Waiting for the Light

I was on the Sunset Point at the rim of Bryce Amphitheater of Bryce Canyon National Park, awed by the jaw-dropping view in front of me. Sure, I had seen pictures of these colorful, fantastic hoodoos countless times, but nothing could replace the experience of me really been there, seeing these nature wonders though my own eyes.

This was my first visit to this mesmerizing landscape.  I went straight to the Sunset Point.  The name suggests this must be an ideal location for sunset shots, or so I thought.

So I was here, standing by my camera and tripod, waiting, waiting for the light. The right light.

Light is the most essential element of photography.  Poor light makes the best landscape in the world flat and uninviting.  On the other hand, great light turns an OK scene into something extraordinary.

The arches, pinnacles, and hoodoos of Bryce Canyon are indeed extremely impressive — especially in the winter time. The colorful formations contrast beautifully with the white snow on the ground. The soft warm light of the setting winter Sun nicely illuminated these fascinating formations, turning rocks into gold.  It was the so called golden hour — the first and last hour of sun.  Any landscape photographer will tell you in a heartbeat that this is the light you should aim for. The soft, warm, low-angle sunlight can play magic.  This is the light that makes great landscape photographs.

I made a few exposures.  “Not bad”, I told myself.  The light was wonderful.  However, there was another voice coming from the back of my mind: “Where are those magical, intensive red colors that I saw in the pictures of Bryce Canyon?”   To say I was a little bit disappointed is not exaggerating.

Bryce Canyon at Sunset. Canon 5D Mark II, f/11, 1/13 sec, ISO 100, 165mm, Lee 3-stop soft GND.

The sun went down, throwing everything surrounding me into a giant shadow.  The entire landscape appeared dull and lifeless.  Tourists were leaving. I did not pack my gears.  Years of experiences in the field told me that I should wait.  About 30 minutes after sunset, during a period I called the edge of light, the sky often takes rich red and magenta tones, and landscape basks in very soft and super saturated light.   The colors may not so obvious to our naked eyes, but films and digital sensors will record the extremely beautiful light. This is actually one of the best times to shoot landscape, especially for American southwest. The colors and light change rapidly so one has to work very fast during this period of time. Preparation and pre-visualization is the key to success.

An hour had passed. My waiting for the ideal light finally paid off. The clouds in the sky turned into rich, vivid red and purple hues.  The hoodoos radiated with intensive, glowing red. This was a truly magic moment, and the moment was fleeting.  The colors quickly disappeared after I made just a handful of frames.

Bryce Canyon at Dusk. Canon 5D Mark II, f/11, 2 sec, ISO 100, 25mm. Lee 3-stop soft GND.

Both pictures in this post have identical processing settings –— same white balance, same contrast, and same saturation value. And they were from the same location. What a difference an hour made!

And the moral of the story is: Don’t pack your camera when the Sun goes down. The show may have just started.

Yiming Hu

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The Egg Factory

When I first saw Christine Qian’s images of Bisti Badlands a few years ago, I was immediately attracted to the garden of sculpted hoodoos. Since then, I have made three trips into this badlands on the “Mars” and spent a total of eight days in there. Bisti has never failed to keep my fascination fresh. In this hoodoo heaven, one can spend weeks in there to photograph those rock formations and still have something fresh to shoot. On top of my list of favorite spots, it is a place called the Egg Factory, where you can find eroded boulders laying on the valley floor like cracked dinosaur eggs.

Finding the Egg Factory presents a unique challenge. Those eggs are just about two feet tall. You cannot see them until you are within 100 yards. Fortunately, there is GPS nowadays. The coordinates for the Egg Factory is N36°16’02” W108°13’26”. Park your car at south parking lot, mark your GPS location – you will need it to get back, and hike about 2 miles along the wash. The Egg Factory is at foot of the ridge on your right.

One of the web sites I found most useful is: http://www.synnatschke.de/bisti/bisti.html. It is a German site, but you can read it with the Google Translate. It has an extremely useful topo map completed with GPS coordinates.

When I first saw the dinosaur eggs, the excitement was beyond what I can describe. But after the initial excitement worn off, a serious landscape photographer would start to think about how to photograph these eggs. That was when I realized that finding them was only small part of the challenge. The eggs sit on a valley floor with ridges to all directions. While the midday harsh light is not photographer’s favorite, the golden hours are not exactly golden. If I have to choose, the sunset is more favorable than sunrise, simply because the ridges towards west are much further away. But you have to work quickly to finish up in a few minutes before the golden light goes away, and to start hiking out of there.

