Here it is almost the end of August and I haven’t posted since mid-July. How easy it is to get out of the blogging habit. Even staying mostly home during the pandemic, it is easy to get wrapped up in things and forget to post. Well, I probably should finish the series I started on the Principles of Photographic Improvisation from the book The Soul of the Camera by David duChemin. My previous two posts covered the first three principles Saying Yes, Contribute Something, and Try Something. The fourth principle is There Are no Mistakes.
Wow, there are no mistakes. Seriously!. I have trouble with this one. It seems like I make mistakes all the time. I use the wrong f-stop or ISO, I try to hand-hold at too slow a shutter speed, or I focus on the background instead of the subject. I delete a lot of images after I download them. Not just ones with bad exposure, but also because I typically shoot multiple shots with the same composition with slightly different exposures or trying to capture the “right” moment. For example, I shot my niece’s socially distanced wedding last weekend, taking around 1,500 images. I’m slowly editing those down, and will probably delete 1,000 to 1,200 of them.
DuChemin talks about how photographers often talk about their “keeper rate” as if photography is “a baseball game and someone out there is recording our stats.” Guilty as charged, Mr. duChemin. I mentally think about my keeper rate, not so much as how many I keep (I probably keep too many), but how many are worth keeping and turning into something other than a raw snapshot. DuChemin continues, describing how his own language is often littered with negativity, for example, saying that he went out shooting and “every frame was crap.” (Another admission, I’ve said that too.) He says such an attitude suggests that “we should go out, press the shutter, and end up with a great photograph. As if musicians sit down at the piano and come up with a finished piece the first try. They do not. But they might find a few melodies or harmony that provides clues about the rest of the song the will, eventually, become a classic.”
He asks, “there was a reason you pressed the shutter; what was it?” He’s right. Every time we press that shutter button, we do so for a reason. Our eye saw something and we tried to capture it. Our capture may have been imperfect, or even plain bad, but there was a reason. You need to explore that reason, examine why you tried, and learn from the experience to, perhaps, do better next time. DuChemin suggests those imperfect frames are “part of a process. If you discard them without first giving them a chance to speak, you’ll miss whatever possibilities they were just about to whisper to you. That’s how the creative process works…”
If you are like me, you might come upon a great scene and you start shooting. But as you shoot, you change up the composition a little, or pick a different aperture, or move over ten feet, or get down low. As you explore the scene with your camera, you might learn from you earliest shots, and the images grow better. When I’m editing, most often the earliest shots in a series of images of the same subject are the ones that I throw away. Why, because they often they are bad. But also because I learned as I shot, and the later images are better. I might not keep them, but they are useful to me. In that sense, he is correct, there are no mistakes.
In several posts ago, I mentioned how I’ve been trying to get a shot of Mount Rainier with the moon rising behind it. I tried in June without much success – while you could see the moon and the mountain, the light didn’t cooperate with my vision for the image. I tried again in July. This time, the mountain and the rising moon were covered by clouds. I tried again in August, and this time, I was successful (I’ll post those images in my next blog). Were those two earlier attempts mistakes? Were the images I did take not worthwhile?
The ones I took in June I will probably not do anything with. But I did learn from them; the experience helped me with my technique, and therefore, did help with my successful shots from August. And going out to shoot in July wasn’t a mistake either. I didn’t come home with any images of the moon, but I did shoot the three images featured here, as well as several other “keepers.” And I certainly wouldn’t call any of them mistakes. (In case you are wondering, all three were taken from Dune Park here in Tacoma.) So perhaps there are no mistakes, the only true mistake is not learning from our imperfect attempts.
In my last post, I mentioned how I am reading The Soul of the Camera, the Photographer’s Place in Picture-Making by David duChemin, and I described his first of four “rules” or “principles” of photographic improvisation – agreeing or to say “yes” and not “no.” Today, I look at the second and third principles – Contribute Something, and Try Something.
To contribute something, you need to make the scene your own. DuChemin explains, ” Photography is not objective… We bring our own thoughts, opinions, points of view, and interest to the scen and to every single decision, from aperture to focal length to shutter speed to composition. We chose what to include and exclude. It’s not so much about what’s there as it’s about what I see and how I see it.”
Say you travel to a famous landmark or scene and want to photograph it. Don’t worry about how others have done so, make the scene you own. Sure, take that one composition that you’ve seen before, the shot the maybe even inspired you to come in the first place, but then explore the subject scene on you own, making your own compositions. Or as DeChemin says, “Own it. Add to it. Make every photograph you create a collaboration with what’s before you.”
This, I think, directly relates to the third principle, try something. DuChemin urges his reads to “take a risk and try something. Don’t just wonder what would happen if you moved the camera over to the right. Move it! Slow the shutter, use a wide lens. Listen to the questions, but don’t let them go without a response. And if the first answer doesn’t work, try again.”
It doesn’t even have to be a famous scene, just maybe one you’ve been to or photographed many times before. Do you take the same shot again and again? Perhaps. But to improvise, you’ve got to make it new again for you. Maybe try black and white, or shoot it with your phone instead of you DSLR, or shoot only high-key images, whatever! Sometimes to make it your own you need to try something different.
For example, for the past several years, I’ve been offering walking photo tours of downtown Seattle. These tours are great for my clients, as they see Seattle through fresh eyes. But I’ve seen it and shot it all before. It’s a real challenge for me to find something new. So on a couple trips, I pulled out the fish-eye lens. Now, a lot of what I shot didn’t work so well, but some of the images aren’t so bad. In fact, they are kind of fun, and definitely something I made my own by trying something I hadn’t done before, even after shooting the same places dozens of times before – such as Pioneer Square (above and below), the ferry terminal (below), and the waterfall garden (below). That is photographic improvisation.
I’m currently reading The Soul of the Camera, the Photographer’s Place in Picture-Making by David duChemin. This book is full of nuggets of photographic wisdom, and I can highly recommend it to any photographer who wants to improve their game. You will not find much in the way of technical details about how to shoot great images. Instead, duChemin discusses the photographer’s mind and it relationship to picture-making.
There are easily dozens of blog post topics I could cover based on this book, but for now I’ll discuss his four “rules” or “principles” of photographic improvisation; the first of which is to agree or to say “yes” and not “no.” That is, say yes to the scene in front of you even if it was not what you expected or intended. You could say this is to go with the flow (which duChemin also talks about earlier in the book). Say yes to photographing what the world gives you rather than turning your back on the scene and giving up because it isn’t what you wanted. Accept what’s there and make the most of it.
A couple weeks ago, I went over to Fox Island Bridge to take a photo of Mount Rainier with the full moon rising behind it right before sunset. This situation only happens on two days each year: the day before the full moon in both June and August. Last August I tried for the same shot with only limited success. I was disappointed from that shoot, and that probably set me up to ignore the principle of saying yes. The weather was not ideal, and the view of the moon was not very good. I snapped a few shots, including the shown here, and packed up and went home disappointed. I failed to look for what else nature might be offering up. It was a few days later that I read about duChemin’s first principle.
I should have known better even before reading the book. I had a similar idea earlier this year. Back in February, I wanted to photograph the full moon setting behind the Olympic Mountains at sunrise. On the appointed day, I got up early and drove across town to Brown’s Point in Northeast Tacoma. When I got there, the Olympics, let alone the moon, were obscured by clouds. I climbed back in the car and headed toward home, thinking that perhaps I still might get some decent sunrise shots from the Cliff House parking lot. Sure enough, Mount Rainier was visible and the rising sun painted it and the low hanging clouds, as shown on the featured shot above and the other images below. I didn’t get what I wanted, but I said yes to what was given, which wasn’t bad at all.
Though clear now, the skies of Washington State, and indeed most of the Pacific Northwest, have been very smokey almost the entire month of August. The smoke is from wildfires, both in the United States and Canada. I fear, with climate changes, this may be our new “normal” for August, as smokey skies have been prevalent in August the past several years.
As long as the smoke is not too thick, smokey skies can have some advantages to landscape and travel photography. Though I tend not to, some people like the sunsets provided by smokey conditions. I do, however, appreciate that smokey conditions can soften light and can extend golden hour conditions by changing the color of sunlight. On the other hand, they can also dim sunlight so that the light during the actual golden hours is weak.
In my opinion, the disadvantages outweigh any advantages gained. I am fond on blue skies and wide vistas. Smoke can suck the blue out of the sky and obscure views with haze. I also like to use telephoto lenses to pull in distance subjects. Obviously, this does not work so well if there is a lot of smoke.
