assignments, our paths are not likely to cross again. I wish Sheri the very best and I hope she continues pursuing her artwork.

Sometimes The Fun Shots Turn Out The Best

Mature woman (baby boomer generation) skiing through powder at Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico

Stevie floating on fresh powder in the fog at Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico

With almost a foot of new snow, no wind or crowds on a Sunday morning at Taos Ski Valley it was real hard to resist pounding powder action for as long as it lasts.  I had a trio of age 60+ ladies who were all good skiers.  Although they would not be doing any extreme stuff, I knew I would get good ski action shots from them.  What was better though was the energy and enthusiasm between these three long time friends.  This dynamic, along with flattering light, was a perfect recipe for some “fun” lifestyle shots. I know this is not as exciting as skiers crashing through trees and powder or jumping off something that could put you in a body cast for three months.  These are stunt shots and for me less challenging than getting really fun non-ski action lifestyle shots.  I did get in a few rounds of powder pounding but I’m jazzed with the “fun” shot results.

 

Lifestyle portrait of two mature women (baby boomer generation) walking and laughing with skis at Taos Ski Valley, NM

Happy skiers after a morning of fresh powder skiing at Taos Ski Valley New Mexico

Initially, they thought I’d be bummed out with fog on the lower slopes.  Little did they know I could hardly contain my excitement.  I LOVE FOG!   It is great at a ski resort when you can ride the lift above the fog then ski to the edge and shoot.  It simplifies the background and is very flattering for facial detail as you can see from the chairlift shot.  Literally 30 seconds after this shot we broke out into the harsh sun.  Shot over.

 

Ski lifestyle portrait of three mature women (baby boomer generation) skiers on chairlift at Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico

3 veteran mature skiers share a jovial ride on chair 4 through the fog at Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico

A monopod does not make a good ski pole but it sure came in handy for the fun chairlift shot.  With my 1D, Mark IV and a 20mm lens I’m holding my monopod out and up as far as I can reach.  I’m guessing at the framing.  I have a Microsync Digital receiver on the camera gaffer taped to the camera strap.  Carol, the skier on the right, has the transmitter in her glove and she’s just firing away at my command.

 Photographer with three mature female (baby boomer) skiers on chairlift

Photographer Michael DeYoung photographing talent on chair 4 (Kachina Lift)at Taos Ski Valley with camera mounted on a monopod and fired with a remote release. Carol, the skier in brown coat is triggering the shots with a Microsync Digital. The framing is just guess work. The resultant shot above was done while still in the fog. Notice how the lighting above the fog in the harsh sun is not as flattering on the women’s faces. As for me, I’m a lost cause..

Working With Creative and Capable Talent Saves The Shoot

Woman skier jumping in air Utah

Jaqueline in telemark ski gear jumping on a trampoline near sunset.

Several years ago I was doing a winter catalog shoot in April. On the shot list was a skier jumping in a particular jacket. Samples arrived on Friday. The local ski resort closed for the season on Sunday. Saturday brought a blizzard with near hurricane force winds on the ridge tops and we were shooting the other catalog shots at lower elevation in the wet, spring snow. Sunday was bright, clear and warm and I was ready to rock and roll on the ski shots.

Enter an unforeseen problem: My ski model got pinned down and disoriented in Saturday’s snowstorm while backcountry skiing and spent the night in the wilderness, returning too late and exhausted on Sunday to shoot. Understandable.

For the first time I am faced with the horror of calling the client and explaining how they would have to pay an extra 1K to get crew and talent to a ski area 250 miles away that was still open. My model also worked so the client would possibly have to approve of new talent. Really didn’t want to make that call. Time to think outside the ski area box and test your problem solving skills.

We tried to get some jumps in on back-country trails. No luck. Spent half the time climbing uphill. Warm day. Heavy slushy snow made it difficult to get any “air time”. Aha! Our model lived near 9,000 feet on the mountain above town and a neighbor had a trampoline. She had a strong husband with a snow shovel. Viola! Ski jump shot. Just had to crop out the trampoline. Never told the client anything. Just submitted the images. They ran the back-lit shot (they use a lot of rear view shots) but I really liked the front-lit version because of Jaqueline’s great facial expression.

Woman skier in telemark ski gear taking air

Jaqueline in telemark ski gear jumping on a trampoline.

