Archive for the ‘Instructional’ Category

Exposure Foundations

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015
Exposure Foundations

The foundation of any good exposure is understanding light, as an exposure is merely capturing light successfully. In the pre-digital days, photos were created by exposing negative or slide film to light for a certain period of time in order to record an image. Nowadays, it involves capturing that light digitally on a camera sensor.

At the core of that exposure is a combination of factors that allow the right amount of light into the camera for a specific period of time. We know these elements as aperture and shutter speed, which represent different “stops” of light. Understanding their relationship, and how they are impacted by the ISO setting of a camera, is essential to making the right decisions on how to set an exposure.

There are four elements of exposure. The first element is light sensitivity, or ISO. The second is the exposure mode you are shooting in (manual or aperture priority, for example). The third is aperture setting, or f-stop. The fourth is shutter speed.

Light Sensitivity

In the pre-digital days, photographers were capturing their images on film. When you purchased film, you always purchased film that had a set ASA, or film sensitivity. ASA 50, 64 and 100 film lay at the bottom of the light sensitivity spectrum. Thus, they were the film chosen for daylight landscape photography. Film ranged from those lower numbers to 400, 800 and 1600 ASA. There were higher numbers, but they were rarely used. The higher the number, the less light was necessary to capture an image. But also, the higher the ASA number, the higher visible grain you could see in the image.


Now, with digital cameras, you can find a range of ISO settings from 50 to 125,000. But ISO is more than just light sensitivity, it is a crucial element in determining what aperture and shutter speed to use in capturing an image. Selecting your ISO is key to setting the foundation for your exposure.

I always use standard starting points for ISO settings: 50 or 100 ISO for landscape photography, 400 ISO for wildlife photography, and 1600 ISO for aurora borealis photography. Choosing your light sensitivity setting drives the rest of the exposure process.

Exposure Mode

There are essentially four exposure mode settings for any DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera: manual, aperture priority, shutter priority, and program. Manual exposure is when the photographer makes all of the exposure setting decisions: the ISO, the aperture, and the shutter speed. With aperture priority, the photographer sets the ISO and aperture setting, but the camera selects the shutter speed based on the meter reading in the camera. With shutter priority, the photographer selects ISO and shutter speed, but the camera sets the aperture. Finally, with program, the camera makes all decisions, leaving the photographer with no technical or creative decisions.

My preferred mode for daytime photography is aperture priority, as controlling the ISO and aperture setting are integral to my artistic control. For nighttime photography, I shoot exclusively in manual mode. The key thing to remember about any exposure mode is that the camera’s meter will want to translate the world into a neutral (18%) grey. That means, it will underexpose bright or white subjects and overexpose dark or black subjects. Have you ever taken a picture of a snowy scene and it comes back looking kind of muddy? That’s why. If shooting in any mode other than manual mode, you will need to use exposure compensation to get a correct exposure that provides detail in the blacks as well as the highlights.

Aperture and Shutter

Understanding the relationship between aperture setting and shutter speed is understanding stops of light. As a measurement unit of exposure, the f-stop corresponds primarily to the aperture setting on your lens: f/2.8, f/4.0, f/8.0 and so on. There is one f-stop between f/2.8 and f/4.o, one f-stop between f/4.0 and f/5.6 and all the way up the ring. These settings distinguish between an aperture that is really open, and thus bringing in more light when open (like f/2.8) or one that is really narrow, and thus bringing in little light (like f/16 or f/22). These settings also control depth of field, but that is a discussion for another time.


In contrast, shutter speed tells us how long the shutter on the camera body will remain open once the shutter has been triggered. The aperture on the lens controls how much light is coming in, but the shutter speed controls how long the film/sensor is exposed to light. Simply put, the wider the aperture, the shorter the shutter speed required for exposure; in contrast, a more narrow aperture will require a longer shutter speed for exposure. As the f-stop on the lens goes up, the amount of time for the shutter to be opened increases.


For example, to get the same exposure in mid-day light, a simple exposure would be ISO 100 with an aperture of f/16 and shutter speed of 1/125 seconds (also known as the Sunny F/16 Rule). Let’s say for artistic reasons, you need a slower shutter speed (say, to get some movement in water). In order to get movement, you will need to drop your shutter speed down to 1/30 of a second – that is a difference of two stops of light. In order to get that shutter speed, you would have to either increase your aperture to f/32, or, take other measures to reduce the amount of light coming in. A polarizing filter will take away about two stops of light. You could drop your ISO to 25 (no DSLR that I know of provides that). You could also add a full-frame 2-stop graduated neutral density filter.

My Common Settings

To illustrate how this all works in practice, I will share my primary settings for my most common lighting situations.