On my trip to the Palouse last month, the skies were quite smokey. Not smokey enough to totally ruin the trip, but I certainly did not have ideal conditions. The Palouse is known for its blue skies with great clouds. On my last trip, the sky, though clear, was more of a dusky gray. It was also cloud free on except for one day. So much for the wide sky shots I often favor, such as this one I posted on instagram. I found myself following several techniques to minimize the effects of the smoke.
1. Limiting distance in my compositions – instead of including distant hills and vistas in my compositions, I selected relatively close subjects, or chose compositions where the distant background was less important. For example, on my August visit to the Palouse, I did shoot one evening from Steptoe Butte. However, with the smokey haze, I chose one of the lower viewpoint instead of going to the top, and I mostly shot compositions with subjects relatively close to the butte rather than subjects thousands of meters away.
2. Eliminating or limiting the amount of sky in my compositions – with the sky not the blue color one expects, in many cases, I tried to either totally eliminate the sky from my composition or at least limit the amount of sky in the shot.
3. Processing using the Dehaze slider in Lightroom – I often use the dehaze slider in lightroom, and not just to remove haze; I like the microconstrast it adds to images. However, smokey conditions are what the dehaze slider was made for. While processing images from the August Palouse trip in Lightroom, I found myself adding more dehaze than I normally would.
4. Adding blue back into the sky in Lightroom – I typically do not do selective color corrections in Lightroom. Typically I’ll set the color balance for the entire photo and let well enough alone (saving selective color adjustments for Photoshop if I want to do them at all). But with new masking tools for the gradient and brush tools, I found it relatively easy to add some blue back into the sky in Lightroom. Typically, I’d make a fairly tight gradient (or perhaps the brush too) and apply it to the area of the photo containing the sky. Then, using the range mask tool in color mode, I select a wide portion of the sky. This usually masks most of the non-sky areas, but to be sure, I’ll check the Show Selected Mask Overlay checkbox (which uses a red tone to indicate where the gradient is effective). Depending on the image, I may or may not need to do some cleanup of the mask with the eraser brush). To correct the sky, I’ll move the temperature slider toward blue, typically move the exposure slider down about 1/2 to 1/2 a stop, and move the clarity slider down as well. Depending on the image, I may also increase the dehaze slightly. Sounds complicated, but it is fairly easy with a bit of practice. This technique does a nice job on restoring sky color (see the examples below).
One thing I like about the Palouse is there are still plenty of good shots to be made outside the golden hours. Granted, when photographing in the region, I still aim to shoot in around sunrise and sunset, but I keep shooting well into the day. I captured all the images presented here more than four hours after sunrise and more than four hours before sunset – in other words, in the middle of the day. And maybe some of them might be better if shot during the golden hours, but I think some are pretty good anyway. Perhaps some might even be photographic gold?
It’s great to be able to capture a few good shots outside the golden hours, because in mid-June in the Palouse, the sun rises very early (a little before 5 a.m.) and sets quite late (just before 9 p.m.). This makes for a very long day. My normal schedule for shooting in the Palouse is to: get up early and catch sunrise, then drive around shooting and scouting until about 11 a.m.; eat lunch; return to my motel and plan the afternoon/evening shoot; take a nap; head out again shooting/scouting starting about 3:30 or 4 p.m.; shoot sunset; drive back to the motel, plan the morning shoot, and go to bed.
There are a couple of reasons why the Palouse can offer photographic gold during the non-golden hours. First, is the tendency for the skies to have white puffy clouds in the afternoon (and sometimes in the morning). The shadows cast by the clouds can give definition to the landscape, breaking up the flat light of mid-day. Secondly, there are plenty of subjects available that work well at almost anytime of day.
Now, I wouldn’t recommend making a trip to the Palouse and ignoring the golden hours, but if you decide you don’t want to get up at o-dark-thirty some morning, know there are still some decent photography waiting for you out there. As always, your comments on my musings and/or images is most welcome. Enjoy these shots of mid-day Palouse.
The Palace of Knossos is the capital of ancient Minoan Crete. It is reportedly Crete’s most popular tourist attraction. Ancient ruins, particularly popular ones, present a photographic challenge, at least to me. We see photographs of the ruins in guidebooks and on postcards and want to get similar shots. Yet, often the sites are only have limited hours that do not correspond with the best light and are usually overrun by tourists. How to get a few decent shots without obtaining special access (like the photographers whose images you see on the postcard)?
Knossos is the perfect example. When Tanya and I were there, the last admittance of the day was at 3 p.m. We got there about 2:30 p.m., and I was hoping the crowds would be a bit less. However, as it turned out, we picked International Monuments Day (April 18th) to visit – the good news, free admission; the bad news, more people. It wasn’t overrun with tourists, but there we weren’t alone either. Further, 2:30 p.m. is not a prime time for photography, the light is harsh and contrast can be a big problem.
And you can forget about using a tripod. Even if it would not cause a problem with the crowds, tripods (and large professional cameras – whatever the definition of that is) are not allowed. This is a common policy at many historical sites and museums (occasionally I’m surprised and they are allowed, such at the Met in New York and in the Notre Dame Basilca in Montreal).
So what is your average photographer to do? Here are a few tips I’ve discovered that help me photograph at ancient ruins (and other popular sites).
1. Use a telephoto zoom lens – if you don’t want people in your shots, you will need to zoom in to crop them out. A wide-angle lens is good for providing a big scene, but it is almost impossible to use one and not have people in your image.
2. Shoot details – sure shoot an image with the whole building, but if you want to not have people in the shot, shoot details.
3. Don’t crop too tightly in camera – often you will not have the best vantage point to take a shot. If you think you might be making perspective adjustments Lightroom or Photoshop, don’t crop too tightly in-camera. Leave some room to crop after the perspective adjustment is made.
4. Avoid sky when shooting into the sun – we often don’t have much choice about time of day when visiting a historical site, and that scene you’ve been dreaming about shooting is toward the sun. Cut out the sky to avoid the contrast. For example, one of the most common shots you will see of Knossos is similar to the featured shot above, except that it usually shows some sky as well. Here, shooting toward that sun, I cut out the sky to avoid bad contrast and a totally white sky.
5. Shoot in the shade – again, not having much choice about time of day, shooting in mid-day can cause lots of contrast problems. Look for compositions that are in shade and avoid the contrast of partial sunlight.
6. Up your ISO – often you will be shooting not out in the sun, but in a dimly lit rooms or grottoes. Without a tripod, remember to increase your ISO.
Winter just seems never to end. We’ve had nothing but a cold, rainy March so far. So what should you do when bored and stuck inside on a rainy winter day? Try your hand at scanography – photography using a flat-bed scanner. If you don’t already own such a scanner, you can often find them cheap at a second-hand store. The images shown here were taken with my Epson Perfection 2450 Photo scanner that I purchased several years ago at Goodwill for $5. The trick is getting such a scanner to run on your computer – often drivers are not available for newer versions of Windows. For example, Epson offer a driver for my scanner for Windows version after XP.
I’m running Windows 7. When I first got the scanner several years back, Windows 7 was still fairly new. To get the scanner to work, I did a Google search on Windows 7 drivers for my scanner model. I discovered that a different Epson model had a driver that worked, so I downloaded that and sure enough, it worked.
Now skip ahead a few years. I tried Widows 10 and decided to go back to Window 7, but when I did so, I lost the driver for the scanner. Well actually, I still had the driver, but Windows would not allow me to install it because it was “unsigned.” This is a case of the software trying to protect your computer from malignant software. I get it, but I really did want to use the scanner again. Finally, after several long Google searches, I discovered there is a way to get Windows to install unsigned drivers. You must first disable the driver signature enforcement, then install the driver. It wasn’t that hard to do, and sure enough, I was back in business.
Since if you pick up a cheap, used scanner, it probably won’t be the same model as mine, I suggest the following. First, go the the manufacturer’s support site and see if there is a driver available. If so, your golden. If not, search Google for an alternate driver. For example, in my case, the Google search might be: “windows 7 driver for epson 2450 scanner”. There is a good chance this will give you a driver that will work. However, if it is unsigned, you still will need some help installing it. So try this Google search: “installing unsigned drivers windows 10”. You will get a number of results that explain how to install unsigned drivers. Good luck!
