One Degree Of Separation – One Percent Better

Bull moose on early autumn tundra dripping water from antlers in velvet

Denali National Park, Alaska, bull moose on early autumn tundra dripping water from antlers in velvet

I’ll never forget listening to a lecture from the president of Tony Stone Worldwide in the early 1990’s saying that when a photo buyer has narrowed down their selection, the image that’s one percent better gets 100% of the sale. That has stuck with me for two decades now and has driven me to push myself to always make the best image I can. To do this, I’ve always prioritized creative technique. I’m less of a “rule” guy and more of a “technique” guy. We use technique to add visual impact and pizzazz to our images. Rules, such as the compositional rule of thirds, are important and have their place, which in my eyes is mainly to satisfy formatting needs for commercial use. Technique helps us attain impact and brings the image closer to the impact we saw in real life. Separation of your subject from the background is critical to a successful image.

Remember, life is in 3D and photography is in 2D. When we are photographing we see a 3-dimensional separation between our subject and the background. However, when we view the image on the screen, we lose that real life separation and instead we might see a bunch of chaotic and busy lines running together. There are several techniques to create separation of subjects and backgrounds creating depth in our images. This blog just addresses one technique of simply moving around and paying attention to intersecting lines until you get your image to where it needs to be.

In my workshops and private consults, I still see shooters focusing too much on exposure bracketing. I say forget exposure bracketing. Dial your exposure in and focus on other stuff like composition, point of view, different apertures, and even lens focal length if the situation allows. Doing these things will help you find a more impactful separation of subject from the background. Great separation leads to simplifying and simplifying strengthens the core message of the image and that’s what it’s all about.

This is where one of the powers of digital photography and its instant feedback are very helpful in determining when you got the shot. Here are a couple examples of how I used my LCD and bracketed my compositions to get the image to where it needed to be, creating a good separation of subject and background.

This was my first attempt shooting Jackson making this jump off Kachina Peak at Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico. The ridge off his left shoulder is a long way away in 3D, but in the image his green pack blends into the patterns of trees and snow on the distant ridge yielding a murky separation of my main subject. Fortunately, I saw this in the LCD after evaluating the shot. I knew what I had to do to make it better.

The ski shots are from a routine stock shoot with hired talent doing a mix of stunts and ski lifestyle scenes. When I first saw this jump, knowing what my talent was capable of, we set up a shot. On the image from the first take, there is clearly a separation in real life between the skiers left side and the distant hillside. When I reviewed the image on location I saw that his orange jacket stands out and the separation is OK but I knew I could do better. I wanted him above all the terrain and have his orange jacket pitched against the high altitude Southwest blue sky. Usually, a lower point of view solves the separation problem, so I skied downhill and got closer and lower. It worked. I verified on the LCD that I got the shot and it was sharp so we could move on to other shots. Mission accomplished.

On my second attempt, I simply skied downhill a little and planted my butt on the snow. I knew I wanted Jackson and his colorful orange parka and green pack to clearly stand out against the blue sky. Fortunately, I got the shot on the next take, verifying sharpness and exposure on the LCD. Time to move on to other ideas. You never see everything you need to on location no matter how hard you try. In retrospect, I should have gone to the other side of the jump, got low and shot him into the backlight. It would have been a totally different image. I think I passed because that would have put the lift in the background – something I didn’t want.

This image of spring bloom and cholla cacti near Abiqui, New Mexico along the Rio Chama lacks a center of interest. Even though I could clearly see separation between the cacti and the background cliffs, the image comes back with a bunch of busy and confusing intersecting lines. Perpendicular lines, as seen in the upper right between the cacti and the distant hills, is visually distracting to me.

On the desert landscape images I was intrigued by the cholla cacti in spring. On the first shot, you can see there is no separation between the cholla and the background. I changed my point of view by getting down low and pitching the cholla against the sky, thus achieving more separation. Though it’s a stronger shot, I lost the background in the process. Toward sunset I tried again but this time, to get separation I chose a higher point of view but carefully searched for a cactus that I could completely, or near completely, surround by colorful lower weeds and still show a sense of place with the distant sandstone cliffs. Mission accomplished simply by taking the time to work the composition.

To create separation and emphasize the cholla I chose a lower point of view and moved around so the foreground cactus didn’t intersect with the other cacti in the right middle ground or blend in with similar tones and textures. In the process, I lost the background cliffs and a “sense of place” but the image is stronger and you still get the idea of a desert bloom across.

I continued my search, as the light improved toward sunset, bracketing my compositions until I came away with something I was happy with. This time I chose to separate my cholla by completely surrounding it with the sea of lower weeds and still showcased the sandstone cliffs that add to the sense of place I really wanted.

Next time you are chimping don’t just pay attention to “blinkies”. Look critically at your composition and design and whether you’ve achieved clear separation of your subject from a complementary background.

Editing a 2-day Shoot from Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico.

Bosque del Apache NWR, New Mexico

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, near Soccoro, New Mexico. Photographer at sunset with incoming flock of snow geese

I can’t think of a better place to practice action photography on birds than the Bosque del Apache NWR during the winter season.  When we were there on Dec. 17 and 18, the snow geese count was 51K and the cranes were only 4400 – a little thin based on past experience in mid December.   If you go to shoot commercially (i.e. make stock sales of cranes, geese, and other waterfowl) it is pretty much low hanging fruit as supply of crane and geese images is astronomically greater than demand.  However, if you go there for fun (which I do now) it is just a blast to hang with the wintering birds and shoot like there is no tomorrow.

Bosque del Apache NWR, New Mexico

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, near Soccoro, New Mexico, snow geese and sandhill cranes crowded together at sunrise

To get great shots here you need to learn the daily patterns of the birds, shoot at sunrise and sunset, pay attention to your lighting and background, and employ a solid action photography technique.   Just like salmon fishing on the Kenai Peninsula (fish with the crowds ’cause that’s where the fish are!), you can’t go wrong following around the crowds of tripods and big lenses–if you can see them.   (And now to poke a little fun at my fellow photos.)   Apparently many shooters also believe that you need to have your lenses, tripod legs and body wrapped in camoflauge to get good shots here.  Fortunately I didn’t notice the birds flying any closer to decked out in camo dude with mondo lens than they did to Lauri and me.  Well, regardless of the gear or garb, in the 20 years I’ve been going there, virtually all of the shooters are cooperative and respectful of other photographers.  I wouldn’t call the photo experience here “combat” photography but more of a festive “social” photography scene.

Bosque del Apache NWR, New Mexico

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, near Soccoro, New Mexico. Shooting sunrise with a Canon 400/F4 DO from the Flight Deck

Most of my shots are with a Canon 1D Mark IV and a 400/F4 lens, sometimes with a 1.4X version 3, but mostly without.  For mass fly-offs, people shots and most video clips, I used the 5D Mark III with 24-70/f2.8.  We shot for two days – mostly 2 sunrise and 2 sunset sessions.   Shooting flying birds results in a high failure rate (at least for me it does) especially when trying to keep a focus sensor on a fast flying crane’s head and when you are shooting at 1/125 or 1/250 second to get some wing motion blur while maintaining a sharp head.  I could easily shoot everything at 1/1000 second but why play it safe?  Go for something more artistic!  And as usual, I seem to be the only photographer there that makes any serious attempt to include the human element while photographing the birds.

Screenshot of Lightroom showing total import from a 2 day shoot

Screenshot of Lightroom showing total import from a 2 day shoot

Back to the editing.  From those shoots I imported 4,045 images.  That included 102 motion clips so the still count was 3,943.   I do practice what I preach when I say I eliminate up to 90% without batting an eye.  My initial edit, which took about 2 hours after all were imported, reduced it down to 561 stills.  I have not edited the motion clips yet.   My normal workflow is to walk away from a shoot for a few days so the “newness” wears off and I can do a more objective second edit.  Due to time constraints, I didn’t have a few days.  So, the next day I sat down again for about an hour and the second edit put the still image count at 266.  After 2 relatively quick edits I am down to 6.7% of what I shot.

Screenshot of Lightroom showing second edit count

Screenshot of Lightroom showing second edit count of 266 still image selects

Here are a few shots from the shoot.

Bosque del Apache NWR, New Mexico

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, near Soccoro, New Mexico, sandhill crane taking off in early morning

Bosque del Apache NWR, New Mexico

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, near Soccoro, New Mexico, full frame image of sandhill crane in flight

Bosque del Apache NWR, New Mexico

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, near Soccoro, New Mexico, winter moonrise from the Flight Deck

 

 

Work the Golden Hour. Don’t Leave Good Light to Find Good Light.

