Archive for June, 2009

The Joy of HDR

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009
The Joy of HDR

Although the concept of high dynamic range (HDR) imaging has been around for a long time, the applications of it in the digital world has vastly improved in recent years.  What is HDR you might ask?  Creating images using HDR techniques allows cameras to see a scene the way our eyes do.  For landscape photography, long before digital, the best way to do this was with a graduated neutral density filter.

Estimates are that the human eye can see 19 stops of light; that is, the eye can see extreme ranges in the highlights and shadows and still see detail.  Compare that to the range of slide film which is about 7-8 stops, and digital cameras which top out at about 10.  When you are standing in a deeply shaded canyon, you can see details in the dark shade as well as the brightly lit areas where the sun is striking.  That is why, when you take a regular point and shoot and use it under such circumstances, one area of the shot will either be really bright or really dark – not quite the way you saw it.

So the graduated neutral density filter was created to balance out that exposure, to darken the area – without adding color, hence it is “neutral” – that is receiving the bright highlights so that the camera, with a single exposure, could take a picture that more accurately rendered what our eyes saw that film could not.  The same problem exists with a digital camera – the electronic sensors used to render digital images similarly lack the range of the human eye.  While you can still use a graduated neutral density filter with a digital camera and go “old school” for those landscape images, it only works if you have a separating line that is relatively straight across the horizon.

Very rarely with any of my commercial clients does such a straight line exist.  Before HDR rarely made a showing in the digital realm, the old way to photograph building interiors where windows were involved was to either close the drapes or blinds, or to use really powerful strobes and lighting to make the interior light comparable to the power of the light coming in from the outside.  As mighty as we may think we are, the power of interior light simply cannot compare to even the flat light of an overcast day.

Now, with recent improvements in HDR technology, the old school methods are no longer necessary.  And it has been recent, too, that the technology has been good enough.  The “Merge to HDR” feature in Adobe Photoshop CS2 simply was not up to the task of creating a quality HDR photo – the blending did not work well and you still ended up with an image that had areas that were too dark and too light.  Now, I am using the Photomatix Pro 3 software, and it has opened up a whole new area of creativity and opportunity.  One of my clients is Business Interiors Northwest, who provides everything from planning to installation services to business and government agencies for interior spaces.  All of the spaces I photograph for them are interior, and most have windows. Another recent client, Grand Duchess, a high-end furniture store in Anchorage, also has displays with windows and lots of sun coming in.

Prior to using Photomatix, I had to rely on the “old school” methods for interior photography.  Not anymore.  And now, I have even better tools that can help me produce creative and quality products for my clients.

Back at Saturday Market

Friday, June 26th, 2009
Back at Saturday Market

Michelle and I will be back with a booth at the Saturday Market again tomorrow.  Since there are plenty of photographers with tents at the market – five others the last time we were there – I am marketing only my “Icons of Alaska” series.  As I have strongly believed, and had confirmed for me by several cruise ship passengers at the last market, I am the only person or business offering Official 50th Anniversary Alaska Statehood photographic prints or notecards.  One such passenger said she had looked at shops in Ketchikan, Sitka and Juneau for such a thing and it wasn’t out there.

Parking downtown tomorrow will be worse than usual for a Saturday … the Anchorage Downtown Partnership is hosting a big 50th Anniversary celebration on G Street stretching several blocks.  I always find that parking on Fourth Avenue east of A Street is a good place to look and not park too far away from the market.

So when you get to the market, look for our tent on E. Moose Hollow!  Hope to see you there!  If you cannot make it then, check our Calendar for the other Saturdays through the end of the summer when we will be at the market.

Here are the other pieces in the “Icons” series.

Melissa & Brad

Saturday, June 20th, 2009
Melissa & Brad

Whoever knew that pet stores had singles mixers? I didn’t until I met Meslissa and Brad and heard their story.  He had a rather large Alaskan Malamute – I thought it was a new species of brown bear when I first saw it – and she had a cat.  Well, the cat didn’t make it to the mixer hosted by the Animal Food Warehouse / Pet Zoo, but the dog, Kleco, did, and he was a big hit.  Fast forward a few years and Kleco not only had a special role in their meeting, but as the ring bearer at their wedding.