My favorite light is half an hour after sunset and half an hour before sunrise. This is when the rocks glow with colors while the valley floor reflects blue from the sky. As a bonus, I don’t have to deal with the long shadows during sunrise or sunset. Just set my camera on the tripod, shoot until I can’t see light. Sweet! But … there is always more challenge. You have to prepare for a long hike under complete darkness if you do so. I wouldn’t even think about it without a handheld GPS and a bright head lamp. The other option is to camp in there, which presents yet a different set of challenges.

Bisti Blue – Taken after sunset

Dawn of Dinosaurs – Taken at sunrise

John Fan

A Matter of Seconds

When shooting moving water, the most important decision is the choice of shutter speed (or exposure time).  Most photographers prefer to use a long exposure time to convey a sense of movement of the water.  However, how long is long enough?  Half a second? Two seconds? Ten seconds?  It is a matter of personal taste.

I took these photos at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on a foggy spring morning. Generally speaking, when taking images of waterfalls and creeks, I almost always try to avoid direct sunshine hitting the water, since it will cause ugly blown out highlight areas.  I much prefer to shoot during a cloudy day or when the scene is in the shade. A drizzling day works ever better!

One of the most useful accessories when shooting water is a polarizer filter. The filter serves two purposes: (1) it eliminates the glare from wet rocks and foliage, and, (2) it acts as a 1.3-1.7 stop neutral density filter to slow the shutter speed by reducing the amount of light entering the lens.

For the first photo, I used a Cokin Z-164 CPL on a Cokin-Z Pro holder mounted in front of my Canon 16-35mm F2.8L lens.  I set the ISO to 100 and my aperture to F13. The CPL effectively reduces the shutter speed to 0.5 second, which is perfect to capture the sense of movement of the water in the creek.  I also used a Lee 2-stop soft GND to prevent the sky from over-exposure.

Enchanted Creek, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 16-35mm F2.8L @ 16mm, ISO 100, 0.5 second, F13, Cokin Z-164 CPL, Lee 4×6 2-stop soft GND.
Enchanted Creek

On my second try, I added a Lee 4-stop ND (Neutral Density) filter  in front of the above setup, resulting in a much longer exposure time (8 seconds).  The slower shutter speed completely blurred the water flow, creating a dream-like mood that matches well with the surrounding fog.

Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 16-35mm F2.8L @ 16mm, ISO 100, 8 seconds, F13, Cokin Z-164 CPL, Lee 4×6 2-stop soft GND, Lee 4×4 4-stop  ND.
Enchanted Creek

The different shutter speeds created very different feels.  Which version is “better”? It is in the eyes of beholders and I have heard different opinions from my fellow photographer friends.  The first version is more dynamic and the texture of the foreground is lovely.  The longer-exposure one is soft and moody. When you are in the field shooting, choose a shutter speed that works best for your personal style. If you cannot make up your mind, just try different speeds!

Yiming Hu

Tale of the Dragons

Tale of the Dragon

Equipment: Sony A900, Zeiss 16-35mm, RRS L-plate, RRS BH-55 head, Gitzo 3531LS Tripod.  F16. 1/45 second. Iso 200.

When I first saw the images of Bisti Badlands five years ago, I was immediately attracted to the garden of sculpted hoodoos.  Since then, I have taken three trips into this badlands on the “Mars”.  Bisti have never failed to keep my fascination fresh.

It was a cloudy day in January of 2010 during my first visit to Bisti.  I was busy photographing a field small hoodoos when I suddenly noticed a series of rocks behind me.  I stood up and took a good look at it.  In my imagination, it looked like a dragon lying in front of me.   I took a few pictures, but the result was not particularly satisfactory mostly because of the featureless heavy cloud hanging over the sky.  During my second trip to Bisti in April of 2011, a major storm was approaching from the west on our last day there.  I immediately realized that it was a golden opportunity to re-shoot the dragon photo I took over a year ago.

It was a single exposure.  No filter was used.  I used manual focus to roughly focus at hyper focal distance.  At 16mm and F16, the depth of field is enormous that one does not need to worry much about exactly where to focus.  A decision was made to use the ultra wide angle up close to give dragon’s head some visual impact.  I chose to shoot  vertically so that the dragon’s head anchors lower left corner, its body leads into the mid ground and the cloudy in the sky can be included.

