Well, I finally made it back to Glacier National Park. This time with my good friend Chris Byrne. Chris was conducting a workshop and had a great group with him. I was glad to tag along.
The last time that I went to Glacier I was confronted with cold weather ,snow and ice. I remember camping at Two Medicine Lake on my last day there and getting frozen inside of my Jeep during the night. I woke up to about a 1/2 of an inch of ice covering the whole Jeep. I couldn’t see any mountains so I headed back home early.
This time I was met with some pretty epic conditions. We had two incredible sunrises at Swiftcurrent Creek. Travelling from one side of the park to the other via the Going To the Sun Road is always epic, but the skies were so atmospheric. Probably due to the winds at the beginning of the trip kicking up glacial dust into the air.
In all we had seven days to play in this incredible place. Photographing lakes, creeks, waterfalls, amazing mountain peaks as well as wildlife such as moose, deer and even a grizzly bear.
It will be hard to beat this trip, but I can’t wait to return to Montana.
There once was a time when I would stay up for several nights in a row and had no stories worth telling. These days I stay up for one night and have a wonderful story that I could tell.
I could tell about enjoying this warm, calm dark Summer night with a sky full of stars and a snow capped mountain so close it seems as if you can reach out to touch it, with the Milky way above it like a feathery plume from a hat, and then coming home with a photograph that needs no description.
I have so many wonderful stories that I could tell, and so many photos that need no words.
We’re focusing on focusing this month. How do I focus my photos is one of the most asked questions of me by other photographers. It’s a great question, and one that one would think would be pretty basic and simple. It’s usually the last skill that a beginning photographer considers when starting out but seems to be the toughest to master. I mean it seems that it would be pretty basic, what with the sophistication of the Auto Focus features in modern digital cameras, but once one takes a few photos and is let down by the Auto Focus Mode it’s easy to see why in many cases, especially landscape and portraiture, you will want to manually focus your photo.
There are several things that will affect the focus or clarity of our photos including a completely out of focus image, one where the focus is so far off that nothing is clear or in focus. That issue is obvious, of course, so we won’t discuss this in depth. We will assume that we are focusing but want to refine the clarity and focus of the shot. I’m going to try to proceed without citing mathematics or terms and theories such as Hyperfocal Distance, Circle of Confusion etc. The purpose of this article is to just understand the basics enough to understand how to overcome a common problem with focusing. Trust that this could become so lengthy that it would require another ten pages of the Mountain Times to cover it. Sometimes when someone is learning something new more information beyond what it takes to understand the concept causes confusion and discouragement. Once the basics are learned the understanding can be broadened in the future. I always tell people that if it requires mathematics to take photos I’d be a C-Minus photographer.
First let’s consider blurring caused by the camera moving or objects in the scene moving. This is not a focus issue but it can affect the clarity and areas of focus in the photo as you affect it. If movement is causing problems then your shutter speed is too slow. You’ll need to make sure that your shutter speed is sufficiently fast to freeze the movement. There are times where a slow shutter blur effect is desirable such as in creeks or waterfalls. This typically requires one to make an aperture adjustment to vary the shutter speed. Opened more to make it quicker and closed more to make it slower, but the depth of field will change with each aperture change.
So what’s this depth of field of which you speak you ask? The depth of field is how deep the area that will be in focus is from front to back. The wider your aperture the shallower or narrower your depth of field will be and then when you stop down, or close the aperture down, the depth of field becomes deeper. Remember that the larger the aperture opening the smaller the f/stop number and the smaller the aperture opening is the larger the f/stop number. Something to consider when you’re trying to maximize your focus is that the closer you are to the subject or foreground narrower your depth of field will be as well. If you’re having trouble getting everything in the scene within acceptable focus stand back a little. The same with portraiture. If you’re shooting with a wide aperture to blur the background intentionally you may have trouble getting the person’s whole face in focus. There’s not a lot worse in portrait photography than having the eyes in focus but the nose out of focus or vice-versa. Either stop down (close down the aperture) or stand back a little further or both. This works best with a zoom lens so you can recompose as you move away.