For daytime landscape photography, I typically shoot ISO 100 in aperture priority, with the aperture setting at f/16. Most often, shutter speed is either not a factor, or I want the slower shutter speed to get motion (like in moving water). But, if I am shooting a field of wildflowers and it is breezy, I may want to increase my ISO in order to provide for a faster shutter speed.

For wildlife photography, I start at ISO 400 in aperture priority, with the aperture set at f/5.6. I want a shallower depth of field to reduce background distraction and get a higher shutter speed, which is important when using a longer lens. And as a side note, the general rule of thumb for an ideal shutter speed to minimize camera movement is to have a shutter speed that equal to or greater than your focal length. So, for example, when shooting with a 500mm lens, you want a shutter speed of 1/500 or greater.

Finally, for nighttime photography, it all depends on the subject. If I am shooting the aurora borealis, I am going to start with ISO 1600 in manual mode, with the aperture set at f/2.8 and shutter speed at 8 seconds. Then I adjust to how bright or active the aurora is. For star trails photography, ISO 100 in manual mode on the bulb setting with the aperture set at f/2.8 and the shutter speed … well, the shutter is left open for 2-3 hours.

Understanding how all of this works takes a bit of time in the filed and a lot of tossed slides or deleted files. Experiment, try new things, and enjoy capturing the light! If you want to learn from me out in the field, keep an eye out for my listings of photo excursions. I always provide instruction on exposure as part of any outing.

2014: A Review in Pictures

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014
2014: A Review in Pictures

I always enjoy a mixture of the new and the familiar in a year of exploring the natural world with my camera. The year 2014 did not disappoint in that regard.

After a robust 2013 of doing fieldwork for my Bristol Bay project, “Where Water is Gold,” I really ramped down my fieldwork in 2014. The funding for my fieldwork was pretty much spent, and I had accomplished most of what I needed to capture this incredibly resource-rich and culturally vibrant region. I passed over 1,500 images off to the book publisher, Braided River, and proceeded to work hard with them on production fundraising. I managed to help secure some $20,000 in funding, nearly half of our production budget. So, I only did one dedicated trip for this project in 2014 – a winter visit to the village of Igiugig, at the headwaters of the Kvichak River on Lake Iliamna. But, there was one moment of happenstance  while strolling Pike Place Market in Seattle in early August – sighting an Ocean Beauty Seafood truck making a fresh delivery of Alaskan wild sockeye salmon to the market. All I had was my iPhone 5, and I managed to capture a shot that completes the story that started with catching the salmon on an Ocean Beauty-affiliated drift boat (the F/V Chulyen) in the summer of 2011. And you bet that even though it is a phone shot, it is going in the book! I also added a little Bristol Bay fieldwork right here in Anchorage by photographing Monica Zappa, the Iditarod rookie musher who set out as part of her ongoing efforts, Mushing to Save Bristol Bay!

It was also another good year for chasing the aurora borealis. While there was no single display that truly matched the awe-inspiring craziness of the St. Patrick’s Day display in 2013, there were many shows that provided exceptional photo opportunities. But I also captured the aurora in more diverse locations than in previous years: Wiseman, Chandlar Shelf, Dalton Highway, Parks Highway, Denali Highway, Kiana, Kotzebue, Denali National Park & Preserve, Hatcher Pass, Turnagain Arm and Portage Valley. Some of those are some of my standard spots, but others were new.

Related to that, I spent some time scouting locations to conduct future aurora borealis tours and workshops. One location I checked was the vicinity of Glennallen, at the junction of the Glenn and Richardson Highways. Another was the vicinity of Wiseman and to the north along the Dalton Highway. From those trips, I have scheduled my first aurora borealis tour, with more to come in 2016. I also scouted the Tutka Bay Lodge for a future summer macro and landscape photo workshop.

Michelle and I also made our biennial trek to the Hawaiian Islands, stopping first on the Island of Hawaii to visit CJ Kale and Nick Selway, and see their new Lava Light Galleries location at the Queen’s Shops at Waikaloa. CJ and Nick were gracious hosts as we explored surf, sunsets and Pele on the Big Island. We also brought them a case of Midnight Sun Brewery flavors, recalling their love for that brewery when they came to visit the previous year. After spending a few days with the Lava Boys, we headed over for a ten-day visit to the Island of Kauai, our new favorite of the islands. We split up our time between the north and south shores, taking in a visit to the Koloa Rummery, doing some aerial tours, snorkeling, hiking, and testing various Mai Tai recipes. (CJ later helped us to make the perfect Mai Tai when he came to visit Alaska later in the year.) An attempt to delve into serious underwater photography was foiled when I dropped my Nikon D800E on its back on the first day of shooting on the Big Island, forcing me to use the camera without the benefit of the LCD.