Once you do get your scanner installed, it’s time to have fun. All of the images here were taken using the scanner. The fun thing about using a scanner for photography, of scanography as it is called, is that you can create interesting effects because the scanner captures an image a line at a time. This means that as the scanner light and sensor moves, you can move your subject either blurring it or making it appear more than once in the frame. I found this is particularly fun for self portraits (just watch out for fogging the glass with your breath).
I found that scanning to TIFF files worked better than to JPGs, but your experience may be different. Once the files are created, I imported them into Lightroom and treated them just like any other file, optimizing them as I saw fit. I found the biggest problem is dust. I’m use to a few dust spots from my camera sensor. With the scanner, you can get hundreds of dust spots, all perfectly in focus. So be sure the clean the glass well when doing your scanography.
Wondering what kind of images you can make with a scanner? My samples here will give you a few ideas. If you want more, just do a Flickr or Google image search for scanography. There is some very creative work out there.
Adobe added a new Transform panel in Lightroom CC in June, and since I typically don’t check what is new in each Lightroom upgrade, I didn’t see this new panel until last month. When I did find it, I thought it was amazing. So much so, that from now on, I’ll be checking each upgrade to see what other new features might be available to improve my workflows.
The old transform was under the Lens Correction panel in the Develop Module under the Manual tab, where there were sliders for you to manually adjust lens, vertical, and horizontal distortions; rotation, scale, and aspect ratio. I made wide use of the vertical and horizontal sliders, but not so much the others. I found it was easier to correct rotations or change the aspect ratio with the crop tool and I usually don’t change the scale of an image except upon export. And while these transform tools where very helpful, sometimes I couldn’t get the results I wanted.
With release 2015.6 of Lightroom, Adobe removed the manual transform sliders from the Lens Correction panel and placed them in a new Transform panel (located directly underneath the Lens Correction panel, see the first screenshot below). The lens distortion slider is gone, and two new sliders, for X and Y offsets, are added. But the best new feature is the addition of automatic or guided distortion corrections. There are six options: off, auto, guided, level, vertical, and full. The pop-up help in Lightroom for each of these options states:
- Auto: “enables balanced level, aspect ratio, and perspective corrections”
- Guided: “draw two or more guides to customize perspective corrections”
- Level: “enable level corrections only”
- Vertical: “enable level and vertical perspective corrections only”
- Full: “enable full level, horizontal, and vertical corrections”
There is also a guide tool in the upper left-hand corner with a guide tool. This tool essentially works identically to pressing the Guide button. In both cases, a guide tool becomes active which allows you to place guides on the image to show Lightroom what should be level and vertical. You are allowed to add up to four guides.
I’ve illustrated the use of this new features with an image I took in Sainte-Chapelle in Paris last year. The space is small and crowded, tripods are not allowed, and a wide-angle lens is needed. These conditions make it quite hard to a decent level and perspectively correct shot. The original image, shot with my 28-300mm zoom lens set at 65mm (at 1/20 second, f5.6, ISO 6,400), is shown here below after all Lightroom corrections except those under the Transform panel.
The next image, below, is a screenshot showing the Transform panel open in the Lightroom Develop module. No transform corrections have been selected – the Off button is active. Please note, that when using the Transform corrections, it is best to have the lens profile corrections already active in the Lens Corrections panel.
The images below are the results of selecting the Auto, Level, and Vertical buttons. In this case, the results from the Full button is identical to the Vertical button.
Below I show the steps in using the Guided correction either by guide tool or selecting the Guided button.
I hope you are having a great summer (or winter for my friends down south). I’m not sure where the time has gone this summer. It seems like I’ve been busy, but have little to show for it. I know my time has not been taken up by photography. I sort my image in my Lightroom catalog by date, and the catalog for July only has two dates in it. Same with August – and those two were from consecutive days of a non-photography trip where the camera barely left the bag. The purpose of the trip earlier this month was a family reunion. Us Beckers gather every year the first weekend in August.
This year, the get-together was at my sister’s house in Lyle, Washington. For those of you that don’t know where Lyle is, it is a small town in the Columbia River Gorge, on the Washington side of the river, ten miles or so east of Hood River, Oregon. My sister actually lives north of town another 10 miles or so in a house with a fantastic view of Mount Adams. However, I didn’t take any shots of Mount Adams when I was there, the air was quite hazy.
Tanya and I stayed right in the town of Lyle in an Airbnb house with a view of the Columbia River. The only photograph I planned to take that weekend was the image above. I knew by checking the Photographer Ephemeris that the crescent moon would be setting directly down the gorge from Lyle. In fact, I didn’t have to travel far to get the shot. The image above was taken from the deck of our rental.
So why is this post called “Rookie Mistakes?” Because I made a mess of my photo shoot. For those of you that have been to the Columbia River Gorge, you probably know the wind blows there a lot, and the night I shot this image was no exception. So, one would think that I, being somewhat of a professional photographer, would take precautions against camera shake. Well, I thought I did. I used my sturdiest tripod, I bumped up the ISO to 800 and used wide apertures to make for shorter shutter speeds. I shot some 30 images. All of them had camera shake to a certain extent. The one above, the last image I shot that night, was the best of the lot. I used Photoshop’s shake reduction filter, and that helped, but I could have done more. I should have used a weight on the tripod. I should have left the stabilizer on my lens, which I normally turn off when shooting from a tripod, turned on. Bad mistakes. I’m lucky I had even one halfway decent shot.
Mistake number two – the moon (and the planet above it in this image, Jupiter, I think) moves fast. My shutter speeds were between 2.5 and 30 seconds. When shooting stars at night, a 30-second exposure is typically not long enough to have star trails show when using a very wide-angle lens. However, I was not using a very wide-angle lens; I was using a telephoto lens. In everything I shot with a shutter speed over 2.5 seconds, the moon was horribly blurred due to the earth’s rotation. The image above is actually a composite, the moon and Jupiter are a 2.5 second exposure, the rest is a 10 second exposure.
All I can say is that when I downloaded these images to my computer, I was very disappointed. I let the excitement of the photo shoot overwhelm good technique. That’s why it is important to get out and practice your craft as much as possible. Keep working on your technique until it becomes second nature. I guess I’m not there yet. Here I encountered two different, unrelated phenomenon that, had I been thinking properly, should have made me use a fast shutter speed. Neither did. I failed and am lucky to have anything to show. But, I learned a lesson and, hopefully, will not make these mistakes again.
February is a time of two seasons in western Washington. Winter still rules in the mountains (see my last post) and spring arrives in the lowlands. One of the best places to see the meeting of the seasons is on Skagit River delta west of the town of Mount Vernon. Between the South and North Forks of the Skagit River, lies Fir Island – home to thousands of snow geese every winter. Just north of the North Fork lies thousands of fertile acres, many planted with spring flowers.
The snow geese generally arrive in November and are gone by April, with the peak number from mid-December through mid-January. At their peak, there are easily tens of thousands of geese present on Fir Island. Besides the geese, trumpeter swans and tundra swans also migrate to the area. Like bald eagles? Plenty of them as well.
The field north of the river have a few geese as well, but are mainly known for their spring daffodils and tulips. By the time the tulips arrive, the geese are gone, but if your timing it right, you can see the snow geese and blooming daffodil fields on the same trip.
Six years ago, during the first weekend of March, I went to the area and found a huge flock of geese and acres of blooming yellow daffodils. Last week, friend and I made the trip, hoping to duplicate my timing of 2010. And we saw thousands of geese, a few swans, and a dozen or so bald eagles. Unfortunately, we were a bit early for the daffodils – they were just starting to bloom. I would guess that this week and next may be prime blooming.
To see the geese and swans, head north from Seattle on Interstate 5 and take the Conway exit (exit #221). Turn west off the freeway, and at the roundabout in Conway, get on Fir Island Road. The geese can usually be found in the fields either north or south of Fir Island Road a mile or two after you cross the Skagit River. The geese spend the night on the water, and fly back inland during the morning. Last week, we arrived a little before sunrise, a bit early for the geese. But by the time we had finished taking a few sunrise shots, we heard honking on the air. We watched geese fly in in groups of 2 to 200, most landing at a field a few hundred meters off the road. Later in the morning, a few bigger flocks (maybe a 1,000 birds) flew in. It was an amazing sight.
With luck, the flocks will land close to the road and you can get good shots with a 70-200mm zoom lens (as was the case when saw them in 2010). That was not the case last week for me, and I found myself wanting something in the 400 to 600 mm range (which I do not own). I shot with my 70-200mm with a 1.4x teleconvertor.