The location: Brad’s gold mining claim in the Turnagain Pass near Canyon Creek … well, actually, a hundred or so feet above the creek at the top of a sheer cliff.  When they explained to me that Brad hauls his dredging equipment down to the creek for winter mining operations, I just shuddered.  I’ve never been afraid of heights, but the sheer determination it takes to haul all of that gear down there and scavenge some gold out of the earth was simply astonishing.

The weather was perfect in that it did not rain.  Fortunately, it was not a completely flat overcast, providing some texture to the clouds.  In order to balance out the exposures a bit, I used a Lee 3-stop graduated neutral density filter on the camera with the 12-24mm lens so that the sky would not be too overexposed.  I had never used one before for action shots during a wedding ceremony, but it worked like a charm.

The reception took place under a rather large canopy tent, just below the canvas tent cabin that Melissa and Brad use when they are on the property.  They showed me around the property, including the hand-made outdoor hot shower system that Brad installed, powered by a car battery and heated by a propane tank, capable of heating up enough water for a thirty-minute shower.  Sure beats the bathing-by-sauna method I used for two years as a canoe guide in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota.  There was a Mardi Gras-style decorated tree with hats, sunglasses, and a variety of toys and activities for the kids.  Nearby stood a table full of cans of Off for the expected mosquitoes … fortunately, they did not really come out.   The cake was something I had never seen before.  The outer part of the cake was made to look like a weaved basket, with the inner part a regular cake covered with chocolate truffles.  I actually thought it was a real basket at first.

The property offered a variety of opportunities for portraits, and the couple provided the personality to make the portraits really shine.  For the most part, I simply let the couple be themselves, offering little direction, and they gave me just what I needed to capture portraits that I hope show who they are.  One of the challenges in doing good wedding portraits as a photographer is to remember to keep my ego in check and allow the couple to just BE.  We also included a “Shotgun Wedding” group portrait, complete with three rifles, two semi-automatics,  and a lone rifle with Bayonet.   Now there is a keeper for a true Alaskan wedding group portrait.

Walk through the park

Friday, June 19th, 2009
Walk through the park

It really is a treat living near Jewel Lake in Anchorage.  When you want to get out and go on some trails, there are a lot of nearby options.  You can go along the Campbell Creek trail system, and from there connect to many other trails; there is a trail near Sand Lake; and then there is Kincaid Park.  Michelle and I decided to head out and explore the biking trails (Nordic ski trails in the winter) that weave in and around the massive wooded areas of Anchorage’s second largest city park.

The park has seen a bit of change in recent years.  They have cleared out several large tracts of land to accommodate numerous soccer fields that are in the process of being built.  Michelle and I were a bit irritated that when we reserved the Kincaid Park chalet for our wedding last year, no one bothered to mention that the entire grounds surrounding it would be torn up for the project.  I am still not sure how I feel about this quiet, near-wilderness area being disturbed by a bunch of soccer games.   I am also not sure of the wisdom of placing soccer fields in the middle of some preeminent moose and black bear habitat.

But, one of the many wonderful things about the park is the flora.  The boreal forest is in prime bloom right now, offering dwarf dogwood (aka bunchberries), blue bells, Arctic rose, and daisies (invasive species, but still pretty).  The devil’s club has fully matured, as well as the cow parsnip, offering up Alaska’s two favorite irritants for plants.  I will take them over poison ivy or poison sumac any day (neither of which we have here in Alaska).  In the autum, the devil’s club will turn a beautiful bright gold, providing a contrast to the red leaves of the rose and high-bush cranberry.

On our way back to the parking lot, we started to make out what sounded like percussion.  As we got closer, it became clear that what we were hearing was Taiko drumming, most likely coming from the bunker that is part of a Nike-Hercules missile site built in 1959.  It still remains standing today and frequently houses a variety of activities.  Today, it was playing host to the Sand Lake Tomodachi Daiko taiko drum group.  They were practicing for a performance on Saturday.

Rediscovering past work

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009
Rediscovering past work

In working on a submission for National Parks magazine, I was reviewing my last two years’-worth of photos from Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve.  I found several images I had captured with the hopes of creating panoramic images, but was unable to due to the limitations of the Photomerge capabilities in Adobe Photoshop CS2.  With my recent purchase of Arcsoft’s Panorama Maker Pro, I decided to revisit these images.  In each case, the full merger of the images into panoramic photos was a complete success.