My long time good friend, flyfishing guide and award winning author Pudge Kleinkauf of Women’s Flyfishing once said to me while grayling fishing in Lake Clark:  “Don’t leave fish to find fish.”  I have always carried that with me with my photography.

Earlier this month we were at Molas Pass in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.  The aspen colors at lower elevations were not that good  so I came upon Little Molas Lake earlier in the day and decided to shoot sunset here.  With recent snow on the peaks, light winds and a sky full of dense cirrus clouds, this seemed like the best place to shoot later that day.  Besides, I’m always a sucker for water and reflections in my landscape photography.

I returned about an hour before sunset and found 10 other photographers there with tripods and pro level gear.  Fortunately  no other shooter occupied the spot I scouted earlier in the day.  The sky was clear on the western horizon but the rest of the sky still contained dense cirrus clouds.  This scenario usually means colorful clouds.  Cirrus, regardless of the season, are  ice crystals and almost always produce pink to orange colors pre sunrise or post sunset.

Little Molas Lake with recent snow on surrounding peaks, San Juan Mountains, Colorado on October 2, 2013.

Little Molas Lake with recent snow on surrounding peaks, San Juan Mountains, Colorado on October 2, 2013.

About 10 minutes before sunset, about half of the others packed up to “go somewhere else.”  I’m thinking, really?  Go where?  Beautiful lake, reflections, and good color to come meant stay put and be patient.   Don’t leave good light to find good light!   I never leave when the sun hits the horizon.  Sure enough, 15 minutes after sunset the sky exploded with color.

Little Molas Lake with recent snow on surrounding peaks, San Juan Mountains, Colorado on October 2, 2013, minutes before the setting sun.

Little Molas Lake with recent snow on surrounding peaks, San Juan Mountains, Colorado on October 2, 2013, minutes before the setting sun.

Little Molas Lake with recent snow on surrounding peaks, San Juan Mountains, Colorado on October 2, 2013, 15 minutes after sunset with glowing dense cirrus and altocumulus clouds all comprised of ice crystals which produces the pink colors.

Little Molas Lake with recent snow on surrounding peaks, San Juan Mountains, Colorado on October 2, 2013, 15 minutes after sunset with glowing dense cirrus and altocumulus clouds all comprised of ice crystals which produces the pink colors.

These 4 shots are less than an hour apart.  The first shot was about 15 minutes before sunset.  Sunset was to camera right so a polarizer helped to punch up the colors.  The last shot is 30 minutes later and a little into the “blue hour”

Little Molas Lake with recent snow on surrounding peaks, San Juan Mountains, Colorado on October 2, 2013, into the Blue Hour about 25 minutes after sunset.

Little Molas Lake with recent snow on surrounding peaks, San Juan Mountains, Colorado on October 2, 2013, into the Blue Hour about 25 minutes after sunset.

Don’t Save the Best for Last!

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Photographer among lupines along Turnagain Arm, Chugach National Forest, Alaska.

Saving the best for last may be a good way to view a decadent desert but this philosophy has no place in photography!  In fact my philosophy is “Shoot the best first!”  Whenever possible, I first go after the shots the client wants most, that I want most or those that are the most challenging.  Sometimes they are one in the same.   Your “best” or “hardest” shot may not mean the most physically demanding for you or the talent.  In most cases, for me at least, it is the most creatively challenging.  It could simply be an elusive expression or gesture that conveys the ” in the moment” feel or “sense of place” I’m looking for.

I do this while I am fresh, the talent is fresh and I have time to craft the shot and work through communication, creative and technical challenges.

This obviously doesn’t work if you don’t have a shoot list, or you don’t know what your “best” or most challenging shot is going to be.   That’s OK.  I certainly have shoots in that category.   It may also seem counter intuitive if you are shooting in the evening, knowing the best light may be at or just after sunset.

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Hiker along the Winner Creek Trail near Alyeska Resort. I’ve always loved the lush green forests around Girdwood and the inviting boardwalk. For years I’ve tried to capture the essence of what it is like to be here. And, yes, you can get good images on an overcast day!

Even on a sunset shoot, I still try to shoot what I perceive as the best first.  If the light is good an hour or two before, I’m shootin’!  I can’t tell you how many times I thought a sunset would be “epic” only to have it turn out to be a dud.   If the light gets magical at sunset, then I can repeat my “A” shots in the sunset light with greater chance of success since I’ve already worked through the creative challenges earlier.

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Sunset over lupines and Chugach Mountains along Turnagain Arm at high tide. It took about 10 tries with 2 strobes to get the lighting close to what I wanted. When the sun hit the horizon we had our lighting formula dialied in.

 

If Things Aren’t Going Well, Keep Shooting!

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Family stand up paddling on the Great Salt Lake near Ogden, Utah.

My first stand up paddling shoot last summer seemed like it was circling the drain before it even started. I arrived at the Great Salt Lake about an hour before the talent (a family of 3) did. Forest fire smoke and thick high clouds delivered flat lifeless light and the mountain vistas that I was envisioning as a backdrop just were not going to happen. On top of that is was miserably hot like 100 degrees even with overcast skies! Understandably, my talent seemed sluggish at first to take to the boards. I began to question my judgment of doing a shoot with people who’ve never been on stand up paddle boards. The heat was getting to me. They were amazing athletes and after a half hour or so they began to take to the boards.

I still was not convinced at the time that I’d produced anything worthwhile and creative – mainly due to the normal stress that comes with every production on top of the heat stress. From past experience I new better than to edit in the field. Something inside my head that could not be articulated at that moment told me to just keep on shooting. And that’s what I did.

For about half an hour the air became very still and surreal and the reflections were amazing. The near sunset sky became slightly warmed and very pastel like. The talent was relaxed and had a rhythm going. All I had to do now was apply some skillful off-camera speed light and I had a fighting chance of getting something decent.

Another shot from this series is a finalist in a national contest, the Great Outdoors Photo Contest. I won’t know where I placed until the August issue of PDN comes out.

Even after 20 plus years of shooting I rarely know how successful a shoot will be until I look at the results on the computer. Sometimes it goes the other way. On another recent stand up paddle shoot I had great talent, great light at a location I was familiar with and I had half a dozen pre-visualized shots in my memory bank. I was just not on top of my game that morning. Shit happens. To all of us, pro and hobbyist alike.

Let the outcome be what it will be. Just remember – DON’T edit in the field and DON’T give up until the light is gone.

WEATHER, LIGHT and PHOTOGRAPHY Series: Photographing Snow

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Tent lit by stone on fresh snow lit by moonlight with aurora borealis display, Copper River Basin, Alaska

Intro:  Outdoor photographers all know that weather determines the quality, quantity, color, feel and mood of light, and light is the language of our art and craft.  Former weather forecaster Michael DeYoung shares his knowledge on weather, atmospheric phenomena and their effects on light and photography.

Photographing on and in Snow.  Snow and ice environments have obvious challenges like staying warm, keeping gear dry and out of the snow and getting firm footing under your tripod in deep snow.  However, in terms of quality and quantity of light nothing is better to me than a fresh snowy environment.  Snow is nature’s best reflector and the easiest environment to work with natural light in.  Even on flat terrain the snow becomes a light source beneath your subject and provides some fill regardless of whether your subject is a skier or moose.  Forest photography, especially in dark spruce or pines is virtually impossible on clear snowless days.  Cover the ground and better yet the trees with fresh white and magic happens.

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Matt sking through Twin Trees at Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico. A similar scenario without snow cover would not have been within dynamic range to make a good image.

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Cow moose feeding in the Teton River near Jackson, Wyoming. Light snowfall added some nice contrast to the dark fur of the moose

Even on cloudy days in a snow covered mountain environment I can shoot action at decent shutter speeds and aperture.  This shot of a skier jumping in overcast skies was shot at 1000 at f8 at ISO 200.  The same cloud cover at this same location on a snowless green/brown landscape might yield only a third of the exposure I got here.

Jimmy jumping off of Two-Bucks, Taos Ski Valley.  It was an overcast day but because of the fresh snow enough light gathered to give a 1/1000 shutter at F8

Jimmy jumping off of Two-Bucks, Taos Ski Valley. It was an overcast day but because of the fresh snow enough light gathered to give a 1/1000 shutter at F8

 

Meteorological Geek Speak on Snow.