Want the best of winter and spring in the Puget Sound lowlands – take my advice and try the geese and daffodils of the Skagit River delta in late February and early March.
If you are like me, it is often difficult to do serious photography when traveling with your family. I wish I had a simple method to address this problem, but I don’t. If you do, please let me know! Or perhaps you don’t think this is a problem. If that is that case, please tell me why.
When traveling with Tanya, she usually requires me classify the trip as a “photograph trip” or a “non-photography trip.” On non-photography trips, I can still take my equipment, but I am expected not to disrupt any trip plans with photography. On photography trips, the world’s my oyster and I dictate when and where.
When we take a big trip, like our trip to Europe last month, they are by default non-photography trips. This is especially true when we travel with others; in this particular case, traveling with my mother-in-law and my son. One word of advice – if you want to get a lot of photography in while traveling, don’t travel with your mother-in-law.
On a photography trip, I tend to take the whole bag. But for non-photography trips, I go more minimal. I usually take my camera backpack as a carry-on in the plane, but I don’t typically carry it around when out shooting except when I’m going out by myself (see below). Even then, I take some of the gear out instead of my normal kit. I typically take my Canon 6D body with battery grip, a 28-300 mm lens, a 17-40 mm lens, about 5 or 6 memory cards, a polarizing filter, a split-neutral density filter, a Canon speedlight flash, four batteries, a battery charger, a tripod, my laptop, a card reader, and a few various accessories (lens cloth, etc.). In addition to the backpack, I also bring a Think Tank Pro digital holster as a smaller bag.
So when on a non-photography trips and heading out with the family, I go with a minimal set of equipment. I will put the 28-300mm lens on the camera, take the battery grip off, and put the camera in the holster (the camera will not fit in the holster with the battery grip on). In the pockets of the holster, which are rather small, I’ll carry a spare battery, a spare memory card, a cleaning cloth, and the polarizing filter. Sometimes, if I know I will want it, I’ll carry the 17-40mm lens in my coat pocket (no room in the camera holster). Rarely I’ll carry the tripod as well with this minimal setup. This minimal set of equipment allows me to get quality photographs without impacting the family, though I will often have to shoot at a higher ISO than I’d like due to not having the tripod (see my last post).
But my main strategy to get quality photography time is to go out without the family. This usually means going out at night after the family has retired to our lodgings for the evening or getting up extra early and going out prior to everyone else being ready for the day. This is one reason I like to stay near major attractions that might look good at night. On your recent trip, we stayed within easy walking distance of the Louvre when in Paris and near the Block of Discord in Barcelona. When going out on my own, I carry my full kit in the photo backpack and always take the tripod (even with high ISOs, it is hard to shoot at night without a tripod). The added advantage is that often there are not very many people around wandering into my frame when shooting, and even if they do, the exposures are long enough that they typically don’t show up if they keep moving.
Shooting at night also has the added advantage of making the sky easier to deal with. When doing travel photography, you typically don’t have a lot of time at any one destination. So you can’t necessarily wait for those “good” sky days. Often the sky is a mass of clouds without any redeeming detail, and if you place it in your composition, it sits there like a huge blown-out white blob. Not to mention the contrast problem it creates with the foreground and your image’s subject. Not a problem at night. At worst, clouds pick up scattered lights from the city and take on an orange glow, which is easy to fix in processing.
The images accompanying this post are from two nights I went out by myself, once in Paris and the second in Barcelona. Unlike my previous post, these images were all taken with an ISO of 100 or 200 while using a tripod. The featured image at the top of the post is of the courtyard of the Louvre.
My recent trip to Europe confirmed something I already knew, travel photographers need to embrace high ISOs. Sure I took my tripod along on the trip, and I used it frequently. But mostly when outside buildings. Most museums and other indoor attractions prohibit tripods, often monopods, and even selfie-sticks (not that I have one – I use my tripod or monopod instead). There are a few exceptions, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for one (see my previous blog about tripods in New York), but more and more it seems tripods are a no-no (and don’t even get me started on places that prohibit photography entirely, where people left and right are using their cell phones to take photos (often with flash), but if I get my DSLR out, I get a stern warning).
When planning a trip, I usually try to research whether tripods are allowed in various attractions I want to visit, but in this case, I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare and failed to do the research. Further, traveling with my mother-in-law, I didn’t figure I’d have a lot of photography time (and I was right). But even if you have time to do such research, it is often had to find rules related to tripods on the internet, and worse, sometimes the information is either wrong or incorrectly enforced at the attraction. For my recent trip, I just assumed tripods weren’t allowed in any indoor attraction I visited – an assumption that was usually confirmed by signs at the various attractions.
There is another consideration. I can’t even imagine trying to set up a tripod in Sainte Chapelle in Paris (which doesn’t allow tripods; the featured image above, by the way, is Sainte Chapelle taken at ISO 6400, f/5, 1/30 sec), there was barely room to stand. Even if tripods are allowed, due to the number of people visiting, it is often impractical to use them. For example, in Seattle, tripods are allowed at Pike Place Market and in the Seattle Aquarium, but due to crowds, can be hard to use.
Of course there is the final consideration about just carrying it around. There were places on my recent trip where I could have used a tripod, but didn’t have it with me because I didn’t want to lug it around with me. Sometimes it was because I was visiting another attraction in the same day that didn’t allow tripods; other times it was because I was too lazy (I know, my bad).
Yes, it is best to use low ISO with long exposures and a tripod to minimize digital noise, but often that is not an option. Luckily, the high ISO capabilities of today’s digital cameras are quite good, and getting better with each generation of camera. During my recent trip, I found myself shooting at ISO 3200 and 6400 quite often. I even got up to 25,600 several times; the digital noise was horrible, but it was that or not get the shot. That’s what it came down to, getting a shot or not. You be the judge, was it worth using high ISO to get the shots accompanying this post?
Granted, spending five days in Reykjavík over Christmas does not make me an expert on Iceland in winter. Further, my vacation was a true family affair (besides Tanya, our son, Brooks, and Tanya’s mother, Maxine, joined us on the trip), making time for photography difficult. However, I did learn a few things, not the least of which is that I want to go back and spend a lot more time there. If you are thinking of going to Iceland in winter, here’s some things I learned.
- The light is incredible. The blue hour starts a full two hours before sunrise and lasts until two hours following sunset. And in between the blue hours, the entire time the sun is up, is the golden hours. When I was there, the sun was never above 3 degrees above the horizon. The light was magical.
- The light is short. Even with the long twilight hours, there isn’t a lot of time for photography. On Christmas day, for example, the sun rose in Reykjavík at 11:22 a.m. and set at 3:32 p.m. This is the perfect time to visit for photographers who like to sleep in.
- Expect a lot of contrast. Even with the great light, there is still a lot of contrast. Iceland is made of volcanic rocks, which are black. There will be snow – it’s Iceland after all.
- Be ready for wind. Though it wasn’t windy every day, when it was windy, it was very windy. With the low light levels and the wind, a tripod is absolutely necessary.
- Don’t like the weather, wait a day. The weather seemed to be totally unpredictable. Our first full day in the country, the high was just above freezing, it was mostly cloudy, there were a few scattered rain and snow showers, and there was no wind. The second day, a day we decided to do a day trip to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, it was below freezing, there was fog and low clouds, and even though it didn’t snow much, there were blizzard conditions with a steady wind over 30 mph (48 kph). The following day, Christmas, it was cold, a high of 16 degrees F (-9 C), but mostly clear with no wind. The day after Christmas had a high temperature a few degrees above freezing, with a partly cloudy skies and no wind. And our last day in the country, it was rainy with strong winds (strong enough to nearly blow our rental car off an icy road). The moral – keep your plans flexible as the weather.
- It’s expensive, but so what. Yes, prices are high, especially for food. But with a little prudence, you can keep to a budget. Try an off-brand rental car for instance; we paid about $280 for a 5-day rental of a mid-sided all-wheel drive SUV (a Ford Kuga) at Saga Car Rental (run by Thrifty, which, by the way, was at least $100 more), the equivalent at Hertz – about $700. Besides, chances are you are on vacation, worry about your bank account when you get home.
- Skip the tour and do it yourself. Rent a car (see above) and drive the Golden Circle by yourself. You’ll be on your own schedule, giving more time for photography. However, before doing so, critically consider your winter driving skills. On our trip to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, we came upon one unprepared rental car drive who was blown off the road.