The feature photo for this post comes from my trip last September down the Noatak River, on one of many perfect weather evenings in the park.  The sunrise photo comes from the Alatna River headwaters, where I base-camped for five days in connection with my 2007 Artist-in-Residence experience in the park.  The wide, golden, sweeping landscape with lakes shows the convergence of three valleys: the Nigu, the Killik, and the Alatna.  Finally, the rugged, mountainous panoramic photo was actually taken while riding in the back seat of an Aviat Husky A1-B aircraft.  I worked as hard as I could to keep the camera level as I bounced around in the back, managing to snap off about twenty images that became part of the final pano.

It goes to show that it pays to revisit your work and see what more you can do with it down the road.

Exploring the coast

Sunday, June 14th, 2009
Exploring the coast

I have teamed up with the Great Land Trust to photograph properties that have been purchased and placed into conservation trust, or properties where the Trust is working on fundraising to purchase to place into a conservation trust. Simply put, the Trust works with private landowners who have property of some greater value to habitat, public use, or some other aspect that makes the property worth while in preserving for public use or conservation.  The Trust raises money to purchase the land, then either maintains ownership of the land and make it available for public or conservation benefit, or donates the land to the state or local government, with the caveat that the property is preserved in a conservation trust, often in the form of a conservation easement.  The Trust will also negotiate with private landowners to obtain a conservation easement over the owner’s land, allowing access to public lands that are otherwise not easily reachable.

I explored one such property on Sunday evening, along the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge.  It is a property that is currently in negotiation for purchase, so I will not disclose the location.  My hope is that the images below will help the Trust, as the purchase of this particular property would greatly enhance the recreational experience along the coast in Anchorage.  I have always wanted to explore the refuge, but public access to it is very limited due in no small part to the high bluff that borders most of the refuge area.  The purchase of this property would greatly improve access, allowing others to see what I was able to see in the short time I spent on the property.  From the beautiful sedges and flowers, such as buttercup, Chocolate lilly and wild pea, to the driftwood scattered about the tidal flats, the coastal refuge is both beautiful and expansive.  I wished I had another two hours or so to explore, as I could see open, beckoning space for miles down the coast.  I could hear Sandhill cranes chattering somewhere to the south along the coast, and a variety of other birds such as red neck grebes and Arctic terns.    I also spent a little time with a cow and her new spring calves as they grazed along the tidal stream that ran through the property.

Here are a few images from the evening.

Upcoming residency

Monday, June 8th, 2009
Upcoming residency

I was reviewing my blog and realized I had not mentioned I have been selected for a second Artist-in-Residence position this year with the National Park Service.  The next one will be in Rocky Mountain National Park, near Boulder, Colorado, for two weeks in July.  (It has been mentioned in the media, but not on this blog.)  I will be one of six residents in the park this year.   I will be living in a historic log cabin during the residency, exploring all aspects of the diverse ecological systems through day hikes.  I realized after my Badlands residency that I simply would not have enough time to combine backcountry trips and day hikes while in Rocky Mountain NP.  So, I will do many day hikes, getting away from the roads and out into the wild places of the park.  I will also be giving two presentations, sponsored by Lowe Pro, at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center.

While in the neighborhood, I will be taking a couple of days before the residency to explore Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, some five hours to the south of Estes Park, which is on the east side of Rocky Mountain NP.  I have always wanted to explore that park, and this is the best opportunity I will have in the years to come.

As with my Badlands residency, I will be blogging daily during this trip.  So keep an eye out for future posts.

Powerline Pass

Sunday, June 7th, 2009
Powerline Pass

It was one of those irresistible days in southcentral Alaska.  Just hours after I had emailed a friend seeking clothing advice for her mother who was coming up on a cruise, where I told her to be prepared for chilly and that tank tops generally aren’t used in Alaska, Michelle and I were hiking along Powerline Pass in the Chugach Mountains above Anchorage and it was HOT.  Granted, it was probably not hot by Phoenix standards (I am still recovering from landing in Phoenix on May 10 on my way back from South Dakota where it was 100 degrees at sunset), but hot for a guy who has lived in Alaska for ten years now and has acclimated.

