Exploring the poetic beauty of Chilean Patagonia and the practical benefits of digital capture
By Linde Waidhofer
Changing ISO For Changing Light Unlike the arid pampas of Argentine Patagonia, Chilean Patagonia is a wet and often green landscape, a land of endless lakes, rivers and fjords. Lago General Carrera, in particular, captured my heart and imagination. Here, I photographed at the other end of the spectrum. No tripod, no grand epic view, but instead, intimate caverns hollowed out of solid marble cliffs, seen and photographed from a gently rocking boat.
We cut the outboard motor and glided underneath low stone roofs into these surreal "marble chapels" or capillas de m‡rmol. Dim poetic reflections off gently moving water asked for a different digital solution. It was dark in there, so I reset my digital SLR's ISO setting to 1600, selected my widest lens (14mm), set it on almost the widest aperture (1/4), and hung out over the bow of our tiny boat, careful not to drop the camera into the turquoise water of Lago General Carrera. A scene almost impossible to capture with film without the extensive use of strobes yielded a series of images that reminds me of my trips into the tight slot canyons of the Southwest, a fantasy in marble and blue rather than red sandstone. Conquering Contrast, Digitally Compared with black-and-white traditionalists, color photographers have always been challenged by the limited dynamic range of color film. Although color negative film has a wider latitude than slide film, the fact is that the full range of light and dark that we can see and enjoy with our own eyes simply doesn't fit on color film.
A color exposure almost always involves a choice and a sacrifice, generally exposing for the highlights and letting the shadows go black. This can be an effective aesthetic strategy, but it's a limit that digital capture now lets us overcome. Yes, there are still scenes so high in contrast that one really shouldn't release the shutter, but generally, I've found that I can expand the contrast range of my images by two, three, even four stops.
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There are several ways to do this. You can shoot two images at different exposures and combine them in Photoshop. Another way is to shoot one RAW file, process it twice—one for optimum highlight and one for shadow detail—and then combine the two images (see my article, "ExpandTonal Range Using A Single Image," OP January/February 2004).
Or, you now can simply protect the highlights when photographing (by checking the camera's histogram—the number-one rule of digital capture), and then use the new Shadow/Highlight command in Photoshop CS to restore detail in the shadows. The choice, aesthetically and technically, is yours.
A Few More Digital Discoveries Patagonia, especially the far south, has a reputation for fierce weather and extreme winds. Last autumn, however, the weather gods smiled on me. Calm windless days turned Patagonian autumn into a kind of Indian summer. Every pond and every lake became a glassy reflecting mirror.
In Torres del Paine, a national park full of grand granite spires, the good weather we experienced was so unusual that I couldn't stop shooting. Nature was holding its breath, and there wasn't a second, or an exposure, to lose. I found myself resenting the extra time needed to set up my tripod and did a lot of shooting without it, and without really missing it. Before switching to digital capture, I rarely handheld any shots. Now, maybe 50 percent of my images are handheld. I wasn't in love with my tripod, I was in love with image quality. Now that my digital SLR has freed me from the restrictions of ISO 40 film, I find that same quality often is achievable without a tripod and without sacrificing precious depth of field.
Another surprise in my digital exploration of Patagonia was the number of panoramas I kept seeing—and shooting. Many Patagonian landscapes have such a grand scale that normal lens proportions can't really capture them. For years, I carried a relatively bulky 6x17 panorama camera for such situations, but now I find that digitally stitching multiple images into both horizontal and vertical panoramas is more flexible, and far more satisfying, giving me almost endless possibilities for composing and constructing panoramas.
The Patagonia I fell in love with is strange, mysterious, surprisingly fresh. The same adjectives seem to apply to the digital captures I brought home. Every time I take my digital camera out in the field, I discover something fresh or learn something new, and this keeps my "seeing" fresh. That's not just another adventure—for me, that