I decided to convert the image to black and white because lack of color in the rocks especially under the cloudy sky.  After some simple adjustments for exposure and contrast in Lightroom, I exported the image to Photoshop CS5 where I did black and white conversion.  To increase the contrast of this rather flat image, I duplicated the layer and selected multiple with an opacity around 25%.  Then it was painstaking job of dodge and burn to enhance the dragon and darken the surroundings.  My favorite approach is to create a new layer with overlay mode, filled with overlay neutral color (50% gray), 50% opacity.  At this point, just grab the brush tool and paint on this layer.  Black brush will darken the image while white brush brightens it.  I usually set opacity of the brush to a low percentage and achieve the final result in multiple stages to ensure smooth transitions. The final step is sharpening.  My preferred method to sharpen a black and white image is to create a duplicate layer with overlay mode, add a high pass filter with a radius about 3 pixels, then adjust opacity to achieve the sharpness I like.

I wanted to present a dark and mystic image to capture viewer’s imagination.  The stormy weather certainly helped my goal.  In post processing, I deliberately darken the sky and the areas surrounding the dragon to help emphasis the mood.

Final thoughts:
We often travel far to seek inspiration, but good photographs are often made at an area that is familiar to the photographers.
Always re-shoot your favorite scene when the weather and light conditions are more favorable.
When using a ultra wide lens, do not afraid to step closer to the foreground element.

John Fan

 

Moonlight

Among all images I made during my 2011 New Zealand Photography expedition, I like “Moonlight” the most.  The following records the details about where and when this photo was taken and how it is processed.

Moonlight

(1) CONTEXT
This photo was taken in Tasman River, Mt Cook, New Zealand in late April 2011. The location itself has full of interesting subjects: rocks, icebergs, snowing mountain backgrounds, river, etc.. However,  getting a harmony and interesting composition was challenging because the foregound was just too mess and there was even no sufficient space to set up the tripod easily.

We stayed two days in Mt Cook, and my first day of photographing this place was not successful. This morning, when we arrived there about 6.40am, the moon was still hung on the sky, while the sunrise was about to start shortly.  Comparing to the previous morning, this time I was very impressed with the moon and its reflection in the flowing water of the river. I decided to take a portrait frame in order to exclude many unwanted rocks in foreground.

(2) THE PICTURE
The image was taken with my Canon 5D Mark II camera and 16-35mm f/2.8L II lens. I used tripod GT2531EX Gitzo CF6X Explorer 2 (BH-55 Ballhead) to support the
camera and lens, and a RC-1 canon remote release to trigger the shutter.

In order to balance the light between the sky and dark foreground, I combined two fliters together in front of the lens: a Singh Ray 3 f-stop Reverse GND and a Lee 2 f-stop GND (soft), which made the foreground rocks quite visible while still keeping the sky exposed correctly. Having used these two filters, my camera settings for this image were: ISO 400, aperture f/5.6 and shutter speed 30 seconds.

This is a single-shot image.

The “moon” in the river looked bigger than the real one in the sky because my tripod was set up into the water so that I could get the closest viewpoint.  The time for making this shot was at 6.48am of the local time, while the far away mountain peak was already illuminated by the rising sun behind the mountains.

(3) PROCESSING
The post processing was a bit tedious. While 2 GND filters had made the foreground rocks quite visible,  the two sides of mountain backgrounds were still very dark without many details. I opened the RAW file in Camera RAW of Photoshop CS5, lifted the “fill light” bar a bit, then loaded to CS5. In there, I used Tony Kuper’s mask luminosity technique to precisely isolate the two side mountains by 5 times of “Darks pixels”, and then lifted the curve to make them brighter. Quite interestingly, some details on two sides mountains were revealed.

However, one side effect by doing action “lifting dark pixels” was that it also affected other part of the image so that the entire image becomes too bright. This is easy to fix. I added one layer mask, and paint the both sides of mountains to reveal the effect of the previous action, while the rest of the image remained unchanged.

The rest adjustment of the image in Photoshop CS5 was then quite straightforward.

(4) OUTCOME
I was satisfied with the final image after processing. I felt that I have captured what I saw actually in the scene. In some sense, this image presents a mysterious and tranquil place in this planet, which reminds us to preserve it.

It was a rush morning when I took this shot, as the light was changing quickly during the twilight period. I had little time to try different compositions and made multiple shots. Under a situation like this, the personal intuition was the only factor to make a successful image. For me, the most distinguished subject at that moment was the moon in the sky and its reflection in the river that I wanted to include into the frame.