Hyperfocal Distance – I know. I said that I was going to try not to mention this but I think that curiosity will eventually lead a photographer to wonder. Simply and basically, the hyperfocal distance is the point where you will focus to allow everything from the foreground to the background to be in “acceptable focus”.
There’s a mystical mathematical formula to determine what that the hyperfocal distance is, but if you remember this advice you will get by like I have been for a long time without taking a calculator into the field with me. Here goes – I remember that I want to be in my lens’s sweet spot, which is the upper and lower limit of the aperture’s clearest settings. Each lens is different but the average lens is approximately f/8 to f/14. Compose your shot but try not to get too close to the foreground unless you don’t mind the background to be soft – Remember the closer to your foreground the less likely the object in the background will be in focus – And then focus to infinity on your lens focus ring and then focus back until the foreground just comes into focus. Then you will usually have the depth of field maximised and pushed out as far as possible while still maintaining a focused foreground. It’s easy to understand once you try it.
That may have been a long road to a short conclusion but just a basic understanding of how your aperture and depth of field affects focus allows you to take control of exactly how you will focus your photo. I hope that I made that as clear as possible.
Here’s a photo that I made yesterday while guiding my friends Al and Kathy Baca, from Long Island New York, around the Mount Hood National Forest. We spent a day in the beautiful Columbia River Gorge and a day in the Mount Hood National Forest with a day of post processing between. It was a great time.
This photo was made while they were photographing bugs, flowers. lichen and moss with their macro lenses. I let them be for a few moments while I dove into the forest to get to this area. The roots captured my attention immediately. While I was there I felt as if I was in the realm of the forest sprites and gnomes.
This whole forest is in it’s Springtime best. All of the deciduous leaves are fresh green as well as the mosses. The forest is moist right now and emits a primordial essence and exudes an aura of primal simplicity. Life in its most primitive and its most beautiful.
I love the Pacific Northwest rain forests, especially in the Springtime. Consider a private Oregon photography exploration tour with Gary Randall Photography some day to explore some of the less visited places in this incredible state. I think that you’ll be glad that you did.
Columbia River Gorge Spring Wildflowers and Shallow Depth of Field Landscape Photography – In this day and age of hyper sharp, focus stacked photos, how do you feel about shallow depth of field landscape photographs?
When I’m photographing the wildflowers in the gorge I can almost always expect a wind or at least some sort of a breeze that tends to toss the flowers around. When you’re trying to increase your depth of field the breeze makes stopping down more difficult to do. An aperture lets more light in when open wider but the depth of field narrow, blurring the background. In many cases most photographers try their best to maintain a deep focus, but when that’s not possible the next step is to photograph multiple exposures at different focus points into the scene until frames are captured with each area in focus. After which these frames are combined to create a full focus from front to back.
But what if you are unable to focus stack or simply do not want to? In that case you will, most likely, deal with an area in the photo that’s out of focus. This can be used to a certain effect to create a feeling of depth. It can also be used to isolate an area in the scene that the photographer wants to make the subject of attention. In the case of the photo that is included with this blog post the foreground is in focus but it trails off to the soft glow of the sunshine in the background.
It’s not often thought of in landscape photography to use a shallow depth of field, but it’s used a lot in macro photography. But using a shallow depth of field is always an option that shouldn’t be completely ignored when the photographer is trying to be creative with their work. Does it work effectively every time? No, but there are times when we are challenged with capturing a scene, such as a windy day, when we can try to create something artistic instead of giving up and going home with nothing.
Sometimes super sharp focus from front to back isn’t necessarily the best approach to landscape photography. So keep this in mind on those windy or even on dark days. Perhaps it will eliminate a little stress or maybe produce a more creative image.
Critique and Competition in Photography – The Painted Hills in Central Oregon.
My son Chris and I took my mom to the Painted Hills this past Sunday. Mom had never been there and was completely stoked by its beauty.
I enjoy taking photo at this location with a long lens. I usually take my 70-200 and shoot little micro scenes of the textures and folds in the hills. I also enjoy the textures of the soil, but I have found that it confuses some people, I’ll explain later. On this day I used my Tamron 150-600 G2 and had a great time.