- It probably goes without saying, but dress warmly in layers. The wind chill can be brutal.
- If you speak English, don’t worry about the language; nearly everyone speaks English.
- Take your whole photography kit. You’ll find lots of opportunities to use your wide-angle as well as your telephoto lenses.
- Be prepared. Research before you go as well as when you are there. I recommend the photographer’s road map of Iceland by Michael Levy. Want to see the aurora, check out this website with real-time northern lights forecasts. The site also give temperature and wind forecasts.
Sometimes I feel like I get in a photographic rut – stuck on the same subjects, the same compositions. I need to refresh my creative, photographic juices. One way to do this is to take on a series of topics you might not otherwise and to look for new perspectives. That is the motivation behind a photographic scavenger hunt – shoot a list of topics in a limited amount of time trying to come up with fresh new interpretations. I have blogged about scavenger hunts before (here and here), and that is my subject again today.
Yesterday I organized a scavenger hunt along the Gig Harbor waterfront for my two local photography club: Sound Exposure and the Tacoma Mountaineers. I’ve organized a scavenger hunt for one or the other of these groups for about four years now. I love doing scavenger hunts because they are a great learning tool for photographers of all skill levels. They force a photography to challenge themselves, to look beyond what they normally photography.
If you are in a club doesn’t have a scavenger hunt, you may want to suggest one. They are really a fun learning experience. But you don’t have to be in a club to do a scavenger hunt. You can do one all by yourself or with a couple of friends. First pick a place and time. Your time should be limited to about 4 hours or less – long enough to shoot all your subjects, but short enough to put a bit or pressure on yourself to get “good” shots of all the subjects. Develop a list of 20 to 24 subjects, and go shoot!
Here’s a list of subjects from the scavenger hunt I ran yesterday. You could apply most of these to your own scavenger hunt.
- Odd Number
- Break the Rule of Thirds
- Stop Action
- the “Perfect” Photograph
- Photographer’s Choice
- Self Portrait
Although I didn’t participate in the scavenger hunt because I was the organizer, I did take a few photos to help illustrate for this post. If you want more some more advise on how to run and organize a scavenger hunt, send me an email.
Go ahead – challenge yourself and do a scavenger hunt. Have fun!!!
I remember five years ago this month (it seems like just last year, how time flies when you get old), when my friend and fellow photographer, Bob Miller visited the Tacoma area. We got together one afternoon and drove out to the Key Peninsula, a rural area west of Gig Harbor, to see what we could find.
The Key Peninsula doesn’t offer any world-class view. But there are a couple of state parks: Penrose Point and Joemma Beach. Both are nice enough places, and some good photography can be had at either. Both have pleasant beaches. Penrose is on the east side of the peninsula and has a view of Mount Rainier. Joemma is on the west side, and the view is toward the Olympics. But Bob wanted to just roam, and not go anyplace special, so (at least as I remember it) we didn’t go to the state parks.
We ended up visiting a cemetery, an abandoned house, the site of a historic bed and breakfast, and several other stops just along the road. It was fun, just being out, driving around without any plans in particular other than shooting a few photos.
I don’t think I brought anything too exciting home from the trip, though I rather like the featured image above of an old building in the community of Home. Instead, the trip helped my “photographer memory” – that is, it helped me exercise my photographic skills, helping those skills become more automatic (sort of like muscle memory for sports). I know we all want to bring home that award-winning shot every time we go out shooting, but in reality, that doesn’t happen very often. Rather, it’s times like I had five years ago with Bob that have made my response with the camera more automatic. With less thinking about settings and composition, I am better prepared for that award-winning shot when it does present itself.
So, you may ask, why am I discussing this while showing photos from five years ago? That’s because I haven’t been practicing my photographer memory since the first weekend of the month. I haven’t been out, and it’s starting to bother me. It’s often said “use it or lose it,” and I suppose that is true about photography as well. Thinking back on that short trip five years ago is a good reminder to myself that there are plenty of nearby places where I can practice my photographic craft without making a special trip somewhere. In other words, I just need to get out there and do it!
Luckily, I do have a special trip coming up this Friday – though not specifically a photography trip. I’m heading off to southeast Alaska to go salmon fishing for four days. Hopefully I’ll be able to practice some photographer memory in between reeling in a few fish.
I took the accompanying photograph last Sunday in Seattle. It is for a revised, updated version of my Scenic Seattle book that will soon be published in a print edition (scheduled for spring 2016). This is a view of Lake Union, a portion of downtown Seattle, and Mount Rainier from the Aurora Avenue Bridge (officially named the George Washington Memorial Bridge, though I have never heard anyone call it that).
Great view, but … The sidewalk is fairly narrow and separated from the traffic lanes by a short wall. The other side of the sidewalk is separated from the great void below by vertical cabling (the cables are there to prevent people jumping off the bridge to commit suicide. The bridge is nearly 170 feet, or50 meters, above the water). This gives the sidewalk a kind sided cage-like feel – with the roaring traffic in the cage with you. The speed limit on the bridge is 40 miles per hour (64 kph), but in my experience, if you drive 40 mph on it, you will get rammed from behind. I’d guess the average traffic speed is above 50 mph (80 kph). And there are six, narrow lanes of traffic. Not a comfortable place to shoot.
And to make matters worse, whenever you photograph along busy roads, there always seems to be at least one jerk (I’m being kind here; I want to use a word my Mother would not be proud of) who honks their horn while you are studiously looking through the viewfinder. I was on the bridge about 10 to 15 minutes Sunday and was surprised only one person honked. But that honk did nearly scare the pants off me. (So maybe it was a good think the cables were there so I didn’t jump.)
Further, those cables don’t make it easy to take a photograph. Typical DSLR lenses are small enough to stick through the cables, but only when pointed 90 degrees off the axis of the bridge. To take the shot shown above, you need to angle your camera at 30 to 45 degrees off the axis of the bridge. With my camera, that means physically forcing pushing the cables aside with the lens barrel. In some spots, it wasn’t possible. The cables were too tight. But I did find a spot with the gap between cables slightly larger and the cables a bit looser than average. With a bit of strength, I was able to turn the camera and force the cable apart enough to take the shot. With the cables pushing back, I had to use a fast shutter speed – which was probably needed anyway because the whole bridge shakes with the traffic (forget about using a tripod here).
I possibly could have wedged my camera completely through the cables and used the live view function to compose a shot. But with the long drop, I didn’t feel particularly good about that option either. But for shooting with a phone or a small camera, reaching past the cables is viable if you trust yourself to hang on.
Still interested in getting the shot? The access is rather easy. Park on Troll Avenue N between N 35th and 36th Streets near the Troll (the Fremont Troll statue is underneath the Aurora Bridge at the intersection of Troll Avenue and 36th). Take the stairs on the right side of the Troll up to the bridge and walk south until you reach the view you want. Just don’t expect to be too comfortable.
Today is Pi Day. I’m not sure how Pi relates to photography, but Phi does. Pi the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, an irrational number approximately equal to 3.14159. Phi is also an irrational number, approximately equal to 1.61803. Phi is also called the golden ratio. It is the ratio obtained when a line is divided into two unequal parts such that when the longer part is divided by the smaller part the answer is the same as when the whole length is divided by the longer part. (It makes much more sense when you see it as a diagram.) Pi and Phi are somewhat related in that the product of the two numbers (phi times pi) is found in golden geometries.
I am not a mathematician, but I suspect the product of Pi and Phi is related to golden geometries because Phi is an expression of the golden ratio. And the golden ratio is special in photographic composition. Phi, the golden ratio, presents to the human mind a very pleasing relationship. Besides photography, it is found in architecture, painting, and music, as well in nature.
The golden ratio has been used for art since practically forever. The Parthenon is covered with instances of the Phi. It can be found in artworks such as the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper. It is even found in Darth Vader’s mask.
The rule of thirds works, in my opinion, because it is an approximation of Phi. If you take the sweet spot defined by Phi four times in a frame, you get a pattern similar to the rule of thirds, but a little less easy to define on the fly when looking through your viewfinder. Luckily, both Photoshop and Lightroom offer crop overlays that show the golden ratio grid.
The golden ratio can also be expressed in a spiral. A logarithmic spiral with a growth factor of Phi is known a the golden spiral. Again, both Photoshop and Lightroom also have crop overlays based on the golden spiral. The sweet spots of the golden spiral are also close the those of the rule of thirds.