Not much geek speak on the atmospheric dynamics of snow this blog.  It would create a far too complex and long blog.  Forecast models are better today than when I was actively forecasting at predicting snowfall amounts but there is still a fair degree of uncertainty particularly in the moisture starved west with highly variable elevations.  The ratio between snowfall and its liquid water equivalent is highly variable.  A quarter inch of water may only produce 2.5 inches (10:1 ratio) of wet snow at a location that is only marginally cold enough to support accumulating snow.  That same location after being sub-freezing for a long time and under different upper air dynamics can get 5 inches (20:1) of dry snow from the same quarter inch of precipitable water.

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View of Crested Butte and Gothic Mountain at dusk on a heavy snow winter. Cold interior and high elevation locations are known for dry powder snow. They often get 20:1 or higher snow to water equivalent ratios.

Snowfall is determined by available moisture, cold air and lift.  The mechanical lifting of air caused by fronts and upper level lows and short waves can be enhanced by orographic lift which is air forced to rise by terrain.  Many winter systems will bring in ocean moisture and transport it (advection) over inland regions where mountain ranges wring most of it out.  Some systems develop inland (like Alberta clippers) and don’t transport ocean moisture.  They work with moisture that is already in place over the region it is moving over which can be limited.   Interior moisture sources like the Great Lakes can produce local enhanced bands of “lake effect” snow.

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Stop sign buried in snow in downtown Crested Butte, Colorado.

The Great Lakes is not the only place where lake effect takes place.  The western slopes of the Wasatch Mountains east of Salt Lake City regularly get enhanced snowfalls from North Pacific fronts because of lake effect off the Great Salt Lake AND orographic lift from winds with a westerly component flowing off the lake and forced up by the terrain.  There is a reason why some of the best skiing is located here.

“Lake effect” is not limited to lakes.  The coastal mountains of Alaska receive copious amounts of ocean moisture enhanced by strong orographic lift that overruns the high elevation and high latitude cold air that clings to these mountains.  This is why the coastal mountains from Prince William Sound to Glacier Bay in the panhandle became most glaciated mountains on earth in modern geological time.

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Winter sunset over Knik Arm, Anchorage, Alaska

 

Snow Photography Tips.

Exposure:   Snow, especially fresh snow, is the easiest background to expose for.  I was always perplexed in the film days over how many photographers struggled with exposures in snow and consistently came out with dark snow images.  My exposure for snow is simple:  I usually meter the brightest snow and open up 1 and 2/3 stops.  If you are shooting RAW you can tweak your exposures during processing and adjust how much you open up based on your taste and camera’s bias.  Digital cameras today are better at matrix metering but they can still underexpose snow scenes.  In aperture priority mode, I usually set my exposure compensation to +2/3 to +1 stop.  Done.  Shoot.

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Amber beginning her hike up Highline Ridge at Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico.

Backlight:   Snowy landscapes make it fun and possible to shoot into the light even making the sun part of your composition.  I always look for a sloped hill or mountainside opposite of the sun.  Then I can shoot into the light and have decent fill without resorting to strobes.  On this action ski shot at Taos I didn’t have a nearby hill for decent fill and the sunlight was basically parallel to the slope of the Mainstreet off of Kachina Peak.  So there was another reason, other than it looking cool for having my skier kick up some snow when she got close to me.  I knew it would create a reflector bringing additional fill light to hit her face.  (This technique also works with paddlers in foaming whitewater.)

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Andrea skiing off of Kachina Peak, Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico. Having her kick up snow created fill light to add detail to her face.

Snowshoers at sunset, Turnagain Pass, Alaska.  Snow takes on the color of what is above it.  Purple/pink alpenglow of the sky reflects in the shadowed snow and contrasts the warmly lit snow of the setting sun

Snowshoers at sunset, Turnagain Pass, Alaska. Snow takes on the color of what is above it. Purple/pink alpenglow of the sky reflects in the shadowed snow and contrasts the warmly lit snow of the setting sun

 

While it is Snowing:  Billions of snowflakes in the air below cloud cover means maximum scattering and diffusion of light.  While this is not good for panoramic landscapes, this softbox effect, similar to fog, is great for portraits.

RUNNER IN EXTEME COLD, IDAHO

Portrait of runner with frosted face on a snowy morning in Idaho.

When the snow is flying, break out the telephoto.  Long focal length compression really enhances falling snow visually.  Better yet, look for a dark background like dark trees or even water.  I almost NEVER use flash when snow is falling because you risk having blown out snowflakes in front of your subject.

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Lauri hiking up the South Kaibab Trail in December during a snowshower

Using Speedlights on Snow.    Sometimes, action and portraits on the snow will benefit from the use of a speedlight.   The light could be flat, the sun below the horizon or your setting lacks a big bank of snow opposite of the natural light source to use as fill.  The key to using strobes in the snow is to absolutely keep stray light off the snow and focused on your subject.  Blown out foreground snow is very distracting, amateurish and usually indicates direct on camera flash use – a big no-no for snow.  I use grids and snoots (my favorite is the Spinlight 360 system) to control and focus the light on my subject and keep it off the snow.  In most instances, it takes a little trial and error and tweaking to get your light right when dealing with snow especially when using more than one off camera strobe.

Dog musher and sled dogs at sunset.  2 speedlights with warming gels and shoots were used to separate the dogs and musher from the shadowed snow, near Willow Alaska

Dog musher and sled dogs at sunset. 2 speedlights with warming gels and shoots were used to separate the dogs and musher from the shadowed snow, near Willow Alaska

 

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Brandon out for a snowshoe/jog near Park City, Utah. Strobe was used to add detail to the subject

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Mono Lake and the Eastern Sierra on a winter dawn. A strobe with a warm gel was used to light the foreground rock and aimed to match the direction of the first light hitting the peaks

Snow, Color and Depth.  Snow, like liquid water, can take on the color cast of what is above it.  Use this to your advantage.   Colorful skies at sunrise and sunsets can create beautiful reflective pastel colors on the snow.   The warm colors of this Utah sunset reflected both in the snowy slope and in the backlit flying snow behind the snowshoer.

A snowshoer jumps at sunset up on Cedar Mountain, southern Utah

A snowshoer jumps at sunset up on Cedar Mountain, southern Utah

Shadowed snow tends to go really blue and you can use this to your advantage by using a warmed strobe or a warmed reflector to make your subject really pop from the background as seen in this wolf portrait and of the musher image in the speed light section.

wolf portrait in winter

Portrait of a wolf in winter – Montana.

Environments with partial snow cover can also enhance a sense of depth and distance.

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Snow covered ice floes at sunset, Turnagain Arm, Alaska

 

WEATHER, LIGHT and PHOTOGRAPHY Series: Photographing Fog

Intro:  Outdoor photographers all know that weather determines the quality, quantity, color, feel and mood of light, and light is the language of our art and craft.  Former weather forecaster Michael DeYoung shares his knowledge on weather, atmospheric phenomena and their effects on light and photography.

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Dissipating fog over Alaganik Slough on the Copper River Delta near Cordova, Alaska. Fair weather altocumulus clouds above the Chugach Mountains.

Photographing Fog.  Don’t get bummed out if you wake up to dense fog with cold flat light.  If no precipitation is falling chances are that magic light and golden photo ops are close by.  The keywords with fog are:  live on the edge and get high.  (Hopefully, this last phrase will make sense after reading this blog.)  There are two parts to this blog.  The first is the long-winded Geek Speak on fog.  The second part is tips and advice for photographing fog.

Swans in fog, Anchorage, Alaska

Trumpeter swans on Six-Mile Lake with morning radiation fog, Anchorage, Alaska

Meteorological Geek Speak on Fog.   Fog is a ground based cloud and along with its sister cloud, stratus, which is off the ground but very low, is ALWAYS trapped below a temperature inversion.   Fog can and does form during and after widespread precipitation events with precipitation falling from thicker clouds above such as nimbostratus.  But many times fog forms as a very shallow layer under clear skies.  It is under these conditions that fog can create great light and photo ops.  Fog and stratus not associated with precipitation are stable atmosphere clouds that form under high pressure.  Pacific high pressure during winter is the main culprit for fog in western North America.  Sometimes fog can be really thick vertically especially when there is an “upslope” wind flow into a mountain range.  In fact when fog/stratus reaches about 2000 feet in depth it produces drizzle, freezing drizzle or snow grains.

stratus clouds and clearing storm, Trail Lakes, Alaska

Stratus clouds cling to the shores of Upper Trail Lakes on the Kenai Peninsula. These clouds were the result of widespread and prolonged rain. Image made in a clearing storm scenario.