 

  • Photographer: Michael DeYoung
  • Client: Title Nine Sports
  • Location: Cedar City, Utah
  • Lighting: Natural late afternoon light

Fast-forward seven years to this February. Good talent saves the day again on a ski shoot. My assignment is at Taos Ski Valley. I’m shooting action ski shots on Taos’ famous expert terrain off of Highline Ridge. Needed to make it look fun and dynamic but not death defying.

Advanced female skier at Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico

Andrea skiing off a cornice on Hildalgo, a double black run off Highline Ridge, Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico.

There was plenty of ski season left but due to scheduling and talent availability this cold morning with a biting north wind was the slated day to make something work. The previous day brought hurricane force winds and wind scoured peaks. The snow was difficult being wind packed and fast and Lauri and I basically resorted to “survival” skiing to negotiate the slope – quite embarrassing in the company of six, young expert skiers and boarders. My background setting is less than ideal, but the light was decent and my expert, well-styled and capable talent carried the shots making the difficult look easy and fun as experts often do. I went with tried and true composition and design techniques (like a strong diagonal line and clean foreground) to get some solid shots. The talent made my day and hopefully the client’s too.

Skiers skiing down Hildalgo run off of Highline Ridge at Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico

Andrea and Matt ski Hildalgo off of Highline Ridge, Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico.

 

  • Photographer: Michael DeYoung
  • Client: Taos Ski Valley Chamber of Commerce
  • Location: Taos Ski Valley
  • Lighting: Natural 3/4 backlight with fill light from the snow

What Does Minus 40 Look Like? Warm Memories of Extreme Cold.

Winter frosted trees, setting moon, and morning alpenglow in Copper River Basin near Glenallen, Alaska

My “coldest” image, I think. This was a moonset and morning alpenglow at about minus 50 west of Glenallen, Alaska in the Copper River Basin. The soft arctic alpenglow at high latitudes is the most ethereal I’ve seen. I had an auxiliary battery pack that I had to keep under my parka. This was hard wired to the camera. This is the only way to keep the camera operating in extreme cold.

First, a little background story about my early Alaska days.

A client recently expressed interest in images of bitter cold. Not much of that in Northern New Mexico and western Colorado Valley this winter. I am planning a late winter trip to Alaska this year. But, I always keep up with what’s happening with winter up there.

I saw something I hadn’t seen in a while. Interior temperatures hit minus 60 the last few days of January. Minus 40’s and 50’s are common but minus 60’s have been rare in this era of climate change. The National Weather Service office even mentioned how this January was similar to the winter of 89-90.

The winter of 1989/1990 was my second winter in Alaska and I remember it well. The Army sent me camping in the Interior in January and again in March! And the coldest air of the winter hit while we were camping. I should know. I was part of an Air Force weather detachment that participated in Army exercises and made official weather observations.

The first night was only like minus 45 and we had minus 40 and colder for the entire two weeks we were out. We were lucky as we were in the hills above Delta Junction and thus a little warmer. Some of the lowest valley locations, like Nenana, south of Fairbanks, hit minus 71. Even east Anchorage got close to minus 40 that January.

Being in air that cold is just painful. It hurts to breath. It feels like slivers of broken glass in your nostrils when you inhale. When you walk it feels like the wind is blowing because the air is incredibly dense. Normally cushy vehicle seats feel like slabs of concrete. Alkaline batteries don’t work. For cheap amusement we’d throw a cup of hot liquid up in the air and it would never hit the ground as it would just freeze into ice crystals.

What does all this have to do with photography? Well something happened that first night I’ll never forget. I saw my first real aurora borealis display and it blew me away. It was a brilliant emerald green display over a moonlit landscape of fresh sparkling arctic snow.

I tried photographing them. They sucked. It was my first time. It was 40 below. I was still an amateur and I was working the graveyard shift out of a tent on an Army field trip – not exactly ideal conditions for photography. But, it sealed my interest in photographing the aurora borealis.

Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) over Kathleen River, Kluane National Park, Yukon Territory, Canada

This is one of my favorite and my most commercially successful aurora borealis image. This is from Kluane National Park in the Yukon the 3rd week of March. This is the Kathleen River just downstream from the outlet of Kathleen Lake. The lake is very deep and upwelling prevents the first stretch of river from freezing. The shot took place around 3AM on a full moon night. It was balmy and only a few degrees below zero.

After active duty was over in 1992 I made journeys into the extreme cold of Interior Alaska on my own terms trying to photograph the aurora.