The other big photo outing in 2014 involved eight days in Denali National Park & Preserve, operating on a Professional Photographer Special Permit to use my own vehicle on the road system. I was joined in the first half of the trip by CJ Kale, and by Nick Selway in the second half of the trip. We were able to see and photograph just about everything you would want to in the park, and more: all five of the “Big Five” animals – wolf, Dall sheep, brown bear, caribou and moose; Denali (Mt. McKinley) at sunrise and at night; marvelous fall colors and aurora borealis deep within the park. The creative freedom offered by being able to drive within the park, at all times of the day, led to some incredible results.

Mixed in there were various visits in locations around Southcentral Alaska and to Olympic National Park, Washington.

Coming up next year … more familiar and some new. I will take advantage of the incredible forecast for the sockeye salmon returns in Bristol Bay (at least 50% greater return than next year) to squeeze in a few more trips out to Bristol Bay for the book. I will return to Wiseman in the spring to scout locations for a future spring workshop, and go there in late August for my aurora borealis photo tour. And for the new – a summer trip to Iceland to start a multi-year project to photograph the circumpolar Arctic.

To see a selection of my top 2014 images, visit my 2014 Year in Review gallery. Here is a teaser of what you will find there.

0114-KAUA-HI-1124 0214-BRBY-AK-1041-Edit 0314-ANCH-AK-1022 0314-KOTZ-AK-1390 0614-KACH-AK-1049-Edit 0614-TURN-AK-1011 0614-TURN-AK-1140 0814-DENA-AK-2363 0814-DENA-AK-3525-Edit

What, Forest Service Gutting the First Amendment? Relax Already.

Thursday, September 25th, 2014
What, Forest Service Gutting the First Amendment? Relax Already.

There’s a lot of outrage on the Internets these days about proposed plans by the U.S. Forest Service to gut the First Amendment by requiring permits for news media or nature photographers in Federally-designated wilderness areas on Forest Service lands. After reading a lot of the outrage, there are two things that come abundantly clear: None of the outraged have actually read the applicable Federal Register notice, and none of them are aware that this has been the status quo on Federal public lands for decades. Nothing on the face of the notice actually applies to the media. So, you have to look at the applicable proposed regulation in order to see how “unfairly” the media is “targeted.”

What the Federal Register Notice Actually Says

It’s always important when analyzing a law to go back to the original language, not how it has been interpreted. So, in this case, let’s go to the actual notice as printed in the Federal Register. The notice published by the U.S. Forest Service proposes changes to 36 C.F.R. 251, which currently requires a special use permit for any activity on Forest Service lands other than noncommercial uses and other exempted activities.  The proposal at issue is to take interim guidance that has been in effect for four years and develop “permanent guidance for the evaluation of proposals for still photography and commercial filming on National Forest System Lands.” Noting the need for consistent, national criteria for evaluating applications for special use permits for such activities, the ultimate goal to develop “the criteria used to evaluate request for special use permits related to still photography and commercial filming in congressionally designated wilderness areas.” Most importantly, the Federal Register notice does not even propose new restrictions on activities at all – it merely proposes creating more evaluation criteria so that the Forest Service can consistently evaluate applications for special use permits.  Let me make this clear – it does not propose any changes to what activities already require a special use permit under existing U.S. Forest Service regulations.  The proposed evaluation criteria would allow the U.S. Forest Service to issue a special use permit for “commercial filming” and “still photography” if the application

[m]eets the screening criteria in 36 CFR 251.54(e); [w]ould not cause unacceptable resource damage; [w]ould not unreasonably disrupt the public’s use and enjoyment of the site where the activity would occur; [w]ould not pose a public health and safety risk; and [m]eets the following additional criteria, if the proposed activity, other than noncommercial still photography (36 CFR 251.51), would be in a congressionally designated wilderness area: a. Has a primary objective of dissemination of information about the use and enjoyment of wilderness or its ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value (16 U.S.C. 1131(a) and (b)); b. Would preserve the wilderness character of the area proposed for use, for example, would leave it untrammeled, natural, and undeveloped and would preserve opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation (16 U.S.C. 1131(a)); c. Is wilderness-dependent, for example, a location within a wilderness area is identified for the proposed activity and there are no suitablelocations outside of a wilderness area (16 U.S.C. 1133(d)(6)); d. Would not involve use of a motor vehicle, motorboat, or motorized equipment, including landing of aircraft, unless authorized by the enabling legislation for the wilderness area (36 CFR 261.18(a) and (c)); e. Would not involve the use of mechanical transport, such as a hang glider or bicycle, unless authorized by the enabling legislation for the wilderness area (36 CFR 261.18(b)); f. Would not violate any applicable order (36 CFR 261.57); and g. Would not advertise any product or service.