There are 3 types of fog: radiation, advection and ice fog.  Radiation fog is the most common type and occurs everywhere even in deserts.   Radiation fog forms when the sky is mostly clear but a shallow layer of air at the surface is very moist.  Cooling at night brings the air to close to saturation (close to the dewpoint temperature) and traps the shallow moisture under a temperature inversion.  A very light wind  (2-5mph) at or just above the surface mixes it up and presto, fog forms.  Let’s say it rained all day, the ground is soaked, and skies clear toward sunset with very light winds.  This is a good prescription for morning radiation fog.  In winter, radiation fog gets trapped in many western valleys for weeks.

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View of Salmon River and Sawtooth Mountains near Stanley, Idaho. Stratus clouds frame sunlit peaks

Our coastal friends often get advection fog.  This is when fog over the water is drawn inland.  When you breathe on a cold window and it “fogs” up you are essentially creating advection fog.  This same mechanism happens on a large scale, when moist, relatively warm ocean air moves over a colder landmass. In the Cook Inlet region of Alaska, low tides exposes massive amounts of super cooled moisture in mudflats which is the principle cause of winter fog in Anchorage.  On the North Slope, open leads of ocean water called polynyas are the source of dense fog and even precipitation.

During summer air simply flowing from warmer water to colder waters can cause advection fog and this is a common occurrence off the west and northern coasts.   Mountainous coastal areas are subject to a double whammy of advection and radiation fogs that are often enhanced by orographic lift, where low level winds flow into higher terrain where air is forced to rise and condense.

When fog forms in winter at well below freezing temperatures it is referred to as freezing fog.  This is a natural phenomenon and is often mistaken for ice fog.  Water droplets can be “super-cooled” meaning they are liquid but below 32 degrees.  When moisture in the fog/stratus contacts very cold surfaces (roads, trees, anything) it will cause icing.  This causes the beautiful white cloaked forests after a fog event.

Frozen birch trees at sunset

Birch trees cloaked in rime ice and snow glow light pink near sunset, Anchorage, Alaska

True ice fog is a purely man made phenomena.  It forms in arctic air at -22F or colder.  Air at those temperatures can hold almost no moisture, so very little can saturate an airmass.  In winter in interior valleys of mainland Alaska and northern Canada, under extreme inversions, ice fog forms in villages and settlements.  The minute amount of moisture that comes from exhaust from internal combustion engines and building furnaces is enough to create fog at extreme temperatures, say like -40 and colder.  Ice fog is often less than 100 vertically where you can see stars above but can restrict horizontal visibility to almost zero!

 

Tips and Advice for Photographing Fog.   No need to get bummed out if you wake up to a thick fog and cold flat light.  You now know that chances are you can get high or to the edge where the light can be magical.  Or it can change right were you are.  Fog usually dissipates from the edges inward so start your photos near the edge if possible.  Fog often lifts into stratus and the tops can become a ragged edge.   The edges of the sun or moon are sharp and clearly discernible when seen through fog/stratus.   If the sun/moon edges are diffused or hidden, then that indicates there are higher clouds above the fog/stratus layer.  Any yes, there are times when none of this works and the whole day is shroud in thick cold fog.  Being on the edge or top of fog with the sun above means the brightest fog possible and this is where the light is absolutely lovely.  Like snow, fog is bright, relative to terrestrial subjects even if it looks grey to the eye.  This means it can fool meters into rendering underexposure.  I mainly meter manually but if you prefer aperture priority go with about +2/3 exposure comp.  Fog both diffuses and scatters light making a beautiful wrapping soft light on close-up subjects.  I rarely use a filter or strobe in the fog.  The exception would be if I’m above it and shooting backlit, I might use a grad ND (neutral density).

chairlift-in-fog-taos

Portrait of skiers on Taos Ski Valley chairlift. Image made near the top of a fog bank.

photographer-skiers-chairlift-taos

Michael DeYoung photographing skiers on Chair 4 at Taos Ski Valley. As we ascended above the fog into the sun, lighting became much harsher and unflattering than the shot in the fog below.

Here’s what I like to go after in fog.

Forest:  No better time for inside the forest photography than during a fog.  It helps exaggerate distances between near and far with close up subjects sharp and distant subjects fading into the mist.  The best scenario is when the sun shines through trees with lingering fog creating magical shafts of light in an alluvial fan pattern-pure magic.  Anyone who has been to the coastal redwood forests, or seen images from there, can attest to this.

Sun rays and fog, Kodiak Island

The last of marine fog scatters the morning sun through a Sitka spruce tree on Kodiak Island, Alaska

Moose in foggy forest, Alaska

Young moose in birch forest on a foggy autumn morning, Anchorage, Alaska

Anything macro:  great saturated colors and even tones and contrast.

Portraits:  No better natural beauty light than a bright fog and it can produce a better bokeh effect than any lens.

Teen skiers portrait, Taos

Teen girls portrait in the fog at Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico

Landscapes with fog in the foreground:  This is when you are in the clear with a fog bank or stratus clouds all around you in the distance:  I love fog banks where mountain tops or tree tops rise above.  I think this effect makes mountains look taller.  Better yet if you can shoot it in backlight.  There have been several times when a fog bank has hidden buildings and power lines creating unique opportunities.   Fog also can create a horizonless landscape which is pretty ethereal.

Fog bank, Portage Valley, Alaska

Turnagain Arm near Portage Valley in spring with fog bank, Alaska

fogbank-lower-stanley-salmon-river

Radiational fog obscures the Salmon River and the town of Stanley below sunlit peaks of the Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho

Being above it all:  My very favorite place to be is at the edge of the fog assuming it is sunny above.  Obviously you have to live in an area that has some vertical relief if you want to get above it. One of my favorite images took place while hiking above the fog.  Near the end of an 8-day Kongakut River trip in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Lauri and I hiked above fog advancing south off the Arctic Coastal Plain.  We spent midnight at the edge of the foothills of the North Slope of the Brooks Range watching fog dance in and out of ridges and valleys as the warm midnight sun never set.

hiker-midnight-sun-arctic-alaska

Hiker standing above Arctic Ocean fog above Kongakut River near Caribou Pass, Arctic National Wildlife Reguge, Alaska. Image about 1am showing the midnight sun

Most often for efficiency, I drive above it. On occasion, a ski resort chair lift has carried me above the fog.  I really love low angle sun skimming across tops of fog.  Shooting mountains with fog in valleys below can hide otherwise distracting elements and creates a heightened sense of well, height.  Being at or above the fog’s edge at sunrise or sunset – well it doesn’t get much better.

morning-fog-stanley-idaho

Radiational fog and stratus in early morning in the Upper Salmon River valley near Stanley, Idaho.

Favorite Locations Revisited: Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

Photographing sunset on High Dune, Geat Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

Photographing sunset on High Dune in November, Geat Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

Introduction to Favorite Locations.

“If it is worth shooting once, it is worth shooting multiple times.”  I’ve abided by this principle since I started photography 25 years ago and it is something I stress in my workshops.   I shake my head in disbelief when I see photographers shooting out the window of a moving car!  Years ago a fellow paddler who did a 12 day raft trip down the Grand Canyon said that she’d “seen it” and there was no need to go back.   I’ve done multiple trips there ranging 7-day hikes to a 29 day river trip and the Grand NEVER grows old. The “been there, shot that” attitude is a creativity killer!

Like most photographers there are many places I’ll only go to once and come back with decent shots.  That will continue.  But, revisiting places multiple times is more rewarding when I learn the light and discover new compositions.  Ultimately this leads to better and more creative images.  I think photographers should have “binders full of locations” to revisit. These places don’t always have to be the most iconic or most popular.  Seek out places perhaps close to home, where compelling compositions are not immediately obvious but with time and study, great images emerge.

Runner on Great Sand Dunes, Colorado

Fitness athlete and competitor training on sand dunes, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

Digital photography makes this more exciting to do.  It’s rewarding to go back to locations I shot years ago on film or with my original 1Ds and re-shoot stuff with twice as many pixels, with new updated or new lenses, and with more capable and portable lighting equipment.   Besides the updated gear, going back with more knowledge and creativity is icing on the cake.  Never get complacent with your photography.

FAVORITE PLACES REVISITED:  Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado.

