ASMP’s Strictly Business Seminar is Well Worth the Cost

I attended Strictly Business 3 in Los Angeles put on by the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) in January. Wow, what an enlightening and rewarding event! I’ve been a member of ASMP since 1994 but this was the first national event I’ve attended and I can’t believe I waited this long. All the speakers, most whom are working ASMP members themselves, were very good to excellent. I really appreciated ASMP president Richard Kelly. In addition to being a natural at impromptu speaking I watched him introduce himself to new and young members making all feel welcome. I think this is a great characteristic for an organizational leader to have.

Speaking of new members, I was expecting the majority of attendees to be mostly middle aged guys like me. I was pleased to see a fair amount of younger shooters and women there and interested in learning professional practices in our industry. Strictly Business has its own blog where you’ll find a few more articulate posts than this one about the LA event. As in any workshop or seminar, you get out of it what you put in. This is best $250 business investment you can make. The added camaraderie and making of new friends and acquaintances was icing on the cake.

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.

Heat with the Sun… It Really Works!

The first real bite of winter settled in to Northern New Mexico for the past week or so. Last week lows were in the single digits to low teens and highs were in the 30’s and 40’s. Looks like Thanksgiving will be chilly with possibly the first sub-zero lows of the season. By most American standards these temperatures mean some heating is required to keep your home comfortable. The low in the house so far since this cold snap has been 67. The house heats into the 70’s during the day. These interior temperatures at face value are not particularly remarkable since most people under normal circumstances would keep their homes in that temperature range. In fact, in our Alaska homes where we had to run heat almost year round, we kept our thermostat at 62 most of the time. What makes these temps in our home remarkable is the fact that we have no heating system. Specifically, we have no traditional furnace powered by electric or fossil fuels.

Passive solar design – when done right – has almost no user involvement or moving parts and the house just keeps itself warm. The design is pretty basic. The low winter sun heats the house through south facing windows much the same as it would heat your car interior. Thermal mass inside the house (concrete, flagstone, adobe walls, etc.) stores the heat. A well insulated shell and roof and thermal blinds over the windows that you close at night keep it from escaping at night. We do get cloudy spells and once in a while, usually in late winter/spring, the house gets cool enough to use the wood stove. Last winter was a little colder than average and we burned less than half cord of wood to heat an 1100 square foot area. The same super insulation and interior thermal mass keeps wood stove heat going long after the fire is out.

Adventure, landscape, and lifestyle photographer sustainable, solar powered, strawbale home office in New Mexico

Winter scene of a solar-powered strawbale home near Taos, New Mexico with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east.

This is a change that can make a real difference and have real impact on the amount of fossil fuels used for space heat. It boggles my mind why local and even state wide building codes don’t require new construction to incorporate passive solar designs. Sure it cost more up front but the savings in energy over the long term will dwarf the initial up front increase of passive solar design and pay for itself many times over. Sadly, even in progressive Northern New Mexico county local building codes do not require new homes or buildings to meet any substantial passive solar design principles. Passive solar design is really just simple and sensible science and shouldn’t be part of an ideological or political debate, but sadly it is.

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

Latest adventure promotion

Here is a preview of my next print promotion and eblast due out next week. This is a double sided card. Haven’t decided which side to go with for the eblast.

Here is the story behind the images. We were on location in Kennicott and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park as part of a lengthy summer assignment for the Alaska State Vacation Planner. After shooting for several days including a hike on the Root Glacier the day before, I decided to shoot some fun stuff this day. A knowledgeable guide and photography enthusiast with St. Elias Alpine Guides took Lauri and I under the Root Glacier into some fantastic ice caves. The most dangerous part of the shoot was the steep and loose approach and dealing with my claustrophobia. The ice caves reminded me of slot canyons in the southwest. They are hidden gems whose intimate beauty is not readily seen from a distance. Like slot canyons, the caves under the Root proved to be an excellent place to shoot in the middle of the day with maximum light illuminating the underside. What a great place to use the Radio Poppers. The poppers are a great little system for firing speedlites wirelessly in TTL without relying on the line of sight of the infrared triggers. And honestly, the Canon ST-E2 transmitter system fails miserably outdoors especially in harsh cold wet environs such as under untold tons of ice! The Radio Poppers have not worked flawlessly in harsh field conditions either, however, their performance is far better than just the Canon system alone. So in a small bag, we were able to carry about $2000 in lighting gear and achieve amazing results. In both shots we are using 2 580 EX 2’s with Honl gels and one of my favorite lightweight light shaping tools, the Honl 1/8 grid.

Lauri did a great job as a “mobile light stand” (a phrase coined by Joe McNally, whom I learned a lot from about location lighting with small strobes.) So TTL light fired from 100 feet away behind a wall of ice in a cold damp cave. Presto! Gotta love it.

In the closer shot the trick was to warmly light Jacob without light spilling over to the surrounding ice. This one was a bit trickier than the more distant shot and required moving around several times. The CTO gel does a great job of warming the skin so it pops out of the deep glacier blue background. In both instances, my standard technique is to use manual exposure. I get a background ambient exposure first and generally let the TTL do it’s thing using flash exposure comp to get the strobe lighting where I want it.

I was a little apprehensive about being under a glacier even though we were never more than 100 feet from the entrance. I’m glad we didn’t become a potential archeological find 10,000 years from now.