It is easy to access these crop overlays in Lightroom. The various crop overlays in Lightroom are found under the Tools pull-down menu. Or when using the crop tool, use the shortcut of the letter “O” to cycle through the various crop overlays. When using the golden ratio overlay, you can cycle through the various orientations of the spiral (placing it in different quadrants of the image) by using “Shift O”. The same shortcuts are used in Photoshop when using its crop tool.
With a bit of practice, you can imagine the golden ratio proportions in your viewfinder, and you can always perfect the composition with the crop tool in Lightroom and Photoshop. So if you want to move beyond the rule of thirds, remember Phi – the golden ratio – a photographer’s compositional mathematical friend.
On my recent trip to Baltimore, I spent an afternoon at the National Mall in Washington, DC. It seemed to me, with cold weather and snow, as well as being on a Tuesday, there were very many people there. It may have been because the snow closed down the government, so a lot of people had the day off, and that it was sunny and not really that cold. Or it could be there is just always a lot of people there. It is a popular tourist attraction after all. Regardless, with all the people, it made it a challenge to photograph the monuments without a lot of people in my shots.
A great method to remove people from your shots is to use a really long exposure (typically several seconds to minutes). With a long exposure, people moving through the frame are not recorded. To get really long exposures, use a neutral density filter. As I was carrying my tripod and a neutral density filter, I was tempted to use this method to get a shot of the Lincoln Memorial during the afternoon, as it seemed to be the place with the most people gathered. However, even an exposure of several minutes (which I don’t think I could have gotten due to bright light) was probably not good enough in this case because a lot of people were standing in place for minutes at a time. A ten-minute exposure might have work, but I didn’t have the equipment with me for that.
Instead, I came by later, after sunset, when there were many fewer people about. Then using an 8-second exposure, I was able to capture the monument without people (actually, there is the “ghost” of two people in the shot, but I can remove them later with cloning if I want).
Actually, waiting for evening is a great method for controlling crowds. Typically there are many fewer people about and the light is often better than in the middle of the day. In the shot of the Washington Monument from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, I planned the shot during the afternoon when many people where in front of the war memorial wall, but came back after sunset to make the shot. I shot from this location for about 15 minutes, during which time, only one group of people passed.
Another method is to frame the people out of the picture, as worked for the image here of the Jefferson Memorial. Look for pleasing compositions above the heads of your fellow visitors. A corollary to this method is to shoot details, rather than the big picture, thereby cutting people out of your compositions.
Of course, that doesn’t always work. Sometimes you want the entire building or you want foregrounds that shooting high above people’s heads cannot give. In that case you can try to go with a wide-angle shot. With a wide-angle perspective, you can make the people visible in the shot look much smaller and less of an obstruction, at least if they are not close to the camera. This method worked well for the shot of the Washington Monument with the flags.
Or you can just go to areas that are not as popular. By visiting less popular sites, you don’t only get the advantage of fewer people in the frame, you can capture shots that are more unique (rather than the same shot of the popular attraction that has been shot a million times). Very few people were visiting the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, which is where I took the shot below of the Jefferson Memorial with the snowy tree in the foreground.
Travel photography presents many opportunities, including shooting interesting people and cultures. But sometimes, you views without the people in them. Using some of the methods described above can often allow you to capture shots people-free.
My intention this morning was to get a lot of work done. Instead, I sat down at the computer and played with Photoshop. I long have wanted to learn how to create the tilt-shift look in Photoshop. You know the look, that of a miniature toy town or city. So instead of working, I asked Mr. Google how to do it, and he directed to a tutorial by Denise Lu. It is quite easy.
1. Pick a photo. It seems to work best with a wide view, taken from a high angle so you are looking downward on the scene. Two of the images here were taken from the Smith Tower in Seattle and the third from the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
2. Open the photo in Photoshop and create a duplicate layer so you are not working on the background layer.
3. Enter the Quick Mask Mode (the shortcut is the Q key) and select the Gradient tool. With the gradient tool, select the reflected gradient (the 4th mode over on the gradient tool bar).
4. Draw a gradient starting in the area you want to be in focus and extending to the area out of focus. You can hold the Shift key down to make sure your gradient is straight. A mask (default color red) will appear on the screen showing the area to be in focus. You will likely have to play around with it to get a mask exactly where you want it.
5. Exit the Quick Mask Mode (hit the Q key again) and from the filter pull-down menu select the Lens Blur filter.
6. Pick a radius of somewhere between 20 and 40, at least those are the values I used. The Lens Blur filter screen will let you preview the results.
7. Consider adding saturation with a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer and extra contrast with a Levels or Curves adjustment layer to make the result look for toy-like.
And that’s it! The hardest part is getting the gradient in the proper place. If you have a building sticking out of the in-focus area, such as in my image of Paris here, you can use other selection tools to de-select that portion of the building after leaving the Quick Mask Mode but before applying the Lens Blur filter.
I recently did a series of posts on the American Southwest. As a final entry in that series, I wanted to tell my story of obtaining photography permits from the Navajo Nation. Sometime in the past, I’m not exactly sure when or how, I learned that photo permits are required for commercial photography in Navajo Parks. So when I started planning for my trip that was to include visits to three Navajo parks: Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, and Antelope Canyon, I started an internet search to determine if a permit was truly needed, and if so, what was the cost. My whole experience turned out to be an adventure in bureaucracy.
It is important to remember that all officially recognized Indian reservations in the United States are recognized by the federal government as “domestic dependent nations.” This status allows each tribe to independently have its own laws and regulations. I am quite familiar with this. Here in Washington State, there are 29 federally recognized Tribal nations. Three tribes are good clients of the environmental company I run for my day job, Robinson Noble, and several others we work for on an occasional basis. Working with Tribal nations on a regular basis, I was inclined to pay for a permit for the Navajos. Little did I know, however, how involved the process would be.
One of the first things I learned in my internet search is that most photographers do not get permits. They are only required for commercial photography, and many landscape photographers don’t bother because of lack of enforcement and cost. If you are not planning on selling any photography from the parks, you do not need a permit. Chances are you will not see any Navajo rangers or police, but if you do, you may be asked to show your permit if you have expensive looking equipment even if not shooting commercially. And, of course, there is the question of what is commercial. You may not consider yourself as a commercial photographer if you only sell an occasional fine-art print, but based on my dealings with the Navajo Parks Department, they would consider you as one. On their website, on the Monument Valley page, not on the main permits page like you might expect, it states permits are required for “filming and photography undertaken for commercial purposes, i.e. for financial gain or public display and exhibition.” If you have any intent to possibly sell images taken in a Navajo park, legally you need a permit.
I also learned that finding the exact rules for photography in Navajo parks is next to impossible. The Navajo Parks website is not very useful. If you go their website, there is a top menu link to “Permits and Services,” and hitting that link takes you to a page that largely talks about hiking and camping (permits also needed). However, on the side menu, there is a link titled “Filming and Photography Permit for Tribal Park Area.” This link does take you to a permit form, but it is for filming, not still photography. There is a separate permit form for still photography. I only found this application form by doing a Google search for “Navajo photography permit” not through their website. While researching for this post, I did actually find links to the still photography permit. There are links on some of the individual park pages, not at the main permits page.
If you look at the two permit forms, you will notice that the still photography form is much simpler (which is nice), but you will also notice that it does not specify what the fees are like the filming form does. After some searching, I found this page on the Navajo Parks website that discusses fees for both still and video photography, though that page is also unclear as to what fees apply only to videography vs still photograph. However, based on that fee list, I determined that there a fee of $10 per day per person and a $50 processing fee. It seemed fairly reasonable.
Consequently, I prepared an application, selecting the three full days I planned to photograph in Monument Valley, at Canyon de Chelly, and in Antelope Canyon (which is in the Lake Powell Navajo Tribal Park). At the time, I assumed that one processing fee was required no matter how many parks were visited, but then I re-considered the statement at the top of the application which says, “Submit application and applicable fees to the address at each location photography is to take place.” Did that mean, I asked myself, that I needed to send three separate applications, each with the $50 processing fee? Suddenly, the fees seemed less reasonable.
To make sure I did things correctly, I called the Navajo Parks office in Window Rock. On my initial call, made in late afternoon, but definitely before 5 pm, the phone went unanswered. I tried again in the morning and got through. They confirmed that a separate application and a separate processing fee is required for each park.