I entered a similar photo to this in a competition once. One of the things that I was gigged for was the texture. I remember that every time that I return to this location. The judge couldn’t figure out what the “grain in the foreground” was. I just slapped my forehead and fell back in my chair in dismay. I wanted to yell into the screen that it was coarse soil. I also entered a cool shot of the lava ocean entry and I was gigged due to some “diffusion and lens distortion” that one judge perceived to be an issue. The issue was the steam from the lava. I was taken aback by that one too. All in all I did fairly well in the competition, but after that day I became a bit disillusioned by professional competitions. Their critique gave me no encouragement or advice in how to improve my work, but I suppose that’s not the purpose of these competitions anyway.
Call me dumb or closed minded but I got nothing from the critique or comments. I think that competitions are fine, but really, I hate making photography a competition to begin with. I also question the qualifications beyond the certifications of some of those who are judges after the last one that I participated in. I compare them with “book learned” engineers. I’d love to have taken a couple of them out into the field with me and show them how I work.
All of the photographers whom I admire and am inspired by do not enter competitions. For them, I perceive, and I photography isn’t about winning. It’s not about professional credentials. It’s about the experience and inspiring others to follow their dreams and aspirations. I hope that I do this with my own work. In my opinion competitions only encourage the victors.
In the end a photographer’s audience will not judge them or their work by the competitions that they win, or the credentials that they earn but, rather, the images that they create that touch their audience in the most personal way, many of which aren’t technically perfect. And only you and those who admire what you do can actually honestly judge your work in a positive way.
Critique is fine, but ultimately it’s objective. And when the judge’s goal is to be critical of the photo, it won’t be viewed in the same way as the photographer’s fans. And it certainly won’t be seen in the same light as the one who created the image.
Create your work for yourself first. Break away from standards that are used to judge photos. That’s where creativity and originality starts. If you need advice seek it from someone whom you admire and trust. Take the critique of a stranger, no matter their professional credentials, with less weight than those who are trying to find positive in what you’ve done. And don’t get discouraged.
Turnagain Arm Sunbeams – The Turnagain Arm is a waterway in the Gulf of Alaska and is one of two branches of the Cook inlet, the other being the Knik Arm. It happens to be one of my favorite places for photography.
The Turnagain Arm was named by William Bligh of the HMS Bounty fame who served as the sailing master for Captain James Cook, British Explorer and cartographer, on his third and final voyage on his quest for the Northwest Passage. In the exploration of the Cook Inlet a party was first sent up the Knik Arm only to return reporting that it led to a river. A second party went up the next Arm only to turn back saying that it too was only a river. In their frustration of having to turn back again they named it the Turnagain River, later to be designated an arm of the Cook Inlet, thus the Turnagain Arm.
The Turnagain Arm’s geography affects the weather in dramatic ways. On the south side of the waterway lies the Kenai Peninsula with its mountain peaks averaging 3000′-5000′ while on the opposite side rise the Chugach Mountain Range with peaks comparable in size to the Kenai Mountains but, because of their position to the Cook Inlet set world records for snowfall with averages 1500 cm (800 in). With the waterway between the weather can be intense, and the sun being low on the horizon most all seasons, the light is incredible an inordinate amount of times throughout the year.
Another unique part of exploring the Turnagain Arm is it’s bore tide. A bore tide happens only in a small handful of places around the world. A bore tide is a tidal phenomenon where the incoming tidal flow meets an outgoing flow of the bay or a river. The leading edge forms a wave that travels up the arm on the incoming tides. It’s always fun to go to the Turnagain Arm and chase the bore tide.
We always make the Turnagain Arm a primary feature of our Alaska workshops. When the bore tide happens just before a sunset, magic can happen. We had the opportunity on this particular evening to chase and photograph the bore tide and the Alaskan surfers along the Seward Highway, a sunset and as a bonus we experienced Baluga whales breaching just below where were were standing taking in the last light of the sunset.
These experiences are hard to describe, even with a photograph to accompany the narrative. They are things that one must experience in person to appreciate. Darlene and I have a combined total of over 25 years of experience exploring Alaska. If you have ever considered an Alaska adventure please consider signing up to one of our Alaska workshops.