In short, the permit application may be granted if the activity will not disrupt others’ enjoyment of the forest or cause any safety risks, and, for permits in wilderness areas, does not violate the Congressional mandates of the Wilderness Act of 1964. That is it – there are no new restrictions being considered, merely clarified guidelines as to how the agency will evaluate your permit application. Quite frankly, as a member of the public, I’d rather there be clear, specific guidelines rather than allowing the agency to exercise its own unfettered discretion.

Permitting for “Commercial Filming” and “Still Photography” on Federal Public Lands

The key terms in the Federal Register notice are “still photography” and “commercial filming, ” so, the smart place to go next is how those terms are defined in existing regulations. Currently, any use of Forest Service lands is considered a special use except “noncommercial recreational activities, such as camping, picnicking, hiking, fishing, boating, hunting, and horseback riding, or for noncommercial activities involving the expression of views, such as assemblies, meetings, demonstrations, and parades, unless … the proposed use is still photography as defined in [this regulation].” Additionally, the regulations note that travel on the Forest Service road system shall not require a special use permit unless the activity is “commercial filming, or still photography, as defined in [this regulation].”

So, how do the Forest Service regulations currently define “commercial filming” and “still photography”? That is the question that no one is asking. “Commercial filming” is defined as “use of motion picture, videotaping, sound recording, or any other moving image or audio recording equipment on National Forest System lands that involves the advertisement of a product or service, the creation of a product for sale, or the use of models, actors, sets, or props, but not including activities associated with broadcasting breaking news, as defined in FSH 2709.11, chapter 40.” The other key term, “still photography,” is defined as “use of still photographic equipment on National Forest System lands that takes place at a location where members of the public generally are not allowed or where additional administrative costs are likely, or uses models, sets, or props that are not a part of the site’s natural or cultural resources or administrative facilities.”

By their plain language, neither definition would apply to someone who was going in with a regular DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera or iPhone to take wildlife, nature or landscape photos, unless models or props were needed. It also would not apply to any media reporter using still photography – DSLR or iPhone – to simply capture images for editorial purposes. It would require, however, a special use permit if a media organization wanted to bring in a film crew to work on a documentary or series. But in this case, what is being regulated is conduct – the type of activity and the number of people involved – not the speech of the press. And courts have routinely held that the government can regulate conduct without violating the First Amendment. Public land managers have an obligation to ensure that the organic acts governing those agencies, and where applicable, the Wilderness Act, are being followed. A large film crew – regardless of the intent of that crew (feature film or news organization) – can have an impact on public resources. 

This approach is not unique, and is reflected in existing regulations on all other Federal public lands. The Department of the Interior also requires a permit for “commercial filming” and “still photography” for National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service lands. Under 36 C.F.R. §5.5, “commercial filming” and “still photography” activities require a permit, as stated in 43 C.F.R. Part 5. Under those regulations, all “commercial filming” requires a permit, and “still photography” requires a permit when “[i]t uses a model, set, or prop as defined in §5.12; or … [t]he agency determines a permit is necessary because … [i]t takes place at a location where or when members of the public are not allowed; or .. [t]he agency would incur costs for providing on-site management and oversight to protect agency resources or minimize visitor use conflicts.”  “Commercial filming is defined as “the film, electronic, magnetic, digital, or other recording of a moving image by a person, business, or other entity for a market audience with the intent of generating income. Examples include, but are not limited to, feature film, videography, television broadcast, or documentary, or other similar projects. Commercial filming activities may include the advertisement of a product or service, or the use of actors, models, sets, or props.” Under these regulations, “still photography” is defined as “the capturing of a still image on film or in a digital format.”

Thus, existing regulations for NPS, BLM and USFWS lands incorporate pretty much the same elements as those under current Forest Service regulations.  In both instances, the regulations recognize the special role of the media. The Interior regulations do not require a permit for any news-gathering activities – filming or still photography – unless it is determined that a “permit is necessary to protect natural and cultural resources, to avoid visitor use conflicts, to ensure public safety or authorize entrance into a closed area; and [o]btaining a permit will not interfere with the ability to gather the news.” The Interior regulation also exempts the news media from any applicable fees. The definition of “commercial filming” under the Forest Service regulations excludes “activities associated with broadcasting breaking news.” However, the Forest Service does not appear to exempt news-gathering from a special use fee. 

Neither the Interior nor the Forest Service regulations set a specific fee for a special use permit application. In the Forest Service regulations, it notes a possible “rental fee” of $100 annually, plus “cost recovery” fees of an unspecified amount to “recover the agency’s processing costs for special use applications and monitoring costs for special use authorizations” and an unspecified “processing fee,” which varies based on numerous factors. Nowhere do the regulations provide for a $1,500 application fee as the various media accounts claim.  Similarly vague, the Interior regulations require a “reasonable location fee that provides a fair return to the United States” and a “cost recovery fee”  that covers “direct and indirect expenses including, but not limited to, administrative costs for application processing, preproduction meetings and other activities, on-site monitoring of permitted activities, and any site restoration.” In all cases, such fees are not set nationally, but by the regional land manager. For example, the Denali National Park Professional Photographer Special Road Travel permit requires an application fee of $100, plus $150 for the actual permit if awarded. The park’s commercial filming permit application fee is $200, with the permit fee itself varying from $150 to $750 per day, depending on how many people are involved in the shoot.