 

Running down sand dunes, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

Hiker unning down High Dune at sunset in November
, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

The Sand Dunes are real easy to get to, like amazingly easy to cruise to on wide open, mostly straight, flat highway 160 in the San Luis Valley of Southern Colorado.   I love the imposing views of the Sangre de Cristo as you get ever closer to the park.  There are great vistas and panoramic image possibilities of the dunes and the mountains in the background near the park boundary several miles south of the entrance booth.

You gotta get ON the dunes to really experience the feel and dynamic light that goes on here.  Climb up to High Dune which is about 45 minutes from the parking lot carrying gear, and a 650’ climb.   Great ops abound from near the top and beyond in virtually all directions with the ever changing play of light and shadow on the dunes.

hikers-on-great-sand-dunes-colorado

Hikers near High Dune, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado and Sangre de Cristo Mountains

I consider the dunes to be a “seasonless” place visually.  This is a good thing.  Except for snow, the dunes are similar color year round.  There is a splash of summer and fall color along Medano Creek.  I like coming here in the early winter when fall color is gone and winter photography in the Rockies isn’t really optimal yet.

As expected, most visitors go here in summer and it can get crowded even into fall.  That’s why I prefer to go in winter. Yes, the place is COLD.  After all, you are at about 8400’ and you can get blizzards into May.  There are several reasons why I feel winter is better.  First, the crowds are gone, meaning less tracks.  The dunes are firmer to walk on, especially if there has been recent moisture that freezes in the sand.  Mostly, the light is better since it is lower in the southern sky.  Just bring layers and keep your gear protected from the sand.

If you are lucky enough to be there after a fresh snow count your blessings.  I bring a headlamp because I’m usually getting back near dark but rarely use it.  Even 20 minutes after sunset to catch some color in the clouds if I’m lucky enough, it is fun to blast straight down the dunes at a run.  I usually make it back to the parking lot before I need to rely on my headlamp to see.

hiker with headlamp at dusk on Great Sand Dunes

 

 

 

Stay Out A Little Longer And Break Out The Strobe

Hispanic family mountain biking on West Rim trail along Rio Grande Gorge in Taos, New Mexico

Mountain biking along West Rim Trail, Rio Grande Gorge near Taos, New Mexico.

On a recent mountain biking shoot we stopped at one of my favorite overlooks of the Rio Grande Gorge.  The sun was below a nearby ridge so all my foreground and most of the canyon was in deep shadow.  The low angle sun about 10 minutes from sunset was basking the west slopes of the mountains and the upper part of the opposite rim.

Just the way I wanted it.  Been here before and anticipated the lighting scenario.  No problem.  Break out the strobe, attach an orange gel and use my mobile light stand (Lauri) to position the light at about the same angle the sun was hitting the background.

First shot is OK but too much light on the rock below the cyclists.  Thanks to digital we can see that now on the spot.  It’s usually a good idea anyway to shoot on the edge of your light source feathering the light up.  The second shot matches more of the light on the opposite side of the canyon and was closer to what I wanted.

Hispanic family (father and his two daughters) with mountain bikes overlooking Rio Grande Gorge along West Rim Trail in Taos, New Mexico

Family mountain biking post ride scene overlooking the Rio Grande from the West Rim Trail. Lighting on subjects from Canon 580EX2’s with warming gels and fired off camera.

Hispanic family with mountain bikes overlooking Rio Grande Gorge along West Rim Trail in Taos, New Mexico

Same lighting in this image as the one above. Flagging the flash and blocking light from spilling on the rocks in front of the cyclists came closer to emulating the late sunlight on the other side of the canyon though not as bright. In retrospect I could have gone stronger with the orange gel to a full cut CTO. I would have preferred to get a little closer to the subjects with the strobe but couldn’t because of terrain and getting the speedlite showing up in the frame. There is a limit to a speedlite’s power with a gel and grid attached. Seems like I usually shoot on the margins of the speedlite’s capability which is a good exercise.

I’ve heard too many times from shooters that “no clouds, no color in the sky” so they pack it up after the sun goes down.  I say stay a little longer and play with your strobes.  Warmly lit subject against a cool background is a tried and true formula.

The sisters on their bikes portrait was simple to do.  No color in the sky?  No problem.  A little underexposure and a cool shift in white balance fixes that.  For the girls,  one light for each girl softened with a Gary Fong Lightsphere and a half cut CTO to compensate for the cool white balance creates a pleasing light on their faces.  Here’s a tip to remember:  A big dark background will fool your flash into putting out too much light.  So I dialed my flash exposure down -1 stop.  The opposite is true for bright backgrounds.  Say you shooting into the sun and you want to light your small subject who is not lit by the sun.  You will need to pump out more light than your flash thinks it will.

Portrait of Hispanic sisters mountain biking on West Rim trail along Rio Grande Gorge in Taos, New Mexico

Sisters on mountain bikes on the West Rim Trail near Taos, New Mexico. Usually on clear days there is little color in the dawn or dusk sky. So I make it go bluer with a bit of underexposure and white balance shift toward tungsten. They were lit with 2 off camera 580 EX 2’s softened with Gary Fong Lightspheres. All this lighting gear is portable in a pack while hiking or riding. This was a great way to end an afternoon/evening shoot.

Handy Cold Weather Photography Tips

New Mexico and Alaska Adventure, Landscape, Lifestyle photographer

Michael DeYoung shooting with liner gloves and fleece windbloc fingerless gloves

I love winter light, especially fresh snow clinging to trees on a crisp winter morning! The hardest thing about winter shooting for me has always been keeping my hands warm while operating the camera system, including the tripod. Even with the big pro bodies I just don’t have the dexterity to operate the camera/lens the way I prefer with big warm gloves. So over the many years of winter sports and landscape photography in Alaska, the Yukon and the Rockies, I’ve developed a 3 glove system that works well and will keep your hands functioning for hours in moderate cold – say single digit and teen temperatures. Hopefully, these tips come in handy.

First, not to sound like I’m preaching, you must keep your head and neck warm. This is where you lose a majority of your body heat. Keeping your head and neck covered is the first step to minimizing cold fingers. When your body is trying to keep its core warm it starts by cutting off warm blood flow to your extremities.

Liners. I’m always searching for the perfect liner glove. My current favorite is the Atlas 370 which has an amazing grip on the palm and fingers. Sizing is critical. Too tight and your fingers will get cold quickly. Too big and you don’t get maximum dexterity.

Fleece Fingerless Gloves. Over the liners go a high quality Windstopper™ fleece fingerless gloves. Glacier Gloves are good. I currently use Simms that cover everything except my finger tips. They easily slide over the liner gloves. I got both of these at a flyfishing store. Steelhead anglers know all about needing dexterity in typical wet cold steelhead fishing weather. Ever try tying a blood knot with cold fingers?

New Mexico and Alaska Adventure, Landscape, Lifestyle photographer

Atlas 370 liner glove has a great synthetic palm grip that grips great on focus rings and CF tripods

A Little Chemical Help. Here’s a trick that helps most people. Place a chemical hand warmer in your palm, between the liner and the fleece windblock glove. This will help warm the blood and you can close your hand around the warmer to warm your finger tips. Remember, these things only work when they are enclosed in something.

Backcountry Christmas Holiday lit tent in Wyoming

Winter holiday scene in Wyoming. Temps were near 10F. Glove system worked well in setting up tent, props and working the camera. This image is a Palm Press Holiday Card available at REI

Big Mittens. For ski photography or traveling on foot in between locations in really cold weather, the first two gloves easily slide into a heavy mitten, the kind you can get from REI. Most high end expedition mittens will have a retainer cord. And most high end parkas will have a small d-ring about 6 inches up the sleeve. So on a ski shoot, I’m skiing to my next location keeping my hands toasty in the mittens. When I’m ready to grab the camera and shoot, I just slide off the mittens as they just dangle from my parka. With my liners and fingerless gloves, I’m ready to rock and roll.

Michael DeYoung is an adventure lifestyle photographer based out of the ski town of Taos, New Mexico and Anchorage, Alaska

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

Adventure Photography While Backpacking – Grand Canyon Style

Recently I wrote a post about bare bones photo outfits for adventure photography. Since I just completed another multi-day backpack adventure in the Grand Canyon, I thought I would expand upon backpacking photography gear and share some images from the trip.

