Archive for June, 2010

Down the Kenai

Thursday, June 24th, 2010
Down the Kenai

Shortly after I first moved here almost eleven years ago, I often heard people talking about “the Kenai.”  What “the Kenai” is really depends on the context.  Sure, there is the Kenai Peninsula, and there is the Kenai River, but there is also Kenai Lake and the town of Kenai.  Certainly, this body of land has met its share of creativity-free land planners who were at a loss at some point on what to name things.  But it also reflects how “the Kenai” is not just a place, but an idea.  It is often referred to as Anchorage’s recreational back yard, and so much of that is true.  “The Kenai” is where you go to get away for the weekend, whether it is to fish on “the Kenai” River, go camping on “the Kenai” Peninsula some where among its several public campgrounds, or float “the Kenai” River.

I went with a group of coworkers recently to do the latter, putting in at the common public landing near the Cooper Landing bridge over the headwaters for the Kenai River, and taking out at Jim’s Landing, just off the Skilak Lake Road.  All-in-all, a trip of some 12.5 river miles.

There are not many ways you can have a great, low-key seemingly backcountry rafting experience in Alaska than on the Kenai River.  The rapids, such as they are, never exceed Class II, you get lots of opportunity to see wildlife, you can take your time and relax while floating with a pole in the water (our raft caught a Dolly Varden that we released), and it’s not too crowded.  The main challenge is when you approach the confluence of the Russian River at this time of year, you have to run a gauntlet of anglers on both banks of the river fishing for the running sockeye salmon. 

I kept my camera gear in a Pelican case while floating and had ample time to take photos, as my boat had a single set of oars manned by Steve.  It was his wife, Karen, that caught the fish.  As is often the case, we stopped on a gravel bar a little more than halfway down the float to have a trail lunch.  Austin took out his fly rod and, often joined by his faithful retriever, Carta, tried his luck at catching something while wading out in the stream.  No luck.

The three-boat group continued on, taking out at Jim’s Landing.  I went with the group of drivers back into Cooper Landing to retrieve all the vehicles, then headed out to Skilak Lake to secure a couple of  public campsites on the lake, which lies in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.  It was cloudy, but with nicely-textured, dramatic clouds, rather than those flat, overcast clouds.  With a 0.9 Lee GND, I was able to really bring out the texture in the clouds and get some balanced exposures of the landscape.

Aurora chasing

Sunday, June 13th, 2010
Aurora chasing

Had an unexpected couple of nights chasing the aurora when I was down in Juneau on Memorial Day weekend.  Unexpected because you just get accustomed to there not being enough darkness for the aurora in Anchorage come early May.  I knew there was a good forecast for the evening, but had not expected I would get a chance to see it.  But there I was with my friend Chris Beck photographing departing cruise ships at night when we looked up and saw the aurora faintly dancing in the sky.  The party-goers who were enjoying bonfires nearby on Sandy Beach let out whoops and cheers of celebration.  Good to know even Alaskans can get excited about the northern lights.

The exposures were a bit challenging, to say the least.  My usual approach for a less-than-vivid display would be to open the lens all the way open to f/2.8, set the ISO to 400 or 200 and enter a manual exposure of 15-30 seconds.  But, in both cases on these two nights, I had to deal with an additional light source – either the city or the glaring bright lights of the cruise ship.  I found myself shooting at aperture priority and having as fast as 1/5 second exposures.  In retrospect, had I thought of it and had the time, I would have put my Lee graduated neutral density filters on – upside down so as to darken the city or ship.  But, the displays happened quickly and did not last long.  Unfortunately, at least for the cruise ships, I will not likely again have the unique combination of elements taking place to create the images.  And sometimes, that is all you get – one chance.

On our second night, after shooting the aurora with the skyline, we headed over to Mendenhall Lake in the hopes that we could get some aurora displays over there.  But, after much waiting, the aurora failed to revive for us.  So, instead, I captured a few images of the clouds moving across the moonlit sky, as well as the offending full moon peeking through some trees along the side of the road.

Morning at Mendenhall

Sunday, June 13th, 2010
Morning at Mendenhall

So, I am just a little behind in getting some blog posts caught up.  It happens.  Usually when I am visiting a location, my routine is to shoot in the morning, come back to wherever I am staying when the light gets bad so I can download and blog post, then take a nap.  In the late afternoon I head out, take more pictures, then come back and do the computer thing all over again.  Unfortunately, when I was in Juneau, I did not have that time in the middle of the day because I was photographing the state high school soccer championships.  My days started at around 4:00 so I could get up and go to some location for first light, and ended around midnight when I finally made it back to my hotel after a day and evening of shooting.