In short, the Forest Service is not proposing any new regulations that would require any additional types of activities to get a special use permit, and its regulations are consistent with the regulations that govern National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lands. You will not have to pay a special use permit fee to take nature or wildlife photos using a DSLR in Forest Service lands, wilderness or otherwise, unless you are using props and models like a commercial stock photographer would use. If you are a reporter, the same applies.

Getting to the Real Problem

Now, this discussion does highlight two problems, neither of which are related to the proposed Forest Service regulation. First, the existing regulations that define “commercial filming” are woefully out-of-touch with modern technology. You don’t need a massive film crew with lots of equipment and motorized transportation to do filming these days, whether with a HD digital video camera or a DSLR. It can be done with one person traveling on foot or non-motorized power. Anyone who has ever seen Survivorman knows this. Second, while the national regulations themselves are not terribly confusing, how they are often enforced or interpreted by local land managers has led to actions that are inconsistent with and contradictory to the plain language of the regulations. When local land managers stretch and abuse the regulations to enforce their own vision of how lands should be used, they violate public trust and create a serious Constitutional problem; that is, that we are supposed to be on notice of what the government expects of us. When their actions violate the plain language of that notice, then we have a real problem.

The Making of a Photo: Aurora Over Wrangell Mountains

Thursday, June 12th, 2014
The Making of a Photo: Aurora Over Wrangell Mountains

Michelle and I decided to spend a long weekend at the end of March to get away and scout for locations to shoot for a future workshop, and to find a base of operations for that workshop. Unfortunately, the bed and breakfast we stayed at did not pan out as a potential workshop location – it lacked a central meeting space, had far too few rooms, and was too comingled with family spaces within the structure.

But along the way, we found a few good vantage points to capture the aurora borealis along the Richardson Highway north and south out of Glennallen. The weather forecast looked good for providing us clear skies during the trip, but the question remained as to whether the space weather would cooperate. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), one of my more reliable forecast sources, did not have a good forecast for the time period. So, the only thing to do was to watch the real time data on and see if conditions would develop that were favorable to aurora photography.

When we went to bed, I set my alarm to go off once an hour so I could get up and check the Spaceweather data. In each instance, the data did not look conducive to producing an aurora borealis that would be worth shooting. But at 1:00 a.m., which is when the aurora had been “going off” recently, I decided to add a visual check in addition to my look online. I went to the front porch, went outside, and looked north – to see the aurora dancing in the sky. It was a dim display, but I went inside, grabbed the gear, and headed out to a pullout I had scouted earlier.

When I arrived, I set up the camera and took several test shots to check for focus and exposure. Even though the display was dim, I kept taking pictures occasionally to watch for increased activity. In many cases, the aurora can be doing things that are not visible to the naked eye, but will show up on a long exposure. After a while, it built enough to where it was dancing over the St. Elias Range, and spiking with peaks of reds. And while it was a moonless night, the aurora produced enough light to show silhouettes of the trees in the foreground and the mountains in the background.

Nikon D800E, Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8, Gitzo tripod, Arca Swiss ballhead, ISO 3200, f/2.8, 10 seconds.


When Composites are Necessary

Thursday, June 12th, 2014
When Composites are Necessary

I am not generally opposed to composite photographs, although I have on occasion railed against them. My main problems with composites are (1) when they are not identified in the caption as a composite and (2) when they are used to create an image that could not be seen with the naked eye.

There are many times when composites are necessary. Stitched panoramic photos are technically a composite – they merge several images together into one in order to render a scene using a specific format (the panorama) and also allow the photographer to create a larger file for rendering larger prints. The HDR (high dynamic range) photo is also a composite – merging several images of the same scene but captured at different exposures – in order to render the full dynamic range of a scene. Our eyes can see that dynamic range but cameras cannot. (With the Nikon D800E, I find myself hardly using this technique because of that camera’s dynamic range and my steadfast loyalty to using graduated neutral density filters.)

But there are times when the exposure dynamics of the scene also require a composition in order to capture the image you want. A recent instance involved capturing the eclipsed full moon hovering over a peak in the Chugach Mountains above Anchorage. When you know how to photograph the moon, you know that the moon is a much brighter light source than you think. In order to expose it, you need to have a much shorter exposure to avoid blowing it out. But when you want to capture details in the nighttime landscape, even during an eclipsed full moon, you need a much larger exposure. Thus, to render this scene, I took two exposures – one for the moon and one for the mountain. This is not a HDR composite, because I am not trying to capture a dynamic range of several exposures; rather, I am seeking to balance two specific points in the scene.

