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Thursday, November 1, 2007

Moving Fast And Going Slow


Technology lets us go through life at breakneck speed, but not always in the correct direction


Kananaskis River, Alberta, Canada.Kananaskis River, Alberta, Cana

It’s surprising how often we curse the complexity and expense of the new cameras and computers, but at the same time, demand more speed and efficiency. And this isn’t just limited to cameras and computers, but extends into every facet of our lives, including cell phones, handheld GPS, satellite phones, MP3 players, compact, high-power strobe lighting and an endless array of other electronics we now depend on when we go outdoors to shoot photos. Ten years ago, most of these devices had no part in our lives, yet today we couldn’t see doing without them. I’m not reminiscing about the good old days because I absolutely love all the new electronics. I’m not a tech wizard, but I still probably spend too much time exploring the photography applications of the newest and fastest technology. I figure I only need to know enough to operate the device—I don’t have to understand the design of its inner workings.

In my digital immersion, however, I’ve learned to temper my digital zeal for speed and always distinguish what aspects of my photography are best served by this digital wizardry—when the speed and efficiency are beneficial and when I need to slow down for the photo. Today, with so much modern digital photo and accessory gear available, I find that I’m constantly making decisions between the high-tech and the low-tech approach, from travel to the location to photography and processing the photos afterward. A GPS or a cell phone, even though it seems far removed from photography, can be a critical piece of photography gear.

I remember at the start of one canyoneering adventure when I thought using a simple compass to locate the trailhead would, in the long run, be more efficient than our GPS. Four of us were at the Sierra Madre Occidental in Mexico. We were seeking a route to the Verde River in the Barranca Del Sinforosa, the deepest of the canyons in the Copper Canyon region of the Sierra Madre. On the map, we located a likely descent that allowed an easy route to the canyon floor that didn’t look blocked by cliffs.

To arrive at this trailhead, we traveled via a 4x4 truck. This is rugged terrain, so we hired a local guide/driver who swore he knew the region like his own backyard. We had a GPS, but instead we decided to use a compass and map. Since we were under a forest canopy, using the GPS would require that we stop the truck in a tree clearing to lock in a signal. With a compass, we could route-find on the move. In theory, the compass might prove the faster device. Perhaps because we were in the company of a knowledgeable guide, we were lulled into thinking that our compass was only a backup.

As we drove up and down an endless maze of old and new logging roads, it became evident our guide was lost. Our dead-reckoning skills with the compass and map proved useless. Other issues that should have told us to use the GPS sooner included a setting sun and the fact that half the roads weren’t even on our map and our map was outdated.

We had been driving for hours when we estimated we were close to our trailhead. We stopped in a clearing and checked our location with the GPS. When I saw the results, I wanted to cry. The GPS must be broken. We logged in the coordinates again with the same results. Steve, our certified GPS wizard, assured me that the GPS wasn’t wrong, but our orientation was way off. We had missed our trailhead by 12 miles as a bird flies. By not using the GPS, we had lost valuable time, and our driver had to leave the Sierras before dark. With some effort, we found an alternate descent downstream from our original route. This route cut 20 miles and some of the narrowest and most scenic sections of the canyon. I chose the wrong technology for finding the trailhead, and my photography suffered. We had a nice hike, but I knew that by skipping the first 20 miles, I also missed the best photo opportunities in the canyon.

But from the creative photography standpoint, I’m careful not to allow pure speed and efficiency of digital automation to overwhelm my photography. While typically I’m the first person to grab for a digital camera, high-output wireless strobes, fast autofocus lenses and anything turbocharged, I also consider non-tech alternatives. I still travel with a panoramic Hasselblad XPan film camera for in-camera panoramic action photos you can’t get by stitching together a digital photograph. I also use portable reflectors to reflect light with results unlike anything you could get with electronic flash, and I still carry a simple compass as a quick reference to figure out the position of the sunset and sunrise.


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