Rocky Mountain School of Photography Location Workshop
As I was sitting on the plane to Montana, I set down some goals for me at the workshop: explore Glacier, expand my portfolio both “horizontally” and “vertically”, develop my eye, better understand the Zone System so that it becomes more instinctual, and to be open to all the possibilities during the workshop.
Let’s take a look at how I did…
Explore Glacier National Park
Well, the first goal was easy. I really wanted to see more of the Park. Previously, I had been up the Going to the Sun Road once and had hiked to Hidden Lake. We had also camped at Kintla Lake and hiked about half way up the lake’s northern shore along the Boulder Pass Trail.
During the workshop, we hiked to Red Rock Falls on the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail and hiked the Grinnell Glacier Trail. We explored the Siyeh Creek at the Bend and caught the sunrise at Wild Goose Island on St. Mary Lake as well as at Swiftcurrent Creek and Lake. I took a side trip to the Two Medicine Lake area in the southeast corner of the Park and visited Running Eagle Falls. The hike along the Trail of the Cedars was fabulous and will most likely be the first stop on my next visit to the Park. The whole MacDonald Creek watershed is just waiting to be photographed. I now have a much broader perspective of the Park as a whole and can’t wait to return.
Expand My Portfolio
Expanding my portfolio both horizontally (more broadly as in more different subjects) and vertically (more different perspectives of subjects) seemed to be both easy and hard. The wildflowers that were blooming brought many new subjects to see and photograph and the new vistas around almost every corner begged to be photographed. But how was I going to deepen my portfolio? Thankfully, Doug’s first assignment for the class help create an environment for me to think and see a subject in different ways.
Develop My Eye
I’m not sure what I was after when I wrote down “develop my eye,” but as the workshop unfolded it came to mean to me: “understand the fundamentals of composition and use those principles to ground my intuitive sense of the scene.” When I came to the workshop I had a rudimentary knowledge of the fundamentals of composition, but a very poor working understanding.
Doug’s lecture on composition and the feedback given during the critique sessions were so valuable in helping me understand these principles. His discussion on layering of the components in a landscape scene was so enlightening. It totally changed the way I looked at scene. Coupled with the sidebar on hyperfocal focusing, I began to see how some of my favorite images in magazines and books were created.
Other principles that were clearly explained to us showed me several blind spots in my visualization of the scene. Dominant shapes and the balancing of shape as well as how color draws the eye in and out of the composition was new to me and caused me to think more how to look at a scene.
A Better Understanding of the Zone System
Although Doug never gave a formal lecture on the Zone System, his talk on Camera Controls and Exposure did address many of my questions. I’ve read Ansel Adams’ The Negative and his chapter on the Zone System many times and am hoping to begin to develop an intuitive sense of exposure based on the Zone System.
Although I understood and had used the Manual mode of my camera occasionally, I had relied on Apeture priority mode in almost all other situations. Following Doug’s lecture I “jumped in with both feet” with manual operation. It now made total sense. Spot metering and tone recognition seemed so much easier and intuitive. There is no need for exposure locking since it is always locked. I was hitting the exposure without as many trial and error shots as I had before. This is very exciting for me.
Open to the Possibilities
Being open to all the possibilities has been my mantra for many years (thanks, Dan). Even though I came to the workshop with many questions to answer and things to see and do, I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss anything that I came across. Well, that didn’t happen as was plainly evident during our critique sessions. It was amazing how we photographed at the same spots each day, but saw so many different things and in so many different ways. It certainly made me reflect on how I look at scenes and subjects.
One of the possibilities that opened up to me was how I am capturing scenes for eventual High Dynamic Range (HDR) photographs. I have been taking series of exposures using the auto bracketing feature of my Nikon D200 after first determining the exposure for the mid tones. That is to say, getting as even a histogram as possible. Using HDRsoft’s Photomatix Pro to generate an HDR file and then tone mapping it, I have had good results, but also many failures. Doug gave us some good advice to exposure for the highlights (duh!) and then open up in one stop steps (via shutter speed) to expose the midtones and, finally, the shadows.
I had also been taking as many exposures as possible while doing the bracketing, usually seven. In most situations, I don’t think I ever needed that many exposures. I think I should look at the tonal range of the scene and estimate how that range “overpowers” my camera’s sensor. If the range is overpowered only by one Zone, then two exposures with blending is probably all I would need. If it’s overpowered by five Zones, then five or six exposures with HDR generation and tone mapping would be more appropriate.
Of course, knowing the sensitivity of my camera’s sensor and the range of tones that it is capable of capturing is very important. I have created a chart of my D200 based on Adams’ technique in the chapter on the Zone System, so I have an idea what the range of tones I can get with it. I am currently doing the same with my newly acquired D700.
At this time, this is all theory to me and I will have to test these techniques as soon as I get a chance.
Exposure blending in Photoshop was also something that I had tried, but not very seriously. I knew about using single RAW images and adjusting the exposure in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) and then combining those separate exposures in Photoshop. I really have had a hard time with the masks especially with complicated borders, such as trees. The guidelines given by Doug and Moe about how much to adjust the exposure in ACR are very helpful.
The epiphany, or as Smee would say, “apostrophe”, has been that Photomatix Pro does a very good job of exposure blending without the need for masking. What I’ve been trying is saving the RAW images that I’ve exposure adjusted in ACR as TIFF files and then blending with Photomatix Pro. I think the results have been quite good.
Other tips/ideas that I thought were very important:
- Reflections in water should be one-stop darker than the real subject;
- Use the zoom capability of my camera’s LCD instead of the depth-of-field preview button (duh! This is the digital age, stupid!!!);
- There is a way to predict where the sun will rise or set on the horizon, so that you can determine when and where to set up a shot ahead of time;
- Memorize the “Big Four” for my cameras and widest lens for hyperfocal focusing, i.e. f/11 & f/16 at 14 mm and 24 mm focal length;
- Look for merges. This defect in my compositions was (is) a huge blind spot;
- Get closer with my wide angle lens and use the 45 degree rule on the foreground subject;
Again, an incredibly valuable workshop from the instructors at RMSP!!!
I can’t wait to continue my development at another workshop.