Here, when I captured the moon, you could only see a few stars and the mountain lacked detail. When capturing the mountain, the moon is a blown-out, glowing orb with no detail. Separately, they do not work; but together, they capture a scene that I could see with my own eyes. While composites are often abused, this, for me, is a use of the technique that is not only appropriate, but was done regularly in the “old days” of the wet darkroom.

Rediscover your Photos

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014
Rediscover your Photos

In 2001 and 2002, when people around me started buying the new DSLR cameras, I was reluctant. I was incredibly satisfied with the quality of color that my Fuji Velvia or Kodak Ektachrome E100VS provided me. When I saw the results of what my photo colleagues were getting with their digital cameras, I did not think it matched in quality of color. I also knew that the file resolution was not even close to what I could get even from a Tango drum scan of a 35mm slide. In 2004, I reluctantly purchased my first DSLR, a Nikon D100. I still primarily used film because of the color and resolution issues, but also knew that I needed to start getting familiar with the digital world. When I upgraded to a Nikon D200 in 2006, I still kept shooting film – digital had not yet caught up.

Jump eight years ahead to now, and my Nikon D800E far surpasses the resolution of a 35mm slide. I still occasionally shoot film, but only 220 medium format film with my Hasselblad 503CX.

During that same time, photo processing software has similarly jumped ahead in quality and capability. And along with it, my skills in processing photo files has also increased dramatically. And even though I can never recapture the images I shot eight years ago with my Nikon D200, I can improve them in the digital darkroom because it is now better equipped than it was in 2006. Since I have always shot my images in RAW mode, even those Nikon D200 or D300 image still contain the maximum amount of data available, thus making it possible to bring out the best of color, hue, saturation, and contrast.

So, I have started the slow process of reexamining my older images, even those as recent as 2011, and exploring how I can improve them now that I have a better digital darkroom and am a better artist. The key is to take a look at how you processed that image previously, think of how you could enhance it and make it “pop” a little more, and then go back to the original RAW file and start over.

For my two examples in this blog, I took an image captured on a Nikon D200 in Glacier National Park, Montana, in 2006 (above) and one captured on a Nikon D700 in Denali National Park, Alaska, in 2011 (below). For the Glacier photo, it was clear to me that the old image looked drab and flat, lacking contrast or color – much unlike how the image looked to me with the naked eye. Working in layers in Photoshop, I made four principle enhancements. First, I increased the contrast in the foreground and mountains by adjusting levels and selectively brushing out the levels adjustment where it was not needed. I then took a similar approach with the sky. Third, I focused on adjusting the contrast of the tree, as I felt it blended too much with the background of the original image. I did this using both Levels and Brightness/Contrast while working in layers. Finally, using Selective Color in layers, I brought out the gold and orange hues more and enhanced the blue/cyan tones in the sky.

For the Denali image, I had much less work to do, as the Nikon D700 sensor and software I originally used to process it could better render the tones and contrast on their own. But, I still wanted to balance out the exposure better between the sky and reflection, which I did by using Levels in layers, brushing out the reflection so it was not affected. I then selectively increased the contrast of just the mountain and its reflection (also in layers) to bring out more detail.  Finally, I wanted the slight hint of alpenglow to stand out more, so I improved the magenta channels in Selective Color while working in layers.

And these are just a couple of examples of how some modest changes to old images can bring existing work back to life, and more in line with the incredible colors we can see in the natural world with our own eyes. I encourage you to revisit some of your own classics and see what you can to do them as well.


NOAA Nails It!

Monday, February 10th, 2014
NOAA Nails It!

In his opening scene in Twin Peaks, FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper said, when referring to the ability of a meteorologist to accurately predict the weather, “If I could get paid that kind of money for being wrong 60% of the time, it would beat working!” We have all at one point in our time complained about an inaccurate weather forecast.  But how often do we praise the weatherman when he gets it right? What about when the Earth weather and space weather forecast is right on? Well, when it leads to an amazing night of aurora borealis photography, some praise is in order.

If you have read my prior blog post on “How to Shoot the Aurora Like a Pro,” then you would know that I subscribe to an email aurora forecast service provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  More than once a day, I will receive a table – like the one indicated in the graphic below – showing the forecast for the next 72 hours.  Since the time table is in GMT (Greenwich Mean Time), I have to adjust it for Alaska Standard Time, which means subtracting 8 hours. Thus, according to this table, there was going to be some good action between 4 p.m. and 1:00 a.m. on Friday night, Saturday morning, February 7-8.