But the sun and the warmth drew us, along with hundreds of other Anchorage residents whose cars will spilling out along Toilsome Hill Road outside the Glenn Alps parking lot, to go hike in the mountains.  I took a camera and a few lenses and filters along in my Lowe Pro Orion AW bag, with Gitzo 6X tripod strapped to the bottom.  From the Glen Alps parking lot, you can fan out and access at least five trails of varying lengths and skill levels.  Some of those trails then lead to others, like the trail we took, known as Powerline Pass, which can lead to a traverse trail over into Indian Valley along the Turnagain Arm.

Powerline Pass is aptly named for the series of powerline poles paralleling the trail to the east.  It is a wide, maintained trail suitable for hiking as well as mountain biking.  I slopes down into the wide valley that flows to the south from the parking area, providing spectacular views on both sides of the Chugach Mountains.  It also provides access to some of the best autumn moose viewing in the world.  On this hot, sunny spring day we saw three moose, including two within 50 yards of the trail, one of whom was a young bull.  I was surpised to see as many, as moose are usually bedded down somewhere cool on hot days like this.

I had a particular photo in mind, so much of our hike was finding the right spot for us to hike down and capture it.  I wanted a shot of the South Fork of Campbell Creek providing a nice leading line or S-curve with a prominent peak, still with some snow on it, in the background.  While the still somewhat harsh sunlight was not ideal, the positioning of this valley made it impossible to get light all throughout the valley with either early or late light because the mountains would cast strong shadows at either time of day.  With a warming polarizer and a 2-stop Lee graduated neutral density filter, I was able to subdue the light and enrich the colors enough to compensate.

Kerri & Ryan

Saturday, June 6th, 2009
Kerri & Ryan

After years of photographing weddings, I had a new “first” with my photographing of Kerri and Ryan’s wedding today.  I had my first “eHarmony” wedding (of course, I did not know that until the reception).  So, it is not just people on TV, it is real and happening right here in southcentral Alaska.

It was a great wedding to work as a photographer.  There are three elements that must come together to make for a fun wedding as a photographer.  First, you have to start with a fun couple and a fun, relaxed, easy to work with set of family and friends.  Second, it really helps to have venues for the ceremony and reception that are aesthetically pleasing.  Finally, for those outdoor portraits – and I love to do outdoor portraits, this is Alaska after all – the weather must cooperate.  I was fortunate to have all three with this wedding.

The ceremony was held at the United Methodist Church in Chugiak, on the Old Glen Highway just south of the South Birchwood exit.  It is oriented north-south, with high walls of glass at the front and back of the church.  While it made for a spectacular view behind the alter area, it also presented an exposure challenge – how to expose the ceremony correctly while not blowing out the background.  The answer – my 600 watt Norman strobe, which I used not only for portraits but for the ceremony.  It’s a beautiful church and the ceremony was short and quite nice.  Kudos to the pastor, Carlo, who moved here from the Philippines a year ago to lead the church, for a really nice ceremony.

The reception was held at the Millenium Alaskan Hotel (formerly the Regal), on the shores of the Lake Hood Seaplane Base, in the Reddington Ballroom.  As is often the case, I took far more photos at the reception than I did the ceremony.  The math is rather easy, really.  Receptions simply last longer, hours rather than minutes, allowing me to expend a lot of pixels.  But receptions bring out all kinds of things in people, from their inner groove to their happy face, making for all sorts of photo ops.  Take the flower girl, for example.  Shy and reluctant to do everything from formal portraits to walking down the aisle with the ringbearer, she let loose and became a dance diva at the reception.  It also helps to have a DJ who does a great job in working the audience … in this case, Brian from Alaska Professional Entertainment (APE).

As is often the case, I continued the formal portrait session at the reception site after all of the formalities were done.  I took Kerri and Ryan along the shores of the lake, working with the low evening light, plane houses, docks, and the occasional overflying float plane.  They were a great couple to work with, and allowed me to think creatively with their portraits.  I have been told by other couples that one thing they regretted from working with their wedding photographer was not taking enough time to do portraits.  It is always a pleasure to work with couples who recognize that.

And the weather continued my trend of perfect weather for weddings held on the first Saturday in June.