THE HIKE was 5 days starting from Lipan Point, down the Tanner Trail, following the Escalante Route downriver to Hance Rapids, then up the Tonto/Grandview Trail to Grandview Point. There were three of us, myself, Lauri – my super tough wife, assistant, and ultimate companion – and long time good friend John from Seattle. This is a backcountry route on unmaintained and unmarked trails with steep and exposed sections. We had 2 very nice camps along the river and two nice dry camps on the Tonto platform.

self portrait of photography team at backpacking camp on the western Tonto Trail in the Grand Canyon

self portrait at camp on the western Tonto Trail with signature scratched legs

 

BACKPACKING PHOTOGRAPHY is always the most challenging with respect to what gear to take without breaking your back but still having enough gear to produce professional results. I’ve made some reasonably good stock sales from prior Grand Canyon backpack trips so I always take professional gear with me. Lauri and I are moderate ultra-lighters with our regular backpack gear. This allows me to carry a capable camera load without killing my back so long as I train for the trip – which I did this time.

 

Man photographing sunset on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon

Photographing sunset on the South Rim, Grand Canyon

 

Man photographing on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon

Michael DeYoung photographing on the South Rim, Grand Canyon

 

ULTRA LIGHT SUPPORT. I pack the lightest weight Gitzo carbon fiber tripod (1.6lbs) the Mountaineer 0. On top is a Really Right Stuff B-25 head (7oz.) with quick release lever. This is their smallest head and the best head I’ve ever used for lightweight applications. At a little over 2 lbs. the tripod and ball head easily rides on the side of my pack similar to where you would place tent poles carried externally. The tripod allowed me to capture some nice moonlit camp scenes and low light landscapes which you will see below. It easily held a pro body with wide angle zoom in moderate winds. The key is to use a remote release to eliminate any possible shutter shake.

Man backpacking on the Tanner Trail on the south rim of the Grand Canyon with Think Tank Digital holster pack

On the Tanner Trail with Think Tank Digital Holster pack on my chest

 

WHAT’S IN THE BAG? For camera gear, I limit myself to one body and lens. Being a Grand Canyon veteran, I find the best lens is the 17-40 on a full frame body. I was planning on taking the Canon 50D but at the last minute took my Canon 1Ds Mark III. The rest of my pack was not that heavy so I opted to carry the extra 1.5 lbs for the full frame, 21 mega-pixel body. In the end I’m glad I did. The canyon is a brutal environment and dealt out a potentially damaging dose of wind, dust, sand, and river spray. The 1D series are built like tanks with weather sealed buttons and the 1Ds, III scoffed at the elements. Lesser bodies may have failed. In addition to the body and lens, I took one strobe – a 580EXII with off camera cord, some gels, and a Honl 1/8 grid. Accessories included a polarizer and a Singh_Ray 3 stop hard step graduated ND filter, extra batteries, a remote release and four 8gb and 16gb compact flash cards.

Landscape scenic image of the Colorado River just above Tanner Rapids in the Grand Canyon

Scenic along the Colorado River just above Tanner Rapids

THE BAG ITSELF. The body and lens, flash, filters, compact flash cards in a tethered Think Tank card wallet, and lens cloth all fit in a Think Tank Digital Holster 50. I carried this bag on my chest, attached to the shoulder straps and hip belt with mini caribiners. In the photo it looks awkward and large but is actually quite comfortable and provides some welcome counterbalance with all the weight on my back. For day shooting, I could quickly pull out the camera and strobe for hiking shots. The small Think Tank Lightning Fast flash bag attached to the side of my pack held the lightweight accessories and batteries that I couldn’t fit in the chest holster bag. There are similar bags on the market designed to be used with backpacks such as the Clik adventure bags. From what I’ve seen they have a better designed system for attaching a chest holster to your backpack. And they offer other than black bags – much better for hot desert conditions. But I invested in the Think Tank before Clik adventure packs were on the market.

THE WHOLE KIT AND KABUDLE. My entire Grand Canyon backpacking photography ensemble was 7.5 lbs. If we weren’t seasoned backpackers and good at getting the rest of the load down to a reasonable weight, 7.5 lbs would seem cumbersome.

 

Image of a couple backpackers resting along Colorado River just above Tanner Rapids in the Grand Canyon

Backpackers Lauri and John resting in shade as rafts approach Tanner Rapids

 

CAN I GET THE WEIGHT DOWN EVEN MORE? If money were no object, I would opt for a Canon 5D, Mark II vs. the heavier 1Ds Mark III as the best Canon full frame pro body for backpacking. Then again if money were no object I would have hired a college student with a strong back in desperate need of cash to schlep my camera gear for me. Next trip. I wouldn’t even think of leaving a strobe and accessories behind even though that would shave another pound. There are so many situations where carefully crafted artificial light was useful for hiking and camping lifestyle photography. The strobe and the ability to shape and warm the light it produces makes or breaks the difference between amateur and professional results.

Mature woman prepares backpacker breakfast of oatmeal at backpacking camp along the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon

Lauri prepares backpacker breakfast of oatmeal and blueberries at backpacking camp along the Colorado River.

Mature male primes a backpacker stove at camp along the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon

John priming a MSR Whisperlite backpack stove at sunrise along the Colorado River

 

I could scrap the tripod but that would mean no night time or low light landscapes with lots of depth of field images. I’m not ready to make that sacrifice yet. As I look at the results from the trip, it makes all the back and joint pain of carrying my photo gear worthwhile.

 

Mature couple hiking along the Escalante Route above Cardenas Creek in the cooler, early evening hours Grand Canyon National Park

Lauri and John hiking in cooler evening hours along the Escalante Route, hiking above Cardenas Creek.

 

Moonlit tent and camp along the Escalante Route of the Grand Canyon above Unkar Rapids on the Colorado River

Moonlit camp above Unkar Rapids along the Escalante Route. Lauri is lighting the tent with the 580EX II with a green gel. The tent is an MSR Hubba Hubba without the rainfly for star/moon gazing

 

Close up portrait of woman hiking boots overlooking Colorado River along the Grand Canyon Escalante Route

close up of hiking boots along the Escalante Route

Woman backpacker writing in her journal at Hance Rapids on the Colorado River, Grand Canyon

Marie, another backpacker we met on the trail, writing in her journal in the morning sun at Hance Rapids.

Group of river rafters from Alaska scouting Hance Rapids along the Colorado River, Grand Canyon National Park

A group of rafters from Alaska, one of whom I knew from my Alaska days and involvement with the Knik Canoers and Kayakers, stopped to scout Hance Rapids.

River rafters run Hance Rapids on the Colorado River, Grand Canyon National Park

Rafters running Hance Rapids, entering on river left. With only a 40mm focal length, this is as close as I could get without swimming. This is one of the limitations of only having one lens, a wide angle zoom

Mature male backpacker descending steep rockslide to get around Popago Creek on the Escalante Route of the Grand Canyon

John descending a steep rockslide to get around Popago Creek just a half mile upstream from Hance Rapids

Mature male backpacker stargazing in his backpacking bivy sack above Hance Creek on the Tonto Trail, Grand Canyon National Park

John stargazing in his bivy sack at a very nice dry camp on the Tonto about a mile above Hance Creek. This type of shot is what makes hauling a tripod and remote trigger that lets me do long exposures worthwhile. This is a 4 minute exposure with the foreground lit with a LED headlamp. This was our last and fourth night on the trail.

Technical Canyon Hike in Zion National Park’s “The Subway”

by New Mexico adventure photographer Michael DeYoung

I’m also always searching for the ultimate lightweight adventure photographer outfit that gets me into hard to reach places without sacrificing professional results. I haven’t found it yet but I’ll keep trying. An all day hike in Zion National Park’s Subway from the top down put my “bare bones” outfit to the test.

The top-down Subway trip is a 9 mile hike that involves cross country route finding, steep down climbing, rappelling, jewel numbing swims, a brutal nearly continuously wet 6 mile hike out, ending with a punishing 1000 foot ascent to the bottom trail head. In addition to photo gear we packed a wetsuit, canyoneering shoes, harness, rope and rappelling hardware, and all the normal day hiking gear of extra dry clothes, food, water, etc. Though we have most of our own gear, you can get all the top quality gear you need for this hike, including the wetsuits, shoes, rappelling gear, canyoneering pack, good advice, and directions – and even a shuttle – from Zion Adventure Company in Springdale.

Young couple play around on the slickrock while heading toward the entrance to the Subway hike decent, Zion National Park

Youthful energy early in the day. Hiking cross country on slickrock heading toward the entrance of the Subway

Because this was a shoot and I took two hikers that had never done this before, the day took 13 hours. In mid-October that meant all available daylight with a crack of dawn departure starting at 8000 feet at a chilly 28 degrees.

