Archive for August, 2008

Glacier National Park: Crown of the Continent

Sunday, August 24th, 2008

Rocky Mountain School of Photography Location Workshop

Lessons Learned

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.


The Workshop is Over

Wednesday, August 6th, 2008

Sorry for not keeping you up to date on my adventures during the workshop in Glacier National Park, but there’s no internet access in the Park.  Anyway…

From my perspective, the workshop was a huge success.  We covered multiple topics in lecture form as well as taking multiple field trips throughout the Park.  So let’s get down to business…

I drove to Many Glacier Hotel from Whitefish after spending a wonderful couple of days back up in the northwest corner of the Park at Kintla Lake campground we spent Friday paddling canoes to the head of the lake and then hiking to Upper Kinta Lake.  It was a beautiful day.  Check out the gallery for some photos.

I arrived late Saturday evening after traversing the Park via the Going to the Sun Road.  It is in the midst of a renovation project, so there were some delays on the trip.  The vistas are spectacular from the road, but also a bit scary, especially when there’s no one in the car to distract me.

Sunday morning I slept in and arrived in our “lecture hall” to meet our instructors, Doug Johnson and Moe Witschard.  I had met Doug before in Missoula, but this was my first meeting with Moe.  There were 14 students in the workshop.

Lectures covered Basic Camera Controls, Hyperfocal Focusing, and Composition.  There was a short lecture on understanding when and where on the horizon the sun will rise and set.  Unfortunately, we never got a formal lecture on the Zone System.  I’ll cover the lectures in more detail in a later blog.

Our field shoots on the east side of the Park included a hike to Red Rock Falls up the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail,  sunrise at Swiftcurrent Lake and Creek, a boat ride across Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine to a hike up Grinnell Glacier Trail, sunrise at Wild Goose Island on St. Mary’s Lake, and Siyeh Bend.

Wednesday we moved to West Glacier and the Belton Chalet.  Most of the group crossed the Park via the Going to the Sun Road, but I decided to check out the Two Medicine region.  I stopped and checked out Duck Lake and made a side trip to Rose Creek before finally setting out for Running Eagle Falls in Two Medicine.

The trip was eventual as a strong front moved in just as I was preparing to leave the Many Glacier Hotel.  If it had been a few degrees colder, I think the rain would have certainly been snow.  On my way out of the Park to Babb, Montana a beautiful rainbow appeared in my rearview mirror and I had to stop to try to capture it.  However, I needed to outrun the rain first since it was spotting my lens quite badly.

The side trip to Duck Lake was disappointing since the wind was blowing about 30 knots and the lake was covered in white caps.  Obviously there were no large trout rising.  A couple of record shots and it was off to Rose Creek near the Rising Sun region to capture a few images for Rose Kromschroeder.

The drive to Two Medicine from St. Mary’s is spectacular (I need to stop writing that).  State Route 49 to the entrance there is almost as scary as the Going to the Sun Road.  Running Eagle Falls was a short hike from the parking lot after I re-entered the Park through the Two Medicine Park Entrance.  The fall are beautiful, but unfortunately the midday light was very harsh and backlit the falls.  I still took several shots and even tried fording the creek to try to get a better camera position, but the water was too cold and the rocks too slippery to wade it barefoot.

The Belton Chalet in the West Glacier area of the Park was our new headquarters for the next couple of days as we had four more scheduled shoots, two more critique sessions, and a grand finale slideshow before the workshop was over.

That evening we went to the foot bridge over MacDonald Creek and then we split up with some of the group going to Logan Pass for the sunset, others staying near the Creek, and two others and I went to the Loop on the Going to the Sun Road.

Another early morning brought us to the shore of Lake MacDonald at Apgar Village for a beautiful sunrise.  That afternoon we headed to Logan Pass and the Hidden Lake Trail.  I reprised my hike to Hidden Lake that Liz and I did last year.  This year’s hike was complicated by two rather large snowfields that made the footing quite slippery especially as we came back downhill.

Hidden Lake was covered in large waves as the wind continued to blow throughout the week.  The midday light was very harsh and contrast control was very difficult, so I did a little exploring around the head of the lake and followed the outlet creek to a very steep cascade and waterfall.  One my return to the lake I found hundreds of spawning Cutthroat Trout.  I spent almost 45 minutes watching them and taking many pictures.

Friday morning dawned with spectacular cloud formations.  I should have gone back to Apgar Village for some more sunrise shots, but I thought that if I continued down Lake MacDonald towards our next location on the Trail of the Cedars I would be able to capture a good sunrise shot.  I never did get a good angle on the sunrise and the mountains.

The Trail of the Cedars and the Avalanche Creek Gorge is absolutely awe inspiring and mystical.  I could spend the rest of my life exploring it and taking photographs there.

Our final critique and slideshow was very melancholy knowing that we would be leaving the Park soon.  The slideshow was inspiring and humorous.