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Sunday, August 1, 2004

Two Seasons In Patagonia


Exploring the poetic beauty of Chilean Patagonia and the practical benefits of digital capture

Images from cameras like the Nikon D100 (my first digital SLR) and the Canon 10D (my current camera) have more detail and greater exposure latitude than any images I ever shot on 35mm film. As soon as I realized that shooting digital wasn't a compromise in quality, I switched. And there's more—more flexibility in adapting to fast-changing and challenging light, far more certainty about "nailing" the correct exposure, more opportunities to capture and reproduce the special qualities of light that I really love. But with all the potential advantages of switching to digital capture, there were still headaches, problems to solve, frustrations and questions to answer. Digital, in short, is still an adventure, not a panacea.

Gearing Up For Digital Travel
The digital adventure got very real on my first major photo trip outside the U.S. without any film: a monthlong excursion through Chilean Patagonia, one of the most unspoiled, remote and stunningly wild landscapes in the world. Even now, after several trips, Patagonia seems just as fresh and new, a landscape that can't be compressed into just one image, one trip or one season. Patagonian autumn (April) was so spectacular that I started to daydream about Patagonian springtime (November/December). Seven months later, I was back, refining the lessons I had learned about traveling with a digital camera and still not missing film.

Step one was the very practical adventure of trying to cope with a new medium, a new photographic system and a new physical definition of what an image is, where it's kept and how to deal with it, far from camera shops and technical support. My solution was to take a laptop and download images from my CompactFlash cards every evening. Digital photographs can be so ephemeral and so easily erased by accident, however, that inevitably you need a second copy if you want to sleep well. So a stack of CDs went into the pack. Every evening, after downloading my images, step two was to make backup copies on CD. My basic rule is to take a spare of everything. That means a spare digital body, spare batteries and charger, and spare CompactFlash cards. My husband, Lito, brought his laptop, too—another spare.

Suddenly, after months of anticipation, there we were, sipping Pisco sours in our favorite corner café in Coyhaique, the capital city of central Patagonia. From there, the Carretera Austral, or Southern Highway, takes us into the backcountry of Patagonia. Despite its grand name, the Southern Highway is a one-and-a-half-lane dirt road, zigzagging over high passes, pushing through dense forests and sneaking under towering peaks draped with ice and capped by towering clouds.

In Pursuit Of The Epic Image
Our first stop was Cerro Castillo, or Castle Mountain. The name is no exaggeration. It's a dark mass wrapped in an icy shawl of hanging glaciers, with narrow needlelike spires crowding its ridges, looking down in total indifference on the Rio Ibáñez valley and golden poplar trees beside shingle-covered farmhouses.

This is classic view-camera country, so in order to get that kind of ultra-large, ultra-detailed image, I set up on a tripod and took a series of manual exposures. They would later be combined in Photoshop into one big vertical file—still a "straight" image in my mind, since nothing about the scene was altered, added or subtracted as I panned upward for several shots.

This image, and this approach, was so successful that on my return trip to photograph the Patagonian spring, I repeated it, panning upward from a carpet of golden dandelions to the icy peak. The second time around, I added a new wrinkle, pulling focus with each shot so that each flower at my feet would be just as sharp as the summit ridge high above.

I mentioned that I was after the kind of high-detail, high-resolution image that is usually associated with view cameras and large format. Even combining several digital images, how is this possible with a 6-megapixel camera? All pixels aren't created equal. There's more detail in my 6-megapixel digitally captured file than in the best scan of a 35mm transparency, despite a much larger number of pixels in the scanned image. Hard to believe? Yes, I know, but true nonetheless, and my two-by-four-foot print of this image confirms it.


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