 

The lightest one body and lens outfit I have is a Canon 50D with the 10-22 EF-S. Remember that not sacrificing quality thing? The quality of this outfit just doesn’t hold a candle to the pro full-frame bodies and L lenses. So, it stays home.

The best body for this shoot would have been a 5D Mark II. Problem is I don’t have a 5D Mark II so I hauled the much heavier and trusty 1Ds Mark III. Canyon shooting is wide angle country so a full frame body is the only option for me. Canyons are a brutal environment for cameras too. There’s a constant threat of getting wet, exposed to windblown sand, and falling and banging around. This may not sound like the smartest place to bring a $6,000 camera. But the 1Ds is made for putting up with this kind of punishment. In retrospect, I’m glad I brought it.

Young couple check the topo map at the beginning of the Subway hike ,Zion National Park

Above the entrance to the Subway from the top. Checking the map for our position. Following visual clues from the guidebook instructions proved to be more useful than the map and GPS for route finding. The “old fashion” way worked better!

I went with only one lens my 17-40 mm and 2 580EX II flashes. The strobes were outfitted with the indispensable and lightweight Radio Poppers which let me place a light with wireless TTL almost anywhere I want. Completing the strobe accessories were a Honl 1/8” grid and some warming gels. Instead of a second lens, I would rather have the lighting capability of the 2 strobes. Unfortunately, one of the strobes went down early in the day so I only had one light that I could fire wirelessly from the Canon ST-E2 transmitter.

Young couple hike around deep pool of cold water in the Subway hike, Zion National Park

After downclimbing into the canyon this was our last pool we were able to skirt around before donning wetsuits and canyoneering shoes.

For support I brought my Gitzo backpack carbon fiber tripod with the Really Right Stuff B-25 ball head. The whole thing is 2.3 pounds. I love that little ball head and it’s amazing how well it holds the 1Ds with 17-40 attached. I wouldn’t use it for general purpose shooting but in tight spots where weight and size is an issue, this tripod and head combo get the job done. All the gear gets packed in a Watershed dry bag. Because we had to keep all the gear waterproof for the 2 mile technical section, every time I stopped to shoot it was 10-15 minutes just unpacking and repacking gear.

Image of male hiker holding day pack over his head while crossing a waist deep pool of cold water in the Subway hike, Zion National Park

Brigham wades an icy pool without a wetsuit.

It’s good that you easily forget about sore backs and aging aching joints after a pizza and a good brew. Already hit the reset button in my brain. I’ll be back for another punishing Subway adventure photography hike in a heartbeat.

Young couple swimming through deep pool in the Subway hike, Zion National Park, canyoneering

Brigham and Madison swimming an over the head deep pool in the upper Subway.

Female canyoneer rappelling in the uppoer portion of the Subway, Zion National Park

Madison rappelling in the upper Subway. The drops are short and easy but this one put us into a chest deep pool.

Young couple hold their backpacks over their heads while walking through deep pool in their wetsuits in the Subway, Zion National Park

Wading in wetsuits in the upper Subway.

Young couple walk through shallow water in one of Zion National Park's Subway hike pools

The Subway gets deeper and more interesting as you descend past the second rappel.

Male wading in a narrow pool in Zion National Park's Subway hike

Brigham wading in a narrow pool in the Subway.

Young couple of hikers hiking in Zion National Park's Subway

Brigham and Madison standing at the entrance of the Subway after changing into dry clothes. You can reach as far as this point from a round trip hike from the bottom up.

What is The Best Way To Carry 10 Essential Photo Accessories?

On every shoot, whether it is landscapes for a personal project or a high pressure adventure assignment, there is a group of small “essential photo accessories” that you need to have regardless of what bodies and lenses you’re using. I think the best “carrying case” for my “essential accessories” is a vest. But I never liked photo vests. They seemed best designed for press core and stadium-arena sport shooters and not for outdoor adventure shooters.

Instead I use a fly-fishing vest from Patagonia. It is made of a non absorbent fabric, has a padded neck, lots of pockets, and ends about mid rib cage. It was designed for those wading in deep water – something I commonly do. The short length of the vest doesn’t interfere with a pack’s waist belt and I’m always wearing a pack of some kind. Most photo vests are longer and do get in the way of a waist belt. Forget the padded photo vests unless you like the feel of wearing a flak vest. I mean seriously, if you really need to pad your gear, keep it in an adequately padded camera bag.

Production image of adventure photographer on a rock climbing shoot with his female climber at Tres Piedras, New Mexico

Photographer Michael DeYoung on a climbing shoot at Tres Piedras, New Mexico. Equipment used is a Canon 50D with 17-40 lens, wearing the Patagonia fly fishing vest, with a Think Tank Speed Racer fanny photo bag.

Yes, I get some strange looks sometimes like when walking down a desert trail or an urban downtown setting wearing a fishing vest. Hey, it makes a good conversation starter if nothing else. What about what I usually carry inside? Here are my 10 photo vest essentials.

1. Media Cards in a Think Tank Pixel Pocket Rocket. This is the best CF card carrier on the market. It comes with a tether so it is always attached to a D ring on the vest.

2. Hoodman Loupe for viewing your LCD in bright conditions.

3. Electronic cable release in a heavy duty soft waterproof bag you can get at REI.

4. Lens pen, microfiber cloth, blower brush: I included these as one item since they are all related to cleaning lenses and viewfinders in one way or another.

5. Singh-Ray thin mount Lighter Brighter Circular polarizer: You still can’t duplicate the effects of a polarizer in “post.”

6. Singh-Ray 3 Stop, soft step graduated neutral density filter. I use the gradient filter a lot in Lightroom 3 but nothing is better than doing it right in the field. Still an essential filter for many location situations.

7. Singh-Ray Variable Neutral Density filter. Want silky water in bright daylight? Shooting more HD video in daylight? This filter is indispensable.

8. Disposable hand warmers (winter) and Mosquito wipes (summer).

9. Step up ring with rubber band- so I only have to carry one size filter for all lenses.

10. Gerber or Swiss Army tool: Occasionally you have to be McGyver. Be sure to remove this if you are taking your vest on a commercial flight!

11. Emergency chocolate bar. Chocolate is not a food. It is a life essential no different than oxygen and water. Comes in handy in many situations. For example, you are at Yellowstone quietly and patiently photographing a bear with cubs. Some clown with a point and shoot comes charging up to the scene and steps in front of your lens just as the bear cubs stand up on their hind legs. You could shoot him – it would be justified – but that might spook the bears. Instead, you could offer some fine chocolate while kindly explaining how f*!#ing inconsiderate he just was! He sees you’re wearing a fishing vest and thinks you’re a cool, regular guy. I’m not an authority on this but I think the Park Service would prefer that outcome over the justified shooting. It’s less paperwork for them. Worse yet the bear is charging and this could be it for you. You might as well go out with life’s best simple pleasure. Have a piece of chocolate. Don’t let a dire situation leave a bad taste in your mouth. On that note, 90% bars are the only way to go.

If you noticed, I listed 11 items under the “10 photo vest essentials.” That just proves that there are three kinds of people in this world, those who can count and those who can’t.

Seriously, you don’t have to limit yourself to 10 vest items. Some other things I commonly carry include: 1.4X tele-converter (especially when using telephoto lenses), spare batteries (usually AA), and even a strobe or small lens. Don’t make it too heavy where you never want to carry it. Find a balance that works for you.

Finally, wearing a vest for airline travel always has allowed me to get away with carrying more photo gear than I can fit in my regulation carry on and my personal item. Seems like whatever you are “wearing” isn’t considered luggage.
Male photographer photographing Musk Ox north of Nome, Alaska

Creative Outdoor Photography Workshop in Girdwood Alaska, July 15-17, 2011

This summer I will be teaching another workshop for the Alaska Society of Outdoor and Nature Photographers. Thanks to our good friend and fellow photographer Cathy Hart, this will be my third workshop for the club. The workshop is July 15-17 and will be based out of Girdwood. You can get all the details when dates and places are finalized off the ASONP website. The theme will be creative outdoor photography geared toward intermediate and advanced photographers. I will be teaching an updated version of the workshop I did in 2008 at Hatcher Pass.