(5) THREE HINTS
– Simplicity is always a key to achieve a better composition
– Trust your intuition when you don’t have time to experiment various options
– Preview your photography procedure one more time before you arrive the field

This photo was published on 1x. This tutorial was also selected and appeared in 1x new book “Photo Inspiration”:

1x new book “Photo Inspiration”

Appearing in “Photo Inspiration”

Yan Zhang

Emerald Blue

Pyteo Lake

Canon 5D Mark II, 17-40mm F4 L, Singh-Ray 4-stop hard GND.

Pyteo Lake in Banff National Park is one of the most beautiful lakes in the Canadian Rockies and is popular with photographers. Most photos of this location were taken in daytime, particularly around noon, because by that time the entire valley and the lake are nicely illuminated by sunshine. The place is also very crowed.

We landscape photographers are obsessed with capturing our own vision, even in such an iconic location. It is not very often to see a panorama picture from this spot, so I decided to create one. Moreover, I wanted to avoid another daytime rendition of this icon. I wanted something less commonly done. Finally I decided to shoot early in the morning when the first ray of sunshine hits the nearby peaks.

So I got up around 4:00am on a chilly July morning (No joking here. The temperate was below the freezing point and you could see a thin layer of ice on the lake) and drove to here. The parking lot was empty so I thought I would be the only one to witness the sunrise. To my surprise, there were already three brave young ladies, who camped in nearby Waterfowl Lake the previous night, waiting there. Other than them, for the next hour or so there were no other people around. Not a single tripod visible, except mine.

Boy, I was not disappointed! The show was epic. The warm early morning sunshine lit up these peaks. The glacial lake, still in the deep shadow and reflecting the colors of the sky, showed very rich and pleasant blue, green and purple tones. The contrast between the warm and cool colors was simply striking.

This panorama picture is a stitch of five single-exposure photos. One of the technical challenges with this kind of early morning shot is the extreme contrast between the very bright sky and the deep shadowed valley. Most digital sensors and films cannot hold the tone values for both areas. Many digital shooters nowadays prefer to use exposure-blending to address this issue — you shoot two frames, one exposes for the sky and the other for the valley, and blend them together in post-processing. However, blending is a very tedious and time consuming job. While I do use this method often, I still prefer the old way whenever possible — using a Graduated Neutral Density (GND) filter. I would rather get it right in field than spend time doing post-processing in front of my computer. Besides, for a panorama like this, I would have to shoot five more exposures and manually blend them in the computer five times! More work and more storage overhead. By using a GND and shoot five correctly exposed frames, all I needed to do in the post was to open them into Photoshop, and the program automatically stitched them together.

Yiming Hu

Eternal Curves

Eternal Curves

Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 16-35mm F2.8 II L @ 28mm, RRS L-plate, Gitzo 3541 Tripod, Markins M-20 Ballhead, RAW files.

Sandstone slot canyons are such an iconic symbol of American southwest and their images can easily become a visual cliché. However, every photographer can still have his/her own unique vision and personal interpretation of the beauty of this wonderful landscape.

I visited Lower Antelope Canyon during a family vacation last Christmas. Although this was my first visit, but I had already seen too many images from this location and I decided to create my unique version. It was not an easy mission. The place is small and there are hundreds of photographers come to here each and every day.

I received a “photographer’s pass”, which meant that I could wondering around the place by myself for up to two hours, without the need of joining a guided tour with other tourists. I explored different locations and angles, until I saw an opening on the top of canyon, showing blue sky. The opening looks like a window and the surrounding curves and colors are simply gorgeous. I knew that I’d found my shot. I setup my tripod and carefully composed the image.

There were some technique challenges here, though. The brightness difference between the inside and outside of the canyon is extreme. While our human eyes can see details on the sky and inside the canyon at the same time, the contrast far exceeds the capability of most cameras. We landscape photographers have to deal with such problems all the time — for example, the bright sky and dark ground during sunrise or sunset. Normally we use our trusted Graduated Neutral Density (GND) filters to control the contrast. However in this situation the shape of the “window” is irregular so I could not possibly use GND. I decided to use another commonly used method — exposure blending — which is popular among digital shooters.

I waited until I saw some thin clouds on the sky, since they added lots of interests to the otherwise plain blue sky. I then made two consecutive exposures. The camera was set to manual mode. The first exposure was taken at ISO 100, F11, 1/50 second. The sky was properly exposed, but the rocks were severely underexposed. The second exposure was taken at ISO 100, F11, 0.5 second. Now the canyon walls were beautifully rendered, but the sky was completely blown out. The two shots are then exposure-blended together in post-processing.