I’ve made some successful aurora images in winter, but my favorite and coldest photo was of a morning moon and alpenglow in a black spruce forest east of Glenallen which was minus 50 that morning. I’d been up most of the night waiting for an aurora that never materialized.

For a while there was something alluring about enduring extreme weather painful as it was. But I learned this long ago: Simply enduring adverse conditions doesn’t make your images more creative. There is no correlation between degree of difficulty and creativity. However, when you make a great or even good image during challenging environmental conditions it makes it more satisfying.

P.S: Here are some geeky weather facts.

Arctic airmasses are very shallow and dense, usually having extreme temperature inversions. So the coldest air is in the LOWEST elevations such as valley floors.

Minus 40 is where Celsius and Fahrenheit are equal i.e. -40F = -40C

Ice fog is a purely man made phenomena occurring during arctic air in settlements, villages and urban areas. At temperatures in the minus 20’s and colder air cannot hold any moisture. So moisture from internal combustion engine exhaust and exhaust from residential and commercial gas fired furnaces is enough to generate incapacitating fog that remains trapped under sharp inversions. Ice fog can reduce visibility to no more than 100 meters sometimes, but is usually no more than a hundred feet thick vertically.

At minus 20 and colder, exposed flesh can literally freeze, i.e. your nose and finger tips can turn into blocks of ice—not good!

Need more? Check out Jim Green’s Alaska Weather blog. He produces a yearly wall calendar called ‘Alaska Weather Calendar’.

Sometimes Adventure Photography Begins at Home

This week is a short one. The routine is familiar. We frantically pack for another 10-day adventure 500 miles from home while tying up loose business ends prior to our departure. It is stressful but I’m excited about our upcoming Zion shoot. It is early May and we are thinking spring. Can’t wait to see the explosion of vibrant spring greens and hopefully blooming cacti against the warm colored Colorado Plateau sandstone.

The Gulf of Alaska sent the Southern Rockies a different plan as the last day of April rolled into May first. Snow. And near record cold. Drove home Sunday from Westcliffe, Colorado. Snowed most of the way. Snowed all afternoon at home with sub-freezing temperatures, yes in May! Monday morning looked and felt more like January. Four inches of new snow cloaked the landscape with our mercury at 18 degrees at sunrise. Beautiful, but not spring like.

Never seen so many songbirds at the feeders during the heavy snow Sunday and Monday morning. The seed eaters had plenty of grub but I was concerned about our resident nesting bluebirds. Insect life was all but shut down the previous afternoon so they probably had very little to eat. They sat on a feeder perch for over an hour Monday morning making me wonder if they were just warming themselves in the sun.

In the past, we’ve offered them mealworms, soaked raisins and insect suet on snowy spring days but they never ate it so I guess they were fine weathering out the storm with little or nothing to eat. But that was March and April, not May with 5 new eggs in their nest.

Reminded myself of a lesson I stress in my workshops. Don’t forget to shoot close to home. I’ve always felt that if you can’t make good images in your backyard, you won’t make good images in some exotic and far away place. That morning was an opportunity for me to practice what I preach.

So we took a break from our business tasks and packing to shoot stills and motion. Shot the bluebirds on the perch and shot Lauri behind the camera and lens that was used to photograph Mr. and Mrs. Bluebird on said perch.

Photographing mountain bluebirds image

Lauri photographing mountain bluebirds on a perch at our feeding station.

 

Pair of mountain bluebirds in winter portrait image

Our resident and nesting pair of mountain bluebirds

 

Female mountain bluebird portrait image, Taos New Mexico

Mrs. Bluebird on a perch at our seed feeder. Shot details: Canon 1D, Mark IV, 400/F4 lens with 1.4X extender, 580EX II speedlite mounted on a Really Right Stuff flash bracket.

Normally, we sweep new snow from our solar panels at first light to maximize power on winter days. The days are long now, the sun is up before we are and we could afford to wait a bit to see if a photo idea I had would pan out. The wetter spring snow and a little more morning heat could create a thin layer of melt water on the panels. That could make some cool reflections of Lauri as she swept the snow off. Also with a backlit and sidelit scene the huge angled array with fresh snow made one heck of a fill light.