On one such early morning, I took the advice of friend and photographer Chris Beck to head out to Mendenhall Glacier and explore the Montana Creek area of Mendenhall Lake.  He suggested this area because of the accessibility of the lake and the different perspective on the glacier (as compared to the other side of the lake where the visitor center was located).  I explored the area he suggested for a little bit, photographing the calm reflections of the lake and some icebergs on the other side.  But I felt that when the sun did eventually come up, I would not be able to take as good of advantage of it from this side of the lake.  So, I drove over to the visitor center and started to hike along the western side of the lake, crossing several rather cold streams in my Teva and no socks-covered feet.

My goal for this particular morning was to just get a sense of Mendhall Glacier and its surroundings, particularly tracking first light as it hit the scenery.  I knew I would not have the time required to go out and explore for any great period of time, so I focused on the elements I could find that made the setting interesting.  A beaver dam here, a chunk of ice stranded on a beach there.  The relationship between the icebergs in the lake and the toe of the glacier, the juxtaposition of floating ice with a flowing waterfall.  So much of landscape photography for me is capturing the relationships among the various elements of a place; this is where my creative eye typically takes me, rather than what would look good on a postcard.  It’s ironic, too, because all of the photos I have ever seen of Mendenhall Glacier did not give me a sense of place.  I did not recognize any aspect of the glacier or its surroundings from any of the photos I have seen before.

Amanda and James

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010
Amanda and James

 How far ahead someone selects the photographer for their wedding really varies.  For some, it may be within just a few months of their wedding.  For others, like Amanda and James, it could be as much as a year and a half out.  That’s why, much to their surprise, when Amanda and James approached me in the winter of 2008-09 looking for a photographer for their May 2010 wedding, I was not surprised.

Then, out of the blue several months later, Amanda called me with some terrible news.  Her father, Grant, had been diagnosed with cancer, with a rather gloomy prognosis of only a few months to live.  There was discussion of moving the wedding up to December 2009, and would I be flexible and able to move the date.  Of course, I responded.  But, ultimately, her father convinced her to keep her original wedding date and have the wedding she had dreamed of.  That got me to thinking about my role as the photographer and what I could do to help.  I always include an engagement portrait session in all of my packages.  I called Amanda and suggested that, instead of an engagement portrait session, why don’t we do a father-daughter portrait session?  Amanda liked the idea, and she was able to get David’s Bridal to have her wedding dress available for the session; Grant was able to secure a tux.  I set up lighting in her parent’s living room, and we spent about twenty minutes taking pictures.  Then, Amanda and her father had the dance that would have been the father-bride dance at the wedding reception.  I was grateful that I suggested the photo session, and even more so that Amanda and James had planned so far ahead.

Grant passed away five days later. Fortunately, I was able to process the images and post them online so he had a chance to see them with his daughter before he went beyond the veil.

Six months later, Amanda and James were able to have the wedding that they had planned for all those months.  The ceremony took place in Club Room 2 of the Hotel Captain Cook, with a view to the west and north over the Cook Inlet.  The reception was just down the hall in the Quarterdeck.  They went with the best for cakes and entertainment: Superstar Pastry for the cake, and Martin James from APE for the music and emcee.

But what Amanda and James also had going for them was a desire to do lots of portrait photos, and wanting to have fun doing them.  That really is what can make or break a photo session: the desire of the couple to take the time to relax, have fun, experiment a little and go with the flow.  As a result, I had several firsts for wedding portraiture: my first couple-in-a-tree portrait and my first Infrared portrait.  The IR photo can be a little challenging because the couple needs to remain perfectly still for thirty seconds.  But, Amanda and James pulled it off nicely, and we had the foliage of Town Square Park to help.

And throughout the evening, well after I was gone, a framed portrait of Amanda and her father sat on the parents’ table, watching over the evening’s festivities.  In the over twenty years I have been taking photos, that session with Grant and Amanda turned out to be the most rewarding thing I have ever done.

A quick how-to on macro photography

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010
A quick how-to on macro photography

It is finally summertime in Alaska.  Time for hikes in the mountains or woods, time for gardening, time for things to grow and be green.  It is also when I start thinking macro.  And this thought process continues on through the end of summer and into the autumn.