I am very happy with the outcome. Although this was my first visit to this popular location and I spent less than two hours there, this work quickly became one of my most popular images. Apple Inc. recently has licensed this image to showcase the vibrant colors and stunning details of the Retina display of their new MacBook Pro on Apple.com:

http://www.apple.com/macbook-pro/design/

http://www.apple.com/macbook-pro/specs/

Conclusion:

Always try to approach your subject from a different angle and be willing to experiment. Even in an iconic location that has been photographed to death, you may still find a fresh perspective.

Yiming Hu

Day Break at White Sands

Day Break at White Sands

I drove to White Sands National Monument in a dark, windy and rainy January Morning.  When I arrived, I realized that there was a car at the parking lot already.  I gathered my camera gear and went up the dune in the light rain.  Here they were.  On top of the dune, stood a young couple with their Nikon and monopod.  So I started to chat with them while waiting for the weather to clear.  They told me that they were college students from Arizona.  That day was the boy’s birthday.  The girl, who grew up in New Mexico, decided to take her photographer boy friend to White Sands for his birthday.  They drove 8 hours and slept in car so that they could catch the first light.  As we were chatting, the rain stopped and the cloud started to clear.  It was beauty and love before my eyes.

Before we parted, I asked them if I could do anything for them.  They wanted me to take a picture of them at this exact scene.  I had them drawing a heart on the sand and sitting in the middle.  It was perfect …

John Fan

The Milky Way

The location is Cathedral Valley, Capital Reef National Park, Utah, USA. This very remote location requires about 1.5 hour off-road driving in good weather and the road can be quite challenging. This is supposedly one of the least polluted areas in the US. Its clean air, its remoteness, and its relatively high elevation mean the night sky is spectacular. When I saw these imposing colorful sandstone monoliths, I immediately told myself that I had to make a Milky Way shot with these monoliths as the foreground. That night we camped in a primitive campsite nearby, so we had the chance to execute my plan.

To clearly see our galaxy in its best, one needs a moonless night. However that means correctly exposing the foreground becomes a very difficult task because the environment will be very dark. If the foreground objects are relatively close and small (e.g. a tree or a house), I prefer to use an off-camera flash or a flashlight to light-paint the foreground. The light-paint method is easy to use, and it gives me very precise control on the brightness of the foreground.

For “grand” night-time landscape showing here, however, the best and the most realistic solution is to use the double exposure technique described below, unless you have some super-bright light equipment at your disposal. If you light-paint the grand-scale landscape, you may also need to use a high ISO and a wide-open aperture, which decrease the image quality. The results may be OK for a small size magazine picture, but are not adequate for fine-art large prints.

The first exposure was taken at night when I could clearly see the Galaxy. I carefully positioned the camera such at the direction and location of the Milky Way was ideal, then I made my first exposure. The exposure parameters were ISO 4000, F4, 30 seconds, and focus length was 17mm. The very high ISO is needed here to reduce the shutter speed. Because the earth is rotating, any extended exposure period will the stars to become mini star-trails. For wide-angle focus lengths such as 17mm, the 30-second exposure is the up limit. Longer lens requires even shorter shutter time.

Depending on your situation, you can (1) stay with your camera for hours, waiting for the daybreak and take the next exposure, (2) leave your camera on the spot for the night and come back later ; and (3) mark the location, pack your gears and go to sleep, and come back the next morning. In the last case, you must make sure the composition of the second exposure is identical to the first one.

For this picture, the second exposure was taken in the next early morning, before sunrise, using ISO 100 and F11 to ensure optimal image quality. I chose this time period because I did not want direct sunlight hits the foreground, otherwise the final result will look very strange and fake. Personally I think the key to make this type of shots somewhat believable is to make the foreground dark enough but still showing enough details, although I know other people might prefer more drama by choosing a brighter foreground with directional light. It?s a matter of personal taste.

The two exposures were captured in RAW format. They were opened in Adobe Lightroom. I chose the fluorescent white balance so the night sky and stars have a cool blue tone. I then exported the two images to TIFF files.

The TIFF files were opened in Photoshop and copied into two layers of a single file. The bottom layer contains the night shot (the first exposure). The top layer contains the second exposure taken at dawn. I then selected the sky of the second exposure, deleted the sky, and merged the two layers.

The spectacular starry sky can always evoke our deep feelings of awe and wonder, and the wilderness and scale of these monoliths further enhance such emotions.

 

Yiming Hu