Another drop in the bucket of things that I have to do in my life, to intermingle with and photograph grizzly bears, has been achieved. Darlene and I have just returned from an amazing trip to Alaska that included a hike on a glacier, a boat ride into the Prince William Sound and a flight over the glaciated peaks of the Kenai Peninsula, but the highlight of the trip was mingling with grizzly bears in the wild.
We drove to a location that we had visited and were unsuccessful at on a previous trip to Alaska. We weren’t all that confident but decided to give it a whirl. We did know that the river was full of salmon so it would be possible. The bears come down to the rivers when the salmon are spawning for an easy nutritious meal.
As we arrived at the trailhead a group of fishermen were walking out to their cars. They had been chased out of the fishing holes by a sow and her cubs. Darlene and I got excited. We grabbed or gear and headed down the trail toward the river. As I hiked down the trail my mind was on uber-alert with my bear spray quickly available. The last thing that I wanted was to surprise a momma and her babies. Darlene was singing a song to herself as she walked, hoping to alert a bear before we arrived if one was in our path.
We got down to the river just as the evening light was starting to fade. I had 150-300mm zoom but was wishing that I had a 600mm with me. Primarily to be able to get a shot without walking right up to them and asking them to smile. As it turned out the 300mm worked well, but I didn’t get any closeups. – I digress. As we walked along the river we saw a group of people coming out that told of another bear further downstream.
Darlene and I walked with a bit more vigor due to the adrenaline in our veins, but when we arrived the bear had gone back into the woods. We decided to just walk up and down the path for a while until we became tired of that and had a seat to just sit and wait and watch.
We sat there chatting in a low whisper while we sat near the brush next to the river as to not alarm any potential bear who might want to come back for another salmon snack. I told Darlene that it was getting a little dim and that we’d now need to really push our ISO to get anything with an acceptable shutter speed. We discussed being hungry and that perhaps we should leave and find a meal before it got too late when as I looked over Darlene’s shoulder toward the river I saw the big sow grizzly lumbering out of the forest toward the river on the bank right across from us no more than 20-30 yards away. I said in a concerned and excited whisper… “Bear! Bear! Bear!”. Darlene turned and showed her obvious excitement as we both started to photograph the bear as if we were hidden paparazzi! A moment or two passed and out came a cub, then another and then another. A momma and three cubs. We could hardly believe what we were seeing. I will never forget that moment. The moment when she gracefully emerged from the forest. My first thought was, “this is not the zoo”.
We photographed her and the babies until they decided to retreat into the forest. Not long after we heard some commotion down river. All of a sudden I heard the “huff, huff” from a bear. It sent a chill up my spine. A minute later a small group of tourists came walking toward me with a sense of urgency. They said that a male grizzly came out of the woods near them and chased them away. I grabbed my gear, and Darlene and we headed toward where I heard the commotion. My senses on alert I walked slowly as I scanned the trail ahead, the forest to the right and the river to our left.
As we approached we could see a bear in the river. Darlene and I found a safe spot to observe and proceeded to watch one of the most beautiful things that I’ve experienced in my life. In the river was a young bore , perhaps two years old, playing as if he had no care in the world. He walked around in the river picking up fish and tossing them around into the air, wading into deeper pools and just swimming around. He was a joy to watch and to photograph but our light was fading fast. The cameras were having a hard time and I didn’t want to hike out in the dark so we grabbed our gear and headed back.
As we were walking out we could see silhouettes of bears in the river. We walked a little quicker and counted ten bears in all on this visit. It was as if they were all coming out of the forest at once. We hurried out while we still had light to show our way.
That night at our hotel we decided to dedicate the next day to getting some great bear photos. I reviewed my shots that night and came to the conclusion that I needed that 600mm. The shots were great, but not close enough as far as I’m concerned and I’ll be darned if I’m going to get closer! We decided to drive 150 miles one way to Anchorage to rent a lens. We returned with just enough time to get ready and head to the river.
