Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Happy Birthday, USA!

America The Beautiful

a grand canyon sunrise photograph
Daybreak at Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Happy Independence Day! Please support our State and National Parks!

Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark II

Lens: Canon 70-200 f/4L IS

Wishing you great light and meaningful moments!

Copyright 2013 Daniel R. South
All Rights Reserved

Friday, June 21, 2013

Manarola and the Magic of Dusk

Balanced Light

In places where exteriors are illuminated by electric lights, a visual phenomenon occurs each morning and evening.

When the intensity of the light from the sky matches that of the exterior lights, the light sources blend together in a way where neither dominates.  The warm colors of the artificial lights with the cool blue of dawn or dusk to create a unique mix of tones in minimized contrast.

a photo of manarola at dusk cinque terre
Manarola At Dusk - Cinque Terre

The dusk sky darkens quickly. It's best to get the shot before the blue color fades to black. Warm, artificial lighting and the bright colors of the buildings contrast with the blue background to powerful effect.

Timing is critical. In a few minutes, the contrast will be overwhelming. The lights will appear harsh and glaring against a black sky. But in this moment, the balance enables us to see everything.

Camera: Nikon D800
Lens: Nikon AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED

Wishing you great light and meaningful moments!

Copyright 2013 Daniel R. South
All Rights Reserved

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Abandon The Plan!

Know When To Follow Your Inner Voice

While visiting Death Valley, I considered taking a day to photograph the Racetrack Playa. Unfortunately, it didn't fit into my schedule.

The Racetrack is in a remote section of the park. Reaching the area requires a sturdy four-wheel-drive vehicle with special tires - forget about taking your rental car. I only had a few days to see the entire park, and a long side trip just wasn't practical.  

But strange things happen in the desert, and I started to hear a voice.

"You've always dreamed of seeing the Racetrack. You're so close!" the Voice insisted.

"Yes, I know, Voice," I replied. "But I have only three days to see the entire park. I don't have time for an off-road excursion. I'll have to come back and see The Racetrack on another trip."

"Another trip? When? What if that never happens?"

"Don't be so negative, Voice! Besides, I have already planned my itinerary."

"And you can't change a plan?"

"I could..."

"Look, you've come this far already! It would be a shame to leave without seeing the sliding rocks and experiencing firsthand one of the world's great mysteries."

"I know! I would really like to go, but I would have to change all of my lodging reservations."

"Why don't you ask the desk if they'll let you stay for another day or two? Then call the next place to see if you can arrive a day or two later."

"Okay, I'll ask. But they might be booked solid."

"And they might not."

"I would also need to rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and who knows what that involves."

"Good news! You can rent them near where you're staying."

"I have no idea how much it would cost or whether any vehicles are available. And what insurance coverage I would need."

"There's this invention called a telephone. You should try it sometime."

"Okay, Voice! I'll make a call! - You're annoying, do you know that?"

a photo of the Racetrack Playa At Sunset Death Valley National Park
Racetrack Playa At Sunset - Death Valley National Park

As you may have guessed from the photo above, the Voice won. I extended my stay in Death Valley, rented a Jeep, and set out early the next morning on one of the most rewarding adventurous of my life.

The Racetrack was amazing beyond words, a truly one-of-a-kind destination. The weather became quite pleasant once the sun came out, although it was below freezing when I arrived before dawn. I had a lot of fun exploring the playa and photographing the trails left by the rocks.

Of course, like any photographer, I hoped that I might be able to capture a dramatic sunset to cap off the day. A nice cluster of cumulus clouds showed up at just the right time.

Death Valley is amazing, and the excursion to the Racetrack Playa was one of the highlights. I would have regretted missing out on this.

In fact, I had so much fun at the Racetrack that I made a second run out there on the following day. Anyone who has ever driven the thirty-two miles (one way) of washboard road that leads to The Racetrack can appreciate just how much of an adventure that was! 

Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark II

Lens: Canon TS-E24 f/3.5L II

Singh-Ray Graduated Neutral Density Filter

Wishing you great light and meaningful moments!

Copyright © 2013 Daniel R. South
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Color of Film

California Lupines At Sunset

The possibilities of digital photography began to catch my interest in the late 1990s.  Unfortunately, digital imaging technology was still in its infancy.  I continued to shoot film while waiting for the quality of digital cameras to improve.

There's a certain mystery to film.  Waiting days or weeks to see the results of an exposure can be frustrating.  You can't take a peek at the LCD screen and recompose or make other adjustments.  You need to evaluate each scene carefully and commit to your most skillful prediction.  No matter how much experience you have with film, there are always surprises.

The surprises may be pleasant, even exhilarating; sometimes not so much.  I've thrown entire rolls of film into the trash bin over the years.  I've also been seen jumping for joy beside a light table upon receipt of newly developed chromes.  Unpredictability is part of the adventure.

a large format photograph of california wildflowers at sunset
Lupines At Sunset, California Coast

Color reversal film, commonly known as slide film, is amazing for documenting colors.  These films are sensitive to slight color casts that our internal optical processing system filters out.

Our brain filters colors possibly in an attempt to protect us from recognizable threats.  If a berry with a certain shade of red will make us sick, we don't want that berry to look differently on a sunny day than it does on a cloudy day, or at sunset versus high noon.  Unfortunately, this built-in safety mechanism reduces our ability to see colors accurately and objectively.

Film doesn't filter colors automatically, nor does it engage the automatic white balance functionality of a digital camera.  Film records any color that was present at the time of exposure including colors that humans can't see.  But here is the interesting part - when we look at a finished slide or print of the scene, we do see those missing colors and we see them accurately.

I have yet to discover a good explanation for this paradox in color perception.  How is it that colors once invisible to use become visible once they have been recorded by photographic processes?  This is yet another reason why cameras tend to yield surprising results.

Photography helps us to see and to understand our world more clearly by showing us what we were unable to see in the moment. 

Camera: Ebony SV45TE
Lens: Schneider 110mm f/5.6 Super-Symmar XL
Film: Fujichrome Velvia 100

Wishing you great light and meaningful moments!

Copyright 2012 Daniel R. South
All Rights Reserved

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Painted Piano

On Rating One's Own Work

Part of the lure of photography is the surprise factor. Sometimes things work out better than we might expect and sometimes less so.

I spend time each week reviewing, rating, and categorizing my photos. I want to understand what differentiates an outstanding or exceptional image from one that is merely competent. I figure that the more I know about what makes a meaningful image, the higher the probability of capturing more of them in the future.

I came up with the following rating scheme to help identify my best photos, the good ones, the not-so-good ones, and the inevitable turkeys.

No Stars - A flawed or otherwise unimpressive photo. I might keep it in my files for historical purposes only, but I wouldn't show it to my friends.

1 Star (*) - A well-executed photo without discernible flaws, but one that I need to spend time reviewing before deciding whether to publish it. I may have a better version of the photo, but I'm keeping this one as an alternative.

2 Stars (**) - A strong image with definite impact, an image that I would be proud to print or display on my website. This is the level where people start to say "Wow!" when they first see the image.

3 Stars (***) - An outstanding photograph with all of the qualities of a two-star image plus a uniquely impressive or interesting quality that makes it stand out in a collection.

4 Stars (****) - All of the qualities of a three-star image, but with some rare or remarkable quality. For people, it might be that one shot with the perfect expression or a spontaneous gesture that increases the impact of the image.

5 Stars (*****) - A rare gem. An image that captures a very special moment or situation and depicts it splendidly. A photograph that could not be improved in terms of impact.

a photo of a man playing a brightly colored piano in new york city
The Painted Piano

The Painted Piano qualifies as a five-star photo on my scale. It represents a unique and precious moment. I don't see painted pianos on the street every day.  In fact, it happened only this one time. I could walk the streets of the city for the next twenty years and never see anything like this again.

The gentleman playing the piano while wearing his New York Yankees hat and T-shirt had a wonderful expression, his eyes looking off into infinity. The colored paint on the piano adds to the uniqueness of the image, and the light was supportive and had just the right amount of contrast.

This wasn't a technically perfect capture. I had to crop out a pedestrian and a garbage can. (That can happen when you work fast.) Luckily, there was enough frame left over to yield a moving and memorable image.

I'm glad that I decided to take a walk that day. I'm glad that I decided to carry my camera with me. I'm glad that I stopped by to take a picture of the man playing his painted piano.

I'll treasure this image forever. It's one of those nice surprises that exemplify the joy and magic of photography.

Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark II

Lens: Canon 24-105 f/4L IS

Wishing you great light and meaningful moments!

Copyright 2013 Daniel R. South
All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Romancing The Dunes

Death Valley's Most Recognizable Features

Once you're in Death Valley, a trip to the Mesquite Dunes is as easy or as challenging as you want it to be. A five minute walk from the paved parking area will get you out onto some dunes - dunes full of footprints. Visitors just love to climb on sand dunes!

If you want photos of a pristine, wind-swept wilderness, you'll need to hike farther. Quite a bit farther. Keep in mind that hiking on sand is strenuous, and hiking in Death Valley's heat is extremely dangerous.

My trips to the dunes were logged in the winter months, so I didn't have to deal with snakes or life-threatening temperatures. Even so, hiking out to the footprint-free zone was challenging.

In order to keep sand out of my gear, I mounted lenses to my camera bodies while still at the car. I wanted to minimize lens changes in blowing sand. I filled my jacket pockets with reading glasses, a cable release, a lens cleaning cloth, and other accessories and zipped my backpack tightly.

a photo of the mesquite sand dunes in death valley daniel south photography
Mesquite Dunes at Sunset, Death Valley National Park

This is my favorite photo of the dunes. I like the inclusion of the rugged mountains and the way that peaks line up between mountain and dune. The ripples indicate the presence of wind. I was able to use the small piece of dried vegetation to anchor the foreground.

And no footprints! 

A Word Of Caution

Hiking desert dunes can be dangerous, especially in hot weather. Your body will lose moisture with each exhaled breath. The surface temperature in Death Valley can be eighty degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the air temperature, which is typically over 120F in the summer. Walking on sand is physically strenuous, so you'll tire faster than normal.

It's foolish to even attempt a hike into the dunes in the summer unless you're heading out at dawn and intend to return in less than an hour. Regardless of when you go, take plenty of water, MUCH more than you think you'll actually drink. You'll need it, all of it, and probably more.

Never take chances with extreme weather. Be smart, plan ahead, and assume that no one will come to your aid if something goes wrong. Even if you manage to call for help, it could be hours before anyone arrives. By then, you could be a baked potato.

Please - have fun, take some nice shots, and respect the elements.

Camera: Canon EOS 7D

Lens: Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS

Wishing you great light and meaningful moments!

Copyright © 2013 Daniel R. South
All Rights Reserved

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Ephemeral Landscape

Racing To Catch Up With Things That Don't Move

This isn't one of those self-indulgent tales where the photographer seeks appreciation for how much work they did or how many challenges they overcame. No one cares whether a photo required seven days of hiking in the snow or whether it was taken on a whim during a leisurely stroll.

Image quality and emotional impact are the only things that matter to the viewer.

The subject of this article is time. How is time critical to the making of a photograph, particularly an outdoor photograph that depends on fleeting elements such as weather and fading light? How must time be managed, and what planning does this require?

I wanted to capture a photo of the salt flats at Badwater Basin at sunrise. Specifically, I wanted a photo that showed the geometric salt patters highlighted by a backdrop of colorful light from the predawn sky.

This objective suggested a plan of action and defined specific temporal demands.

I would need to determine the hour of sunrise and estimate how long the color in the sky would last.

I would need to know the distance to the approximate shooting location in order to estimate how long it would take to reach that point, first by car and then later on foot.

I would need to give myself time to fine tune the composition, to focus effectively and determine the required depth of field. I would also need to work around the exposure challenges inherent in blending a brightening sky with a still dark foreground.

a photograph of sunrise on the badwater salt flats death valley by daniel south
Daybreak At Badwater Under A Crescent Moon

Everything leading up to the "peak moment" would need to be dedicated to reaching the shooting position and preparing to take the shot. This included loading gear into the car, driving and hiking in darkness, seeking the exact shooting location and finalizing the composition.

Landscape photography doesn't seem as though it would require a race against time. Mountains don't move. Salt flats are relatively static. There were no animals in the frame to become startled and run away. Yet, I needed to cover great distances and work very quickly in order to capture this shot. As it was, I barely made it. A few minutes of delay would have caused me to miss this opportunity altogether.

Light moves and changes rapidly. Atmospheric conditions are in constant flux. If we want to capture a particular light or mood, we need to move even more quickly than the changes in these environmental factors. We need to anticipate upcoming conditions accurately and then adjust in seconds if and when things don't turn out exactly as expected.

This is all part of capturing the magic moment, and it's what makes the image worthwhile. It's not about how much work we did but about what we were about to create as a result of the effort and planning that went into the shot.

When the viewer sees the image printed or displayed on their computer screen, when they feel a sense of wonder and imagine themselves transported momentarily to the location, that's when the photograph communicates. They don't care how hard your had to work to make it happen. If they are moved by what they see, nothing else matters.

Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark II

Lens: Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II

Wishing you great light and meaningful moments!

Copyright © 2013 Daniel R. South
All Rights Reserved

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Taking Liberty

Statue Of Liberty Under A Golden Cloud

On my very first trip to New York City, I was struck by how small and distant the Statue of Liberty seemed out there in the harbor on its own little island.

The statue is actually quite large, but unless you're on a boat, it will seem small from your vantage point.

Most photos of the Statue of Liberty are taken up close with telephoto lenses.  It highlights the statue's features and crops out all traces of Staten Island and New Jersey.

a photo of the statue of liberty at sunset
New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty at Sunset

When I saw this cloud hovering over Lady Liberty I recognized a chance to shoot the statue in context while still coming away with a pleasing composition.

I tried to place the main cloud in the center of the frame while capturing some of his smaller friends around the edges.  I made certain that the camera focused on the statue and managed to pull the shot off handheld.

Camera: Nikon D800

Lens: Nikon 24-70 f/2.8G

Wishing you great light and meaningful moments!

Copyright 2013 Daniel R. South
All Rights Reserved