Having an idea of what the space weather might do is just part of the planning.  The other part is the Earth weather forecast. For that night, NOAA had forecast that most of the Southcentral Alaska region – from the Kenai Peninsula up through the Matanuska-Susitna Valley – would remain mostly cloudy through the night. However, the forecast did say that for the area north of Talkeetna and through Cantwell, the skies would be clearing in the evening. So, at 4:00 p.m. on Friday, I headed north, with a goal of Broad Pass in the Alaska Range – just a short distance south of Cantwell.

By the time I got to Broad Pass about four hours later, there was still some twilight in the sky.  And, consistent with the NOAA forecast, the skies were completely clear. I drove to the last pullout in the pass before the descent to Cantwell and got out to take a look at the sky. I could already see some pillars of aurora off in the distance, so I composed some images to include the Parks Highway and some nearby trees. But the lights were way to the north, and it was still early (it wasn’t even fully dark yet), so I continued on into Cantwell, and east on the Denali Highway as far as I could go. In the summer, you can drive from Cantwell to Paxon – but in the winter, the road is not maintained and you can only go a few miles before you run into a barricade.  (If you have a snowmachine, though, it’s a great place to go!)

But, consistent with the space weather forecast, when I pulled over and stopped at the end of the maintained area, there they were – the lights of the aurora borealis dancing over the Alaska Range to my north. They danced for a while, then subsided, and then a while later they were calmly dancing overhead and to the south.  Then, they built up and kept going on a crescendo until a sky-filling climax at 11:30 that lasted a half hour.  They still kept going with a gentle, shimmering display for a while after that.

So, let me say, “Thank you very much” to NOAA for a forecast that put me at the right place at the right time to capture some amazing images of the aurora borealis!



Shooting Blind

Monday, January 13th, 2014
Shooting Blind

On the first day of shooting for a two-week trip to Hawaii, my camera had an accident. I was shooting incoming surf along the shore north of Kona on the Island of Hawaii, and I had my tripod standing within the surf line with my Nikon D800 mounted on top. I turned around briefly to grab a filter when I heard my friends with me let out a yelp. The outgoing surf had undermined the sand foundation under my tripod and it had fallen over into the wet sand with the back side of the camera down. Fortunately, it only fell onto wet sand and not into the water. I picked up my camera, saw that the power was still on.  But when I started to check the functions of the camera, I noticed a few things were lacking. Primarily, my LCD display was black. Without the LCD display, there are so many functions of the modern camera that are inaccessible. Primarily among them is the histogram display, the modern digital photographer’s way of confirming the exposure out in the field. Other functions often used were also out of reach: self-timer settings, mirror lockup for cleaning (that meant no cleaning my sensor during the trip), LiveView display, card formatting and the new treat of the D800, the digital horizon (a level check for the horizon).

The next morning, I also learned that I had also lost auto-focus and the ability to change out of aperture priority exposure mode. That meant it was going to be difficult to do any low light or nighttime photography. I could use my back up camera of a Nikon D700 to check exposure settings, but I would not be able to set the exposure manually in my D800.

We have all come so accustomed to the convenience of in-field review of the histogram on the LCD, it has become second-nature, even taken for granted, that we have that ability. So, what do you do when you have a digital camera that, for practical purposes, has aspects of an old film camera? You go old school.

The first thing I did was remind myself of how familiar I am with my camera and what it was capable of with each lens. It pays to be out in the field a lot so you know your camera’s abilities inside and out. Knowing how my camera handled light made it easier to start with the right settings, right lenses, and right filters to do the work.  That is basic camera and exposure knowledge that every photographer should have, regardless of the type of camera they are using. But to make sure that I had the exposure I wanted – many of the locations I shot on the trip would be visited only once so I had to get it right – I did something I have not done in years: I bracketed. But unlike how I used to bracket with my film cameras when I was much earlier in my career, I bracketed minimally and confirmed my exposure at the end of the day when downloading.

The other technique I used during bright mid-day, sunny shooting was also an old film technique for ensuring exposure: I employed the Sunny F/16 Rule. Essentially, for shooting in bright, mid-day sunny light, this rule says that when shooting at f/16, your shutter speed will be the same as your film speed, or, in digital terms, your ISO. So, when shooting at 100 ISO, your film speed is 1/100 (or 1/125), when at 200 ISO, then 1/200 (or 1/250), and so on.

After two weeks of shooting on the Island of Hawaii and on Kauai, I proved that I could survive despite lacking these modern tools that we take for granted.  Of course, as soon as I get home, I am contacting Nikon Professional Services to set up a priority repair order on my Nikon D800. And calling my insurance carrier.