We arrived with my rented 150-600 zoom lens and walked up and down the trail and spent that evening there with absolutely no success. As the light faded I lamented the fact that we had blown a whole day and the cost of the lens. Darlene suggested that we take our last day in Alaska and come back one more time.
The next day was beautiful. We spent a great day in the Alaska scenery, but I was anxious to return to the bears that evening.
We noted that the time that the sow and her cubs came out of the woods was approximately 7:30 pm. We made sure that we were there early and staked out a spot to sit near where she had been the night that we saw her previously. Sure to form at approximately 7:30 down from the forest she came – Her and her cubs.
The rest is history. This family came down and ate for a while, retreated back into the woods for a while and then returned for an encore. Insuring that I got my amazing bear photos. I was beyond excited. We were so excited when we got back to the car that we felt like kids at after a carnival. I scrolled down through the photos, checked focus etc and then drove back to the hotel fulfilled and in disbelief that the photos on my card were mine.
Each year come August I start to look forward to the Perseid Meteor Shower. The Perseids are an annual event that comes each year as the Earth passes through the orbital path of the Comet Swift-Tuttle. The debris from the comet’s path causes little pieces of the comet to fall through the Earth’s atmosphere at over 100,000 miles per hour causing an amazing amount of falling stars, sometimes from 100-200 per hour. The Perseid Meteor Shower of 2018 was helped by its occurrence during the dark skies of a New Moon.
Another occasion that’s becoming an annual August event is my Dead Ox Ranch Photographer’s Campout. Last year we dedicated the event to capturing photos of the Solar Eclipse. This year we were there to capture photos of the Perseid Meteor Shower.
The Dead Ox Ranch isn’t as morbid of a place as it sounds. The name was given to the ranch by the chance occurrence of there being a dead cow on the property when it changed hands in a sale in its past. The ranch is over 100 years old and is located east of Baker City near Virtue Flats and ruts from the old Oregon Trail. It’s just an hour drive from Hell’s Canyon and the Wallowa Mountains. It’s also the location for some of the darkest skies in the state.
Disregarding all of the above, the ranch itself is like going back in time to an era of outdoor group socials, picnics and sitting around in the yard in the summertime heat visiting and talking to friends and family with an ice-cold beverage. Once everyone arrives and we are all set up in our camps we mix and mingle and discuss our common purpose for being there, photography.
The only chance that we take is being there in the Summer during the peak wildfire season, and this years has been a bad one. The state was covered with smoke from fires originating not only in Oregon but from fires in both California and British Columbia. It’s been terrible indeed, but we somehow lucked out with clear skies with only traces of smoke that came and went for the whole three-day event. If we would have had smoky skies we would have somehow made the best of it anyway but that wasn’t the case.
Our mission for the workshop was to create what is called a composite image. One that is made from several photos to create one single image. Our goal was to make an image that included a group of meteors gathered over a three hour period of time. To do that we wanted to create the photo using a base layer taken at twilight so we can have focus and definition and yet still have dim and cool light like night time. Then a photo of the sky later at night when the Milky Way was filling the sky. After that we set up our cameras to take 30 second exposures one after the other for three hours to gather photos of as many meteors as possible. Once we gathered all of these photos we then went into our digital darkroom to blend them all together.
To composite the photos we made our basic adjustments in Adobe Lightroom and then opened all of the files into Adobe Photoshop as layers. Once we had them in Photoshop it was a matter of creating masks and selecting a blend mode to allow each layer to show through in its place and order. After some final adjustments the whole stack of layers was merged together into a single image. Although this is a general description I felt compelled to explain the process to those who aren’t aware of how these images are made. In today’s world of digital photography certain lines can be blurred between art and photography.
The whole group of photographers had a great time. I’m convinced that when we were out playing at sunset and into the dark we reverted back to kids again. And when we gathered to process our photos, we were all amazed at the results. I included the image that I created as an example of the composite image that the class came to create for themselves.
Even if you don’t create a complex composite image in Photoshop, a beautiful single image of a meteor is reward enough for a night under the stars. Keep this in mind next August when the stars start falling during the Perseid Meteor Shower. Perhaps you can join us at the Dead Ox Ranch for a workshop.