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.

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.

New Work: Grand Canyon National Park Backpacking Adventure

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Standing beneath the Royal Arch, a view seen by few visitors.

In addition to showing new adventure images, I address degree of difficulty and creativity as well as sacrifice and compromise with respect to photography.

Lauri and I completed our second weeklong trip on the Royal Arch Loop with longtime friend and backpacking companion John Hoffer.  The Royal Arch is a special and beautiful place seen by few because it is a difficult multi day hike.

I feel fortunate that at 50+ I am still capable of making physically demanding treks to create images.  They are not without pain.  There are times I wish I had a normal mid life crisis like owning a Corvette and whooping it up in Vegas but no!  Instead, I do brutal backpack trips to remote places like the Royal Arch.   When I go to places like this I never lose sight of a principle of photography that has stuck with me for many years: Degree of difficulty does not correlate to creativity.

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Descending the upper Royal Arch Creek.

 

Going to expensive exotic places, or places that are difficult to get to or require special skills (in this case rappelling and canyoneering skills) does not mean you will get great photography.  Your viewers, unless they were there with you, cannot relate to the physical or emotional pain and investment you make in your photographs.  Your images are judged solely on their creative merits.  And it should be that way.

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Day hiking to the Royal Arch from camp.

 

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Rappelling through the Muav Limestone above Toltec Beach

 

Photography on a backpack trip requires sacrifice but not compromise.  I’ll explain.  Sacrifice on this trip was severely limiting my equipment for obvious reasons.  I took a Canon 5D, Mark 3, 24/f2.8 lens, Sigma 15/f2.8 fisheye, a 600RT speedlight with a couple of gels and the ST-E3 transmitter.  For the first time in a long time, I went without a tripod.  That was the biggest sacrifice on this trip.

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Climbing through the Tapeats Sandstone in Garnet Canyon.

 

I had to sacrifice some sweet photo ops.  As long as I stayed within the limitations of the equipment I had I didn’t have to compromise on the principles of making compelling imagery.  My focus would be on the hiking and at camp experience and making images where it was still possible to get sharp, hand held shots and shots that still looked well lit with simple fill flash skillfully applied.

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Backcountry meal on the Esplanade

 

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Elves Chasm, below Royal Arch near the Colorado River.

 

Without a tripod and with only wide angle lenses I had to give up landscapes and many telephoto and macro ops.  I really felt the pain of what I sacrificed one evening when we had a blazing pink sunset.   I did however improvise on a full moon tent scene.  With plenty of rocks and a ziplock bag full of sand made a great stabilizer for a 2-3 minute exposure.

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Camp on the Esplanade under moonlight.

 

The 15mm fisheye really came in handy as the noon sun was cresting the Royal Arch.  It is such a fun lens to shoot into the sun with and I did that a lot.

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Standing beneath the Royal Arch, a view seen by few visitors.

 

Sacrifice without compromise of solid photography principles and remembering that degree of difficulty does not guarantee good imagery has hopefully resulted in a few marketable shots from a difficult to reach and seldom seen location that holds a special place in my memory.

 

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Lunch stop along the Tonto Trail near Bass Canyon.

 

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Second wind at sunset along the Esplanade.

 

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Claret cup cacti in bloom along the Tonto Trail near Bass Canyon.

 

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Clean up in the Colorado River at Toltec Beach

 

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Donning boots for the hike out.

 

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Elves Chasm, below Royal Arch near the Colorado River. Taking a break from the camera for a cold bath.

 

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.

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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).

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

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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.

DeYoung Featured In Jan/Feb 2013 Issue of Outdoor Photographer: “Chugach Adventure”

Explorer Glacier from Moose Pond in the Portage Valley, Chugach National Forest, Alaska.

Explorer Glacier from Moose Pond in the Portage Valley, Chugach National Forest, Alaska

Adventure, landscape, and lifestyle photographer Michael DeYoung is featured in the January/February 2013 issue of Outdoor Photographer magazine.

A former Alaska resident, DeYoung shares his 24+ years of knowledge and experience photographing his former backyard, Chugach State Park and surrounding area. In the interview-style article he offers advice on photographing the many landscape and wildlife opportunities in and around the Chugach.

“The Chugach are different and unique from what I was used to seeing in the Rockies. The sheer scale of endless peaks, vast deciduous forest, and steep cliffs and glaciers that come down to sea level have always captured my imagination.”

Read the full online article at Outdoor Photographer.

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.