Top Images for 2013

Monday, December 16th, 2013
Top Images for 2013

One of the treats of looking back at the year is realizing the diversity of what you captured, and recognizing that each year, something new comes along. This year saw three principal areas of photographic exploration for me: the American Southwest (in winter), the Bristol Bay region and the aurora borealis. And while my aurora borealis prints are definitely my top selling category of print right now, I would be remiss if I did not give the other areas equal weight.  This is especially true for my Bristol Bay images.

In January, Michelle and I were in the American Southwest, starting in Las Vegas (the best place to fly into from Alaska for a visit to the Southwest). We went to Death Valley National Park, Mono Lake, Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.  Unfortunately for us, for the first part of the trip, it was actually colder than our home in Alaska, where we found unseasonably cold weather in Mono Lake and the Moab area. But, for me, it reiterated that winter can be a fantastic time to visit national parks – far fewer people and the opportunity to take some more unique images.

The year’s fieldwork for the book started out in the village of Nondalton, a small community of Dena’ina Athabascans on the edge of Lake Clark National Park & Preserve, and situated only about 11 air miles away from the proposed Pebble Mine site. I photographed some winter scenics, spent some time with a trapper as he checked his trap lines, and went for a snow machine visit to some friends near the mouth of the Chulitna River. Next, in May, I flew out to Dillingham where I met up with Frank Woods and joined him and his crew to head out to the Togiak herring fishery.  Five days on the boat during incredibly clear and gorgeous weather produced a lot of fantastic images of hard work in amazing scenery. In June, I joined a group of Alaska Alpine Adventure clients for a guided backcountry trip into the Twin Lakes area of Lake Clark National Park & Preserve. Next month would find me visiting fish camps on the Newhalen River and out on the Cook Inlet coast visiting the Silver Salmon Creek Lodge to document brown bear viewing and flyfishing. Finally, in September, I flew out and spent a few days with the team at the No See Um Lodge, documenting sport fishing and the incredible scenery of the Kvichak River.

And then, there was the aurora chasing. In March, I was joined by Hawaii photographers CJ Kale and Nick Selway, owners of the Lava Light Galleries in Kona, and Eastern Sierras photographer Nolan Nitschke. After they did a mad-dash run up to Prudhoe Bay, I joined them in photographing the Broad Pass area of the Parks Highway one evening, and then we happened to be in Portage Valley of Chugach National Forest for the incredibly epic St. Patrick’s Day display. And then, this August, September and November, I was out again capturing more images in the vicinity of Anchorage to build up my aurora borealis image collection.

And then, there were a few things here and there that rounded out the year.  Countless incredible Cook Inlet sunsets photographed from the deck of my new home on the Anchorage hillside. A jaunt out to Prince William Sound for a reality TV show episode. A flight to do some aerial photography of properties in the Knik Arm area for Great Land Trust. Exploring fall colors in Southcentral Alaska.

You can view the totality of my “Best Of” selection in my 2013 Year in Review gallery, but here are my some highlights from my favorite images from the year.

December 2013 Print of the Month

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013
December 2013 Print of the Month

One of the challenges as a photographer, artist, and business owner has always been answering the following question: “Which images do I create as prints for sale?” Each part of these different identities always wants to get its own perspective represented in the choice.  The photographer wants to print the photos that were the most physically demanding, most technically challenging to capture. The artist wants to print the image that is the most emotionally evocative, most inspirational. And then of course, the business owner wants to print the one that will sell the most. Merging those sometimes competing interests into a smart choice has always been difficult.

And then came along social media.

Using Facebook to promote my photography often gives me a clear indication as to which images are going to have a broad appeal. Following the traffic generated by a particular image can make it much easier to decide which image will likely make a good selection for, say, my Print of the Month collection.  Take in point, this month’s choice, entitled, “They’re Here.” Captured during the November 8/9, 2013 aurora borealis display, it is a view of a winding green band of aurora through some leafless birch trees in Portage Valley of the Chugach National Forest in Alaska. It was the last shot I took of the evening, as I was heading back to my car to head toward home. I looked up, saw the orientation of the trees and the glowing aurora, and knew I had something good. It was challenging to frame the shot with the camera pointed straight upward, but the settings were already good from exposures made earlier in the evening.

But seeing the reaction to the image on Facebook helped me to better understand better how much appeal it had to a broad audience. It received a moderate reaction on my own Facebook page – 36 shares, 124 likes and 24 comments.  But then it was shared to two other Facebook pages with very broad audiences: Milky Way Scientists and Aurora Borealis. Between those two, it garnered an additional 1,801 shares, 6,744 likes and 75 comments.

So, photographer, artist and business man can all agree – with resounding support from social media -that “They’re Here” will make a fine addition to my Print of the Month collection. And another great thing about this shot … it can be either a vertical or a horizontal image, depending on your layout needs.  It can be purchased for 30% off through the end of December 2013 by entering the coupon code POTM1213 when finalizing your purchase here.