Consequently, I filled out three applications and sent them in to the three parks, each with a $60 check to cover the processing fees plus one day photographing in each park. About a week later, I received a phone call from the Lake Powell Navajo Park. They said my application had been received, however, they do not accept personal checks. Instead, I would need to send a money order or cashiers check, and it should be for $50, not the $60 I’d sent. The daily fee was only $8, not $10, and should be paid when arriving. Further, on the application, I needed to not only state the day I would be photographing, but the hours I’d be there and the name of the tour operator I would be using (visits to Antelope Canyon and other slot canyons on the Navajo Reservation require a tour guide for non-Navajos).
So my next step was to set up reservations with a tour operator for visiting Antelope Canyon. After researching the various Antelope Canyon tour operators and didn’t see much difference between them in terms of price or service. All offered a photo tour, where tripods are allowed, for about $80 or a standard tour for about $30. The photo tours were all about 1/2 longer. The number of people per tour are all large, and the photo tours occur concurrently with the standard tours, so at any time there could be hundreds of people in the slot canyon. It sounds like a really zoo, but I’d never been there, so though I was tempted to forget the whole thing, I decide I need to go at least once.
I eventually chose Antelope Canyon Navajo Tours solely because they are located at the entrance to the canyon, not in Page like the others. I chose them because I wanted to do Lower Antelope Canyon in the early morning, then Upper Antelope Canyon later the same morning. I called them to see if I could book Tanya on the photo tour, so we could tour together, even though she would not have a camera. The answer was no, only photographers are allowed on the photo tour because allowing non-photographing spouses on the tour would deny some worthy photographer of a spot. They said to book Tanya on a standard tours, and she would have to wait a half hour after her tour ended for me to come out. I went ahead and booked us on separate tours. Luckily, they did not require a deposit.
Then I investigated Kens Tours, which is the only company that does lower Antelope Canyon tours. Photo “tours” there $50. There is no tour involved, you get a pass that allows you in the slot canyon by yourself for 2 hours. Again, non-photographer spouses must go on a standard tour ($28, one hour long). Reservations are not required.
Now armed with a reservation for Upper Antelope and a plan for Lower Antelope, I filled out a new photo permit application, bought a money order for $50, and sent if off again. Now, several days after the call from the Lake Powell Navajo Park, I was beginning to wonder about Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly. Did they also not accept personal checks? Would they need specific times? I was starting to get a bit worried about timing, this was only a couple of weeks before we were to leave on our trip.
I decided I needed to call each and find out. Again, I tried calling in the afternoon, but the phones went unanswered. So the next morning I tried again and reached the office at Monument Valley. The conversation was a bit surreal; it went something like this:
Me: Hi, my name is Joe Becker. I recently sent in an application for a photography permit and I had some questions.
Them: Sure, how can I help?
Me: A few days ago I talked with the folks down at the Lake Powell Tribal Park. I had sent them an application as well. They said they do not accept personal checks for the fee and that I needed to send a money order. With my application to Monument Valley, I had also paid with a personal check. Do you have the same policy of not accepting personal checks?
Them: Yes, cashier’s checks or money orders only. You said your name is Joe Becker?
Them: Oh, yes, we received your application. I’ve sent it down to Window Rock for processing.
Me: What did you do with the check?
Them: I cashed it.
Me: You cashed it? I thought you didn’t accept personal checks?
Them: We don’t. You’re check’s not going to bounce is it? I’ll be in trouble if you don’t have any money in the bank.
Me: No it’s fine. I have plenty of money in the bank. But, I’m a bit confused. You cashed my check, so I don’t need to send a money order?
Them: You will need to talk to Jane (not her real name) in Window Rock about that. You sure your check was good?
I decided not to call Window Rock; she said she cashed the check. That should be good enough, right?
Instead, I called Canyon de Chelly. The phone call was answered by someone at the campground, which I thought was a bit odd. I asked about the application and whether personal checks were okay. They told me to call the main Park’s office in Window Rock, and I should call the National Park Service, they’d want a permit as well (Canyon de Chelly is co-managed by the Park Service and Navajo Parks). I know the rules for national parks and knew I didn’t need a permit.
But, in the end, I did call Window Rock after all. However, my conversation with the folks at Window Rock was limited to my application about Canyon de Chelly. And yes, they do not accept personal checks. I was to send a new application and a money order. By the way, what should they do with the check I had sent? Should they send it back to me or shred it? I asked them to shred it. Later that day, I sent a new application with a money order in for Canyon de Chelly.
About a week later, I received my permit in the mail for Lake Powell Navajo Park (Antelope Canyon), and several days later received an email with a pdf copy of my permit for Canyon de Chelly. But nothing showed up for Monument Valley. Finally, just a couple of days before I was to leave on my trip, I emailed “Jane” at Window Rock, saying I was leaving in two days and asking about the status of my application. She emailed me back the next day, asking if I had submitted an application, saying my name was not familiar, and if not, email one to her as quick as possible.
I immediately emailed back with the story of my application, about how I had talked to the Monument Valley office, and that they told me my check had been cashed. But in case she still couldn’t find my application, I attached a new one with the email. I also attached a pdf of the cancelled check.
She responded four days later. By this time, I was camping in Arches National Park with plans to drive to Monument Valley the next day, and I had little hope of getting a permit. However, around lunchtime we drove into Moab so I could again check my email. Sitting on a nice shady bench outside the visitor center, using their free WiFi, I finally found a response from Jane. In the email she said the check I had previously sent had been shredded, so I would have to pay the fee once I got to Monument Valley. Attached was an invoice for $70 ($20 entrance fee and the $50 processing fee). Also attached was the permit.
I wrote her back, thanking her for the permit, but also explaining once again that the check had been cashed. I explained how I had also sent an application for Canyon de Chelly, and that was the check she had shredded. She emailed back an hour later, simply stating that the check attached to the application sent to Window Rock had been shredded.
So obviously there was some confusion, but at least I had the permit, though it was unsigned. We drove to Monument Valley the next day, arriving late in the afternoon. The park office was closed. The following day, the day my permit was good for, I got up early and took sunrise photos. Tanya and I then drove the scenic drive, where I took more photos. Around noon, we drove back to the hotel and visitor center. The park office was open. I talked to the same woman I had talked to on the phone (the one who had cashed the check) several weeks before. She had no memory of the phone call or of cashing the check. She did have a copy of my permit and wanted payment. I gave her the whole story, and showed her a pdf copy of the cancelled check on my smart phone. She accepted that as proof, and officially signed the permit.
The three permits were quite different:
Canyon de Chelly – the permit is simply a copy of my application signed the park manager with an attached receipt for the payment.
Monument Valley – the permit is a single page of Navajo Parks letterhead, signed both by me and a park official, allowing photography on September 4, 2014 subject to 17 different conditions, five of which were marked as not applicable. One of the non-applicable conditions was the requirement to have a certificate of liability insurance naming the Navajo Nation and the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park as additional insureds.
Lake Powell Navajo Park – the permit is four pages long. The first page gives the date of the permit as September 8, 2014, the times of my scheduled Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon tours, states an $8 balance was due (the entrance fee), and says liability insurance is required. The second page was signed by the park manager and includes the statement that any photography that exceeds 8 hours will be considered as part of an extra day. The final two pages are a listing of 24 extra conditions, including the need to have the Navajo Nation as an additional insured on my general liability insurance policy.
I should also note that one the conditions on both the Monument Valley and Antelope Canyon allows the Navajo Nation free use of the photographs. Specifically, the Monument Valley permit states: “you agree to provide final finished project products (filming and photographs) to the Navajo Nation.” The Antelope Canyon permit is a bit more specific. It states “the Navajo Parks and Recreation Department reserves the right to use any image, photograph or video, obtained from Navajo Nation park lands without recompense to the photographer for marketing, promotion, advertising or informational purposes whether such image is obtained for personal or commercial purposes and where such image is displayed or exhibited in a public forum such as the internet or broadcast.”
After this whole adventure in Navajo permits, how did the photography turn out? I’m very happy with my results from Monument Valley. My favorite shots from Canyon de Chelly were taken from the rim, where I doubt a permit is actually needed. However, I do have a few good images from inside the canyon were a permit is definitely required (at least if you follow the rules). And Antelope Canyon? We ended up not going. It rained on the day of my permit, and I thought that exploring a slot canyon in rain was a foolish thing to do. Though I do have some good images from the trip, I doubt I will ever earn my permit fees back in image sales or licensing. But if I do, I will do so legally.
During this whole process, I was told several times to carry the permits with me when photographing in the parks and to show them to any ranger or police officer that asks. During my days in Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly, I did not see a single ranger or police officer and was never asked to show my permits.