You do not need a dedicated macro lens to do macro photography.  Many newer DSLR lenses have a macro feature that essentially bypasses the normal minimum focal length of your lens so you can move closer to the subject.  And that is the key challenge to taking macro photographs – your focal length.  The minimum focal distance of your lens depends on the focal length; that is, whether it is a 24mm lens or a 500mm lens.  The higher the number, the farther away the minimum focal distance is.  That is why many times you have tried to take a close up picture but realize that you need to back off to get in focus.

So, aside from having a lens with a macro feature built-in, there are other ways to reduce that minimum focal distance without having to have a dediced macro lens.  My favorite way is to use extension tubes.  Extension tubes are added onto the body just before the lens and, depending on the number of tubes and their size, can allow you to greatly reduce the minimum focal distance.  I have used extension tubes with my 300mm lens to produce great macros.  But the key for good images is to use them in conjunction with a lens that has a lens collar.  This allows you to shift the center of gravity to accomodate the extra length added on to the lens.   To further boost the power of your extension tubes, you can also add a standard 1.4X  teleconverter on the camera body before the extension tubes.  What does this do?  Like with a lens, it magnifies the power by 1.4X of anything that is added on after it.

Another good way to boost the macro capacity of a standard lens is to add a close-up lens to the end of the lens.  Screwing on much like a filter, a close up lens looks very much like a magnifying lens, only thicker.  While I am a Nikon shooter and use Nikon lenses, my favorite close-up lens is a Canon 500D.  So, for some really crazy magnifiying power, you can add a couple of extension tubes on in front of your lens and a close-up lens at the end of it.

But reducing that focal length is only one piece of the puzzle.  The other technical part involves stability.  You generally must have a solid tripod in order to produce quality macro images.  This both provides stability and allows you to take the time necessary to compose a good image.  In addition, you need a shutter release cable because even the act of pushing a shutter button (even if you do it gently) will produce camera movement.  Finally, if you have a camera body with a mirror lock-up capability, engage that when taking macro photos.  Every time you take a picture, the mirror that bounces light into your viewfinder flips up when the aperture opens to allow light into the camera.  That creates a slight amount of movement that could be the difference between a sharp image and slightly fuzzy one.

Now you are ready to take pictures.  There are no hard and fast rules of composition when it comes to macro photography.  There are many general elements of composition that you should always consider, even when taking macro photos.  The main elements of design are typically texture, color, lines, patterns and contrast.   A good example of contrast would be including warm (reds and yellows) and cool (blue) tones within the same frame.  You also want to control your depth of field and framing in order to manage your background.  Many times, macro subjects will have a lot of distracting elements (grasses, stems, twigs, branches, etc.) in the background, and choosing a shallow depth of field (f/4.0 or f/5.6, for example) will eliminate those elements by bringing them out of focus.

When working with such shallow depths of field, it is also important to control the angle of your camera with regard to the subject.  When shooting at a very shallow depth of field, only subjects that are parallel to the plane of your lens will be in focus.  For example, if you are taking a picture of a flower and you want the entire stamen area to be in focus, where you place your camera depends on the angle of the flower.  If the flower is opened straight up to the sky, then shoot straight down on the flower.  If the flower is tilted to the side at a 90 degree angle, then you need to get your camera low to the ground so that it is level with the flower and pointing straight at the face of the flower.  If you are shooting the underside of a fern to photograph its spores, then you need to get your camera under the fern and shooting up at the underside of the ferns.  Otherwise, you will not get the full face of your subject in focus.

The final issue to consider is lighting.  Bright mid-day sunlight does not do flower subjects any justice because of the harsh shadows and washed colors.  You want either diffuse light or early morning / late evening light.  This type of light will give you a better opportunity to highlight the colors and textures of your subjects.  If you find a great subject but it is mid-day light, you can still control the lighting to a certain degree.  Create a shadow to cover the subject (standing in between the sun and the subject is one way of doing it) or use a diffusing screen that distrupts the sunlight.  Such screens are commercially available or can be made at home using nylon mesh (like the type used to screen hops for making beer).  You can also consider directing light onto the subject.  If you have a backlit subject in the morning or evening and want to take advantage of that golden light, use a reflector to bounce light into the shaded areas.  In overcast light, consider using a little fill flash to add a pop of light to bring out the color and texture of the flower or plant.  The goal is to produce a lighting effect that is barely noticeable.  Using a TTL, off-camera flash with the exposure compensation set around -1.0 or so is a good start.  You will also want to use a soft box with the flash to avoid harsh shadows.

Now the only thing to do is get out there and look for the many subjects that await you on the ground, in bushes, and in trees.  And don’t forget to look at rocks, too, for lichens and interesting patterns in the rock itself.