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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

In The Canyons

Experimenting in challenging conditions creates unique low-light shooting opportunities

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Kate Randall jumping into a pool of water.

During a lifetime pursuit of photography, you’re bound to say, at least a thousand times, “I can shoot better than that” and “I can improve on this photo.” It can be a struggle to keep things looking fresh, so I go back to my old photos to see where I can improve. Experimenting with different techniques and new technology can help to break into new realms. I tried this out recently in canyoning photography.

Canyoning is a fairly esoteric pursuit, but it takes you into some otherworldly places. In the U.S., the sport is called canyoneering and is concentrated in the sandstone canyons of the Colorado Plateau. Canyoning involves descending steep, water-carved slots where you encounter swims through pools of ice-cold water, rock climbing moves to descend short “drops” and technical rope skills for rappels at pour-overs; some rappels are as long as 300 feet. The canyoning environment is characterized by narrow, water-carved rock defiles that are sometimes so skinny and convoluted that little or no sunlight makes it to the canyon floor. Now imagine the challenges encountered trying to shoot photos in such an environment—pretty daunting, but not insurmountable.

Chris Knox walking through the cave system.
In the past, I’ve been fortunate enough to shoot canyoning for clients such as National Geographic, The North Face and Smithsonian. The Smithsonian assignment, a cover story I did in 2006, was significant for a couple of reasons. It was one of the last assignments I shot on film, and it was the last time I did any significant canyoning photography. Living in Sydney, I’ve discovered I’m only a short drive from the Blue Mountains, the canyoning center of Australia. In Australia, canyoning is popular, so I know I may be called to shoot some in the near future. But the canyons here are nothing like the canyons of the American Southwest. I needed to do some serious refiguring of my canyoning photo technique.

Looking through my old canyoning photos, I recognized that my canyoning people photography could use some improvement. The photos capture the environment nicely, but the shots lacked movement and action. In the film-only days, movement was impossible to capture in the near darkness of the canyons. But with the latest digital cameras and some tricked-out flash lighting, the possibilities for new photo techniques showing action were ripe. In good caving and canyoning photos, it can take hours to set up lighting and direct. My challenge was to shoot canyoning while on the move, with no photo or lighting “setups,” rehearsing shots or direction from me to repeat an action. My goal was to capture pure spontaneous, realistic action while achieving as much natural lighting as possible.

My first Australian technical canyoning was descending Tiger Snake Canyon in the Blue Mountains. We chose this canyon because it was winter in the Blues, and the canyon was reported to be not-too-wet, a term that really means not-too-dry.


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