In hindsight, I wonder if the whole thing was worth it, though it makes an interesting story. In summary, here’s what I learned about Navajo Parks photo permits:
- If you are only photographing for personal enjoyment, you do not need a permit.
- If you are photographing commercially, including just having the intent to possibly sell a fine art photograph, you legally need the permit.
- A separate application and permit is needed for each park.
- Each application requires a $50 processing fee, payable with a cashiers check or money order (personal checks are not accepted).
- You probably need general liability insurance (if you are shooting commercially, you should have it anyway).
- If going to Antelope Canyon or any of the other slot canyons on Navajo land near Page, Arizona, you need to specifically state on your application the dates, times, and tour companies you will be using.
- It’s best to send your applications in at least a month prior to your trip.
- Carry your permit with you when photographing.
If you decide you need a permit, good luck. May your adventures with the Navajo Parks Department be less complicated than mine.
I enjoy night photography, though I’ll be the first to admit that I have a lot to learn. I have previously written on the topic. However, in that case, my post focused on night photography in the city. In today’s post, I’ll focus on night photography in the wilderness (or at least far from city lights).
During my recent backpacking trip in the Olympic Mountains, I played with night photography on two nights. My main focus on those nights was to capture some shots of the Milky Way. When shooting star filled skies, and not trying for star trails, here are a few hints:
- plan your shot by seeing where the Milky Way will be – download the free program Stellarium, a planetarium for computers which can show you how the night sky will look anywhere in the world at anytime now or in the future.
- pick a spot outside of cities – light pollution blocks many visible stars; my trip to the Olympic Mountains was perfect
- for the best star shots, avoid times when the moon is up – like light pollution, moonlight will drown out many stars; it was just after new moon when I was in the Olympics, moonlight was not a problem
- use as “fast” a lens as you can – I used my f4 17-40mm zoom because I wanted the wide-angle view. However, my f2.8 24-70mm lens would have been a better choice for its better light gathering ability
- don’t be afraid of high ISOs, you will need it – I used ISO settings of 3,200, 6,400, and 8,000 coupled with noise reduction in Lightroom.
- avoid shutter speeds more than 30 seconds, otherwise you will start getting star trails – up to 30 seconds typically works okay for wide-angle shots (perhaps up to 24 mm), but if you use a less wide-angle lens, you will need a faster shutter speed. The shots here had shutter speeds of 20 to 30 seconds
- use a wide open aperture – I had my lens wide open at f4 (again, an f2.8 lens would have been better)
- use a tripod – goes without saying
- if you want some color to the sky, don’t wait until it is too dark – the length of time after sunset the sky will retain color depends on which direction you point the camera and your latitude (it gets darker quicker at lower latitudes); my shots here were taken between 1.5 and 2.5 hours after sunset
- auto-focus will not work, so turn it off – auto-focus does not work in low light; to focus you can choose to take some test shots and check a magnified view on your LCD panel of some of the stars; alternatively, manually set the focus to the hyperfocal distance or biased to the infinite side of the hyperfocal distance (that’s what I did)
- consider using less vignetting correction in post-processing – the profiled vignetting correction for my lens in Lightroom adds a lot of noise to the edges of the images (not a problem in full light conditions, bad news in low light)
Last Friday Tanya, Nahla and I took a day hike along Ingalls Creek in the Alpine Lake Wilderness Area. When loading my pack at the trailhead, I decided the leave my tripod in the car – it was a bright sunny day, what would I need the tripod for? Actually, I needed the tripod for two things. First, I apparently forgot that I like that silky water look when photographing streams. Second, as the afternoon progressed, it got cloudy and much less bright.
So, what to do when you need to use slow shutter speeds and don’t have a tripod? Well that depends on the photo. In the case of low light, you can just increase the ISO and decrease your need for a slow shutter speed. Of course, this does have the problem of increasing noise. In the case of wanting a slow shutter speed for a visual effect, like creating silky looking water, a high ISO will not help. You have to find a way of holding the camera steady.
If possible, you try not holding the camera at all; set it on the ground or, when hiking, on your pack. However, this doesn’t always work well. It can be difficult to get the composition you want that way, though using the live view (if your camera is so equipped) can help. If you have to hold the camera, try some of these techniques:
- use the proper technique to support the camera and lens – support the body and lens with your hands, elbows in tight against your body, camera tight against your forehead, have your body braced if possible.
- You can also use the camera strap to help. In my case, I shortened up the strap and looped it under my elbow so there was just enough strap length to hold the camera when pressing my elbow after from the camera. This made the strap very tight and greatly steadied the camera.
- Shoot in short bursts, gently pushing the shutter button – often when shooting three or five images with one press of the shutter, later images may be more steady than the first one (when the button is first pressed).
- Shoot lots of frames – for the stream image above, I probably shot 20 or 30 frames to get one steady enough.
- Control your breath, make it slow and steady. Try to press the shutter button when exhaling.
- Shoot using a wide-angle lens – camera movement is less apparent with wider angle lenses than with telephoto lenses
- Use an image-stabilizing lens (nice if you have it; though in my case, the lens I was using does not have this feature)
With these techniques (except the last one), I was able to get a few decent shots without having the resort to software solutions (such as Focus Magic), which though good, do have limitations. But next time, I think I will bring my tripod, even on a sunny day.
BTW, the wildflowers are really out in force along Ingalls Creek right now. We saw lupines; red, orange and yellow indian paintbrush, mariposa lilies; and many more. This is a great time of year to do this hike.
I have trouble photographing the moon. Okay, it’s not so hard before for the sun sets (which is why the best full moon pictures are typically taken the day before the full moon and, consequently, before the sun sets), but after dark, I have lots of problems. There is just too much contrast. The moon is bright, basically as bright as anything lit by sunlight on a cloudless sunny mid-day. Everything else is dark. The dynamic range of any scene with the moon is too much for a camera to handle.
Perfect time to try some HDR photography, right? Maybe, but I’ve never gotten it to work well. I’ve always get funny looking light artifacts around the moon; all my attempts at using HDR for scenes with the moon have looked awful. How about shooting one exposure for the moon, one for the rest of the scene, and combining them in Photoshop. Again, maybe you can do that, but every time I’ve tried it, it doesn’t work – there’s too much glare around the moon and I can’t get the sky to look right.
Last month when I wanted to photograph the full moon rising behind the Glass Museum in Tacoma, I was disappointed when there were clouds on the eastern horizon and the moon wasn’t visible. Less than an hour later, the moon rose above the clouds, and though it was no longer aligned with the Glass Museum, it lined up nicely with the cable bridge over the Thea Foss Waterway. Nice shot, I thought, except now it was way too dark to capture both the moon and the with a single exposure. I set up the tripod anyway and took a series of shots, hoping that perhaps the contrast would not be too extreme.
Later, when I downloaded the shots, I was disappointed to find out contrast was too great – moon troubles were visiting me again. I tried HDR (once again) and was disappointed with the results (once again). I was frustrated. At that point, I figured someone else must have an answer to this problem, so I spent some time researching moon photography on Google. Most advice centered around photographing during twilight before it was too dark. Not helpful in my case. After a bit of searching, I found a YouTube video (which I can’t find again to credit here), where the photographer used HDR for only the moon and the area of sky immediately around it, a single image for the rest of the shot, then combined the two images in Photoshop. He then re-imported the resultant image into Photomatix for additional tone mapping, which I thought wasn’t necessary. But the first part sounded interesting.
I had a series of seven images, shot one f-stop apart. I imported all into Photomatix and worked it for the moon only. I re-imported the HDR moon image into Lightroom. Then I took a single image from the original seven and worked it in Lightroom for the foreground only. I also worked the HDR moon image in Lightroom to approximately match the sky to the sky (away from the moon) in the foreground image. I exported both images to Photoshop into a single document, with the foreground image as the background layer and the HDR moon image laying on top. I used a layer mask on the HDR moon layer to mask out everything but the area around the moon, feathering the mask match the sky in the underlying layer. The two skies didnt quite match, so I used a curves layer with a clipping mask on the HDR moon layer to get the tone of the two skies to be more similar. Once I was satisfied with the result, I continued with my normal Photoshop workflow to finish the image.
Perfect? No. But in the end, after a lot of work, the result is the best moon image I’ve ever captured after dark. What do you think, is it any good? And please, if anyone has some better way to handle my moon troubles, be kind and let me know.