Today’s offerings of portable and lightweight lighting tools are amazingly useful for many outdoor subjects including landscapes, travel and adventure. Many photographers like going on adventure trips such as sea kayaking, river raft journeys and mountain trekking. I will discuss techniques and tips for greatly improving adventure and travel photography. This type of photography often takes place where compelling landscape imagery is also possible and I will be discussing to effectively do both. Other topics covered will include how to get the most out of your RAW images in Lightroom processing, advanced digital shooting techniques and, time permitting, the business side of outdoor photography. Cathy asked me to write a piece for the newsletter. So I thought I would describe an assignment where I applied principles I’ve taught in workshops to an actual job and post it here on my blog. (See “How Following Three Basic Photography Principles led to a Successful Assignment” under ‘Assignment & Production’.)

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.

Capturing a Fleeting Moment at 32,000 Feet…Always Keep Your Camera Ready.

The last time this happened it was 1988. I was on a flight from Great Falls, Montana to Seattle. Shortly into the flight I was stunned by a commanding view of the Chinese Wall of the continental divide in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Being a budding photographer back then with my Pentax K1000 and 50mm lens I tried in vein to capture the awesome scene below where in the previous summer Lauri and I spent 8 days backpacking. That was the last time I tried photographing from a commercial flight.

Fast forward 22 years. After an exhausting 8 day tourism assignment in Nome, Alaska we were on a mid afternoon flight back to Anchorage. Nothing unusual. I fly a lot but in the past 10 years I try as hard as I can to get aisle seats because of my size and the shrinking of leg room that has occurred over the years on all domestic airlines. And like the majority of air travelers I’ve become absorbed in some sort of virtual world or just try to rest when I fly. Something was different about this day. It started off as a typical Alaska flight. Low clouds, gloom and doom were present on take off. Topping off at 32k it was the typical bright and sunny with a carpet of solid white cloud below. The plane was about half full which is very unusual for any summer flight to or from or within Alaska. Start editing the shoot. Get out the laptop and iPod and get to it.

Michael DeYoung arial photo of Mt. McKinley from Alaska Airlines flight

Mt. McKinley above the clouds shot out the window of a commercial Alaska Airlines Flight.

About an hour into the flight I glance out the port side window as I gasped for air at the surreal scene below. The crown of North America and her younger brother, Mt. Foraker, towered like a guardian angel above the cellular cumulus clouds, the lesser Alaska Range peaks and the broad Susitna Valley headwaters bathed in late summer light. The summits were a mere 12 thousand feet below and perfectly side lit and positioned for a decent shot. With plenty of room to slide over to the window seat, I quickly grabbed the 1Ds with 24-105mm and plastered it flat against the new window and got probably a once in 20 year shot. Not satisfied with just the intense blue high altitude I pulled out a little used filter, the Singh Ray blue/gold polarizer. I know that the uv filter in the plane window will mess with the colors but like Wow! Now I got something! Had to tone it down a little. OK, so I’ve been photographing Denali for 20 years even doing some clear air winter aerials from military aircraft but I’ve never seen it like this, from above, towering above these beautiful cumulus clouds.

Michael DeYoung photo of Mt. McKinley and Mt. Foraker from 32,000 feet.

Mt. McKinley and Mt. Foraker of the Alaska Range above cumulus clouds over the northern Susitna Valley. Phogographed from an Alaska Airlines flight from Nome to Anchorage in late July. Shot with a blue/gold polarizing filter

Thanks to dumb luck where I was able to keep my lens flat against a clean almost scratchless window I got some decent images that are sharp enough for a full page print. Once again even after shooting 5,000 images in the past week, I was thankful that I kept my camera at the ready for a fleeting moment such as this.

How to Create Fall Photography in Zion National Park

My favorite autumn location is usually “the last place I shot” which for fall colors is Zion National Park. Shooting here in early November evokes feelings of having saved the best for last as the peak of autumn colors occurs after the aspens have fully shed and snow is flying in the high country. Fall photography in Zion is no secret. Just drive over the Canyon Junction Bridge during the last week of October into the first week of November late in the day and you will usually see dozens of landscape photographers lined up on the bridge trying to capture a cliché shot of the Virgin River below the Watchman. You won’t find me there. I will search out my own favorite places for adventure and landscape photography. I will share a few of these locations below.

Terry Thompson (High Mesa Productions) photographing sunrise at Canyon Overlook

Photo 1 – Sunrise at Canyon Overlook in Zion National Park

There are three things that draw me to Zion in fall. First is the Virgin River. Water is my favorite landscape subject. I love the blue green hues of the Virgin in low water and its complimentary contrast to the warm sandstone cliffs. Opportunities abound for capturing reflections of fall colors on the water’s surface. Second is the canyon or bigtooth maples that are abundant here. Cottonwoods are nice too but the maples are the star tree for me as they turn yellow, orange and red. I love getting into groves of them when their colorful leaves on the ground mix with lichen colored sandstone and green grasses that create a colorful tapestry. The main attraction though is the signature light of the Southwest, warm reflected light. This is the light that creates the ethereal glow famously seen in many slot canyon photos and in images of the Narrows. Sunlit vertical sandstone walls can “bounce” reflected light onto nearby shaded trees and shaded sandstone walls.

This scenario abounds in Zion both on a small and large scale. The best example of reflected light on a large scale is evident right from the Temple of Sinewava parking lot. Go there in mid-day and look toward the river into the sun. The enormous parabolic sunlit wall behind you as you are facing the river reflects an amazing amount of light on the shaded side of the Pulpit. You just need to train your eyes to look for this reflected warm soft light. It makes for many photo opportunities during mid-day when sunlight is too harsh for panoramic style landscape images. The key to shooting subjects in reflected light is to completely eliminate any sunlit surface or open sky in your frame.

So where will you find me on a typical day of digital landscape photography in Zion? For sunrise I prefer the East end. If you start at the entrance gate you can see the low angle morning light hitting Checkerboard Mesa and other high buttes as you travel west toward Zion Canyon. If you don’t mind a short hike at dawn, try Canyon Overlook (photo 1) and watch the sun light up the West Temple. For a hardier sunrise shoot, try hiking out to Northgate Peaks off Kolob Terrace Road for a sunrise panoramic. After the sun washes out about an hour after sunrise I begin looking for tighter landscapes with reflected light. Walk in upper Pine Creek or any side drainage off East End road and you will find maples and sandstone patterns in reflected light. In mid-day, I really like the Riverside Walk. This mile plus paved trail has many river access points and usually lots of maples and again it is easy to find shaded reflected light (photo 2).

Canyon maples below the north face of  Angel’s Landing along the Virgin River

Photo 2a – Canyon maples below Angel’s Landing

Gold leaves reflecting in the Virgin River along Riverside Walk in Zion National Park

Photo 2b -Gold leaves reflecting in the Virgin River

On a separate day, hike the Narrows up to “Wall Street” making sure you are there in late morning to mid-day. The Narrows is just fantastic for unlimited reflected light photography even if you miss the peak of fall colors. Be sure to stop by Zion Adventure Company for a complete orientation, hiking guide and river hiking outfitting if needed. For sunset, especially after a clearing storm I like to head out of the park to get a bigger sky and more of a pulled back view. My favorite place is to head toward Grafton. There are several points en route to Grafton to photograph the golden cottonwoods along the Virgin and last rays of light, alpenglow and even colorful clouds on Mount Kinesava (photo 3), Bridge Mountain and the East Temple and other prominent points in the park.

Cottonwood trees below Mt. Kinesava at sunset along Grafton Road

Photo 3 – Cottonwood trees below Mt. Kinesava

There are also many other good vantage points if you head up toward Eagle Craggs or Smisthsonian Butte. Just remember wherever you go, finding and waiting for good light, using a tripod and other solid photographic technique will result in better photos than just having a super duper pro camera with many megapixels.

Photo Captions.

Zion fall photo 1: Photographer Terry Thompson (High Mesa Productions) from Taos, New Mexico, photographing sunrise from Canyon Overlook. Shot with Canon 1Ds, Mark 3, 24-105, Terry lit with a 580 EX II fired wirelessly with ½ cut CTO gel and Honl 1/8 grid.

Zion fall photo 2a: Canyon maples below the north face of Angel’s Landing along the Virgin River. Canon 1Ds, Mark 3, 17-40 lens, polarizer

Zion fall photo 2b: Gold leaves reflecting in the Virgin River along Riverside Walk. Canon 1Ds, Mark 3, 70-200 lens with polarizer

Zion fall photo 3: Cottonwood trees below Mt. Kinesava at sunset along Grafton Road. Canon 1Ds, Mark 3, 24-105 lens, 3 stop graduated neutral density filter