Sweeping new snow off home solar panels Taos New Mexico image

Sweeping new May snow off solar panels, photovoltaic array outside of Taos, New Mexico

 

Sweeping new snow off home solar panels Taos New Mexico image

Sweeping new May snow off solar panels, photovoltaic array outside of Taos, New Mexico

Our mountain bluebird parents are just fine and I’m glad that I had a chance to make some nice images from home. Now back to spring.
Pair of mountain bluebird portrait image

How Following Three Basic Photography Principles led to a Successful Assignment

As a working professional who has taught a few workshops with plans to teach more, I try to do is make sure that I practice what I preach. Some of the things I try to emphasize in a workshop aren’t just things that sound profound but are fundamentals that are used regularly, work well and lead to good photography. So I thought I’d write about an assignment I received last spring that put some basic principles I’ve taught in workshops to the test.

The assignment was from a good client who wanted me to produce to a catalog cover with a Christmas holiday theme. The shot was essentially a landscape that involved a human element. The theme would be a cozy cabin decorated with holiday lights in a gorgeous mountain setting with a fresh snow look. The ideal lighting would be dawn or dusk where the lights of the cabin would balance with the ambient light. This was not that unusual except it was the middle of March, winter was waning, Christmas decorations were in the attic, and the client needed it soon with a limited budget. Without a big travel budget the client was fortunate that I could do this in my home region. Knowing the local area reduced location-scouting fees since I could do that myself and not outsource it. The Southern Rockies would be clad in snow for a few more months but getting that fresh winter wonderland look would be a longshot and getting any decorations we didn’t have especially at stores in a rural area would be challenging.

Rustic cabin with Christmas holiday lights nestled in ponderosa pines beneath the Sneffels Range, San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Cabin with holiday lights nestled in ponderosa pines beneath the Sneffels Range, San Juan Mountains, Colorado. Shot on assignment for a catalog.

As I hung up the phone, a mild panic set in thinking about how I was going to pull this off in the next week. Time to step back and think about why they hired me. I believe they trusted me to deliver their visual message regardless of what challenges I would face. Location shoots call for problem solving – a critical skill for photographic success especially when many environmental elements would be beyond my control. My production plan was based on among other things three basic tried and true principles that I’ve emphasized in my workshops.

The first principle is recognizing that 80% of the success of the shot occurs before you take the camera out of the bag. In fact I think it is closer to 90% in many cases. Our problem solving would begin here as the biggest challenge was finding a suitable cabin that lined up with great San Juan Mountain scenery. Since this was a commercial shoot that involved decorating and lighting and securing permission and a property release, this meant simply driving around and shooting something pretty we found from the road was not feasible. Many hours were spent that week doing Internet searches, contacting lodges, b &b’s, real estate agents and a production company to locate a suitable location that would be affordable. Fortunately, Lauri’s diligent research paid off. Time to make a mad dash to the chosen location.

The second principle involved taking advantage of what was already in place. This principle is demonstrating you can make compelling imagery close to home before traveling to places far away. Become an expert in photographing your “backyard.” Learn the geography, seasons, lighting patterns, and keep notes on interesting locations. (There is an excellent article about shooting close to home in the February, 2011 issue of Digital Photo by Mark Edward Harris.) I admit it is hard sometimes but I always try not to become jaded at my familiar surroundings. The “I’ve seen this a thousand times” and “been there, done that” attitudes do not serve your creative vision well at all. The client was paying in part for my local area expertise and I was not about to let them down.

The third principle was knowing how to use artificial lighting. Lighting skills aren’t just for portraits and interior photography. Learning to creatively mix natural and artificial light sources is applicable even to landscape subjects. In a less than ideal sunset or sunrise, creative lighting skills can save the day. In this instance, the cabin had rather dark wood and was somewhat nestled in a tall stand of ponderosa pines. The light from the decorations and interior lights simply wasn’t enough to make the cabin “pop” from its surroundings. Fortunately a little used mono-light that packed more power than a hot shoe flash with a portable battery pack saved the day. We used RadioPopper slaves that gave me the freedom to place lights in hidden places and fire them from a fairly long distance. For this shoot the lights were hidden behind the front porch and fired wirelessly over a hundred feet away in winter conditions.

Woman building and decorating a snowman

Lauri DeYoung building a snowman during some assignment downtime to be photographed at dusk. San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Snowman bearing presents in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado at dusk

Snowman bearing gift shot as stock after a catalog assignment shoot at the same location.

The total time committed for this shoot roughly broke down to: countless hours on the internet and communicating by email and phone, 10 hours travel time, 4 hours scavenger hunting, 3 hours setting up (including Lauri building a great snowman) and one hour taking things down and packing the truck. Shoot time for the client was about an hour. Our host let us stay and shoot other things which we did the next morning.