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Archive for May, 2009

Back from Namibia

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I have been disconnected for a few weeks. The reason, three weeks on a photo trip in Namibia and three weeks since we arrived dealing with files and more files (ok, some visits to the Matterhorn in between…). We set sail with two bags filled with a ridiculous amount of photographic stuff and lots of wishes that i hoped would be fulfilled. Before we departed the mere name of Namibia made me dream.  I have always loved deserts and open spaces, naked geology, lonelyness, freedom and independence. After our trip there, i must confess my wishes were totally surpassed and I am now totally hooked to that country. Three weeks in a 4×4 campervan and a country double as big as Spain with 10 times less people got as close to the definition of freedom as I could imagine. As usual, the trip was planned exclusively for the photographic activity. That meant a very particular itinerary, the application of the no-less-than-three-days-per-place rule and the need of being self-sufficient in terms of transport and accommodation. If you really want to maximize the chances of getting some really good images you need to absorbe and know very well each of the places you visit. You need to witness several sunrises and sunsets at each place  and you need to cover all those more “standard” shots before daring to push your boundaries out the “safety zone” and start making more creative images. You need to develop that “relaxed attentiveness” that comes only when you are not rushed to get to the next place. You can just wander, look, smell, wonder and inhale the spirit of the place, and only then take your camera out your bag.

In the itinerary we finally selected the dunes of Sossusvlei, the Namib Rand reserve, the quiver trees forests of the south, the dunes of Kalahari, the Spitzkoppe inselberg, the Skeleton coast and the Etosha national park. A perfect combination of sand, rock, plains and wildlife. Add a ton of african ambiance and you get a real dream trip. For a quick glance at the potential of this country, check a selection of the photos on the “last addition” gallery in http://www.rafaelrojasphoto.com

I will update this blog with some more information about what did work and what didnt during the trip (i will need to think hardly about the latter) and some general comments about the country and its photographic potential.  By the way, we are thinking on organizing an exclusive photo trip for Namibia, around next May 2010, maximum 10 people, combining the best locations, best experiences and best photographic tuition to create a one in a lifetime photographic trip. More information to come soon on http://www.rafaelrojasphoto.com. Stay tuned ;-) !

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If you are really serious about your photography, you will surely know how depressing can be a totally sunny day for a landscape photographer. The perfect time for a hike or a family picnic is a total nightmare for the tripod warrior. That is good news, thought, as otherwise I would miss all barbecues with family and friends…

Sunny days are difficult. Light is soon too contrasty (most of all during summer months) and the absence of clouds means no reflected-diffused light around. Shades go totally black and highlights are blown out. You might ease the pain with a polarizer filter, but only partially, and giving nasty blobs of dark polarized skies when using wide angle focal lengths. Therefore, there is the absence of mood, drama, and the 2D effect in the horizons (most of all when shooting mountain regions) where the skyline seems a card-board cut-out. Get into the forest and the effect will also be miserable. Too contrasty light will explode the dynamic range or exposure latitude of any film or sensor, giving you patches of blacks and whites in a messy environment full of disturbing elements. Of course, sunny days have some other possibilities. You can shoot more intimist scenes in the shade, where you will be using light reflected from the sky. Get a subtractor (something dark absorbing the light) and you might get some directional reflected light, giving you soft light still able to sculpt the texture and detail of your subject. The other possibility, if you still want to shoot wide vistas, is taking advantage of twilight and sunrise-sunset. More than ever, you will need to wake up early or stay late (you had your barbecue, so dont complain). Twilight will give you soft and directional light reflected by the sky when the sun is about to rise or just set below the horizon. Therefore, you will have the bonus of shooting at the antisolar point, observing if you are high enough (mountains) the twilight wedge or shade projected by the Earth on the sky (purple band below the pinky colors of the last edge of the sky lit by the sun). Sunrise and sunset will also keep you busy; giving you some minutes of warm and soft light, not too contrasty, that might provide beautiful possibilities. For the rest of the day, it will be scouting looking for photo opportunities and interesting compositions for the evening to come.

So the thing is, if you really want to push further your photography, you will need to get wet, chilly and muddy. That is not bad news, it is a lot of fun. Trust me.

CLOUDY AND STORMY WHEATER

This is one of the very best opportunities for landscape photography, most of all when attempting to shoot wide sweeping vistas. It is also the best opportunity to get struck by a lighting as metallic cameras on tripods standing in elevated points are begging for problems. Anyway, if we suppose we are cautious, these conditions will add lots of positive things to our photographic activity. Firstly,  cloudy skies will limit the contrast of the light filling the shades with light scattered-diffused-reflected by the clouds. Secondly, they will provide more depth to the compositions, and thirdly, they will add tons mood and drama. Painters knew this very well, and used extensively “stormy-like” effects in their work. Think of Rembrandt, the master of the Chiaroscuro effect, displaying in his work contrasty scenes with a lot of depth and drama by alternating in the painting very dark and light zones. 20090102-_DSC3212

In nature, and particularly in landscape photography, we can also make use of such a technique to provide a shot with loads of drama and ambiance. Imagine an image where a key element nestles in the landscape. A focal point: a barn, a mountain peak, a group of animals, etc. If you have fast moving clouds around and you wait and have a lucky strike, you might have the possibility of pressing the shutter when only that very important area of the landscape is lit by a sun beam, while the rest of the image is in shade. Another possibility is having bands of unlit-lit areas in the landscape: layering of light will give you a lot of depth in the image, providing a strong 3D effect. And then, there is the real drama of shooting a storm passing over the landscape: rainbows, rain curtains, backlit hail or rain drops, threatening skies, etc. _DSC1445

FOG AND MIST

Fog and mist can turn the most miserable and mundane place into a fairy tale or otherworldly image. They make things look very different, allowing you to come with striking images. Therefore, they also provide aerial perspective, giving you a lot of depth in the images, just by changing the tones of the elements according to their distance to the lens. For once too, the weather plays ball with the old saying “less is more”, as fog will erase most of the details of the landscape giving you the chance of playing with a blank canvas where to compose the image with the key elements. Fog and mist can also give you the possibility of witnessing “God beams”, or light rays being diffracted by the fog when obstacles are around. The possibilities are endless, so never complain about fog or mist, and look for it, going up the mountain looking for those clouds wrapped in the high forest._DSC1387

RAIN AND TOTALLY OVERCAST SKIES

Have you ever considered why some images of the forest-river-cascades look sometimes awful? Besides the common problem of forests (total chaos to be “ordered” by the photographer) the main problem tends to be the light. Sunny days (unless you have mist around which will give you beautiful rays of light in all directions) tend to provide too contrasty images under the canopy. This is not a total rule, but is normally the case (you might find very nice opportunities of shooting the autumn canopy, yellow foliage glowing backlit against a totally blue sky for instance). One of the best opportunities for shooting woods, waterfalls and rivers is under a totally overcast sky, with plenty of light. The soft and almost non directional light given by that gigantic diffuser that is a covered sky will provide a very even light that will get to the darkest shades of the forest filling it with light. The highlights are limited too, avoiding the typical reflections on the leaves that blow up the histograms during sunny days. But that is not all. There is also the saturation of the colors. After some rain (or during the rain) you will get pure hues in the woods, greener greens and a much more ambiance, making the viewer of your photo almost smell the humidity and freshness of the forest. However, don’t forget your polarizer, as wet surfaces will cast heavy reflections even under the softer light, killing all those colors and details.narcisses

Another good property of cloudy skies and the softness of the light they provide is the high level of detail and colour that we can get in such conditions. Think on close-ups, flowers, very detailed elements, colourful stuff, foliage, etc. All this elements will benefit very much from soft light. The only problem you might have is getting the skies out of the image if they are totally blank. Totally featureless skies do not add anything to the image and will probabliy go overexposed, so you’d better rule them out of the image.  However, this latter situation might not always be true, as sometimes even in the most cloudy skies the clouds display interesting texture, that can be kept within the latitude of the film-sensor with a good graduated neutral density filter.

SNOW AND FROST

As well as fog and mist, snow and frost can turn a normal scene into a winter wonderland. However, try to get it still clinging from branches, leaves, roofs and ground. That means that if you head out for photography when it has stopped snowing, you will normally miss the moment.

Different possibilities arise with snow: the snow still falling in the landscape will give you impressionistic effects with snow streaks crossing the image or as hundreds of tiny dots if the selected speed has been quick enough; the isolated element floating in the middle of the blizzard; the snow storm clearing with warm hues painting the snow canvas on the landscape, etc. 20090313-_DSC1038

WIND

Is landscape static? Not at all. Look at those clouds, vegetation and water. Everything moves. Photographs are frequently called “still” images, however i cannot disagree more. Leave the diaphragm opened for a few seconds and you will portrait all that dynamism: swaying trees, streaking clouds over the sky, blurred water and reflections, etc. So, dont get angry next time  you cannot keep sharp those little flowers in the background due to the strong wind. Stop down the lens and put some neutral density filters on it, and reinforce the sense of movement obtaining impressionistic effects on vegetation as the shutter is opened for a few seconds.

So, next time you look at the weather forecast and see some “bad” conditions to come, get your camera gear and prepare to head out to look for stunning and powerful images. The barbecue you were going that evening might have been cancelled, after all :).

Thanks for reading, and good light to you all.

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A few weeks ago I received the monster nikon D3x. A camera full of bells and whistles really at the cutting edge of today’s technology in 35 mm (with qualities borrowed from medium format i would add). A week later, I have received a camera placed at the other side of the spectrum: a 617 camera with its Schneider 90 XL, rodenstock 180 and fuji 300 lenses. A big hollow brick of aluminium with no trace of batteries, sensors, wires or captors. Just a hollow box, and some three large format chunks of glass to be placed at the right distance of the film by means of a rigid cone. The objective: being able to produce more than 2 meters wide panoramic 1×3 format images with just one click of the cable release. Why?

If you have taken a look at my gallery, you might have seen that the panoramic format is something I really like (you talk about panoramic when the ratio is kind of 1:2 or longer). I always found this format especially appealing for landscape photography, but more interestingly I have found that this appeal might be natural on most humans. There are some different explanations for that.

One which I find very interesting is that panoramic format activates the left side of your brain. Ok, let me explain. When you take a look at a photograph, bold color or imagery will attract the right side of your brain. This side of the brain is the sensorial one, and is activated by colors, balance, memories, feelings and aesthetic qualities. However, the right side of your brain is more attracted to the reasoning, and needs some extra effort to be activated when you expose it to a picture. In order to do so, you can use different techniques. One of them is embedding into the picture a kind of riddle or ambiguous content. An abstract image of bark texture or an upside down photo of a child hanging from a rope will “disturb” the viewer and push his left side of the brain to try to put “order” and get the meaning of the photograph, getting a logical explanation of what is there in the picture. The other way of activating this left side of the brain is by means of a panoramic image. The eye is not able to see the whole picture all of a sudden, and scans the image from left to right, engaging the left side of the brain to digest the information that is being given away in the same manner a story is told. 

Another reason is that panoramic photography triggers in us the same feelings and reactions that normally we have when contemplating real landscape scenes, drawing us into the picture. The explanations might be that in reality we are very much accustomed to the horizontal landscape format, as we have both eyes “designed” to cover a horizontal field of view. Therefore, normally we are exposed to places with horizontal horizons (and this is also an explanation about why vertical panoramic images are not normally so successful). In addition to this, when you take a look at a big panoramic photograph you might need to scan bit by bit the image (normally from left to right in Western countries) in order to get the whole idea of it, and this also mimics the process that takes place when viewing a real landscape.

Of course, I did not start doing panoramic photography because I was aware of all these more scientific explanations. I just liked it very much, suited very well my photographic “view” and I was really impressed when viewing big prints of panoramic photographs made by other photographers. Put yourself in front of a big 2 m wide panoramic image and you will quickly understand what I am talking about.

Till now, I have been doing extensive panoramic photography by means of digital stitching, obtaining files big enough to be printed at lengths of a couple of meters. I have been using a panoramic head (multirow Really Right Stuff head) on my tripod in order to spin the camera around its nodal point, and dedicated software for panoramic stitching.

 There are some good and bad things about this technique. The pros are that with the digital technology you can see what you are taking; you can adapt the ISO, work quickly and cheaply, and use a very wide range of lenses and focal lengths. Therefore, you can take low weight equipment into the mountains and do well all kind of photography. However, some serious cons exist. Sometimes the stitching process will be unable to give you a perfect print (things moving in the frame like waves, vegetation or clouds or uneven light levels in the different expositions due lo long exposure times). Most of times composition will be done in a more approximate manner (no general view through a panoramic viewfinder or ground glass) and time and resources will be spent stitching in front of the computer instead of by the tripod (and this is getting more serious, with the huge files produced by cameras like the nikon D3x). Another limitation is when taking wide angle panoramic images. Wide angle large format lenses working on a dedicated panoramic camera will give you nice distortion-free images, while stitching will normally throw curved lines into the image. But the biggest disadvantage of digital stitching is that, no matter how quickly you make the row of different photos, you will also handle several images taken at different moments…and so the photograph will be as much a product of the camera as a product of your computer. In the end, photography is all about capturing A moment, not a series of them, isnt it?

So, does that mean that digital stitching sucks? No. In fact, I will keep on doing digital stitching for some of my panoramic images, mainly when weight is an issue or when i wont be dealing with a masterpiece composition. When it works, it works and the results you can get from it are very good indeed. However, when I will set my mind in “serious” panoramic mode, there will a place over the tripod for the panoramic camera. Still in today’s digital world, a big piece of velvia slide of 6×17 cm will give you a tiff file when drum scanned big enough to produce a 2 m long print with the gorgeous colours and tonal gradation that make of Fuji Velvia a dream for landscape photographers. And all that with just one hit of the shutter cable release. If you are serious about panoramic photography, than means serious equipment to fulfill your vision.

I will talk more about this format in later posts, where I will be tackling the details of its use in the field…and what is more important, showing its results. In the end, gear is just a pile of metal and glass and not photography at all. Stay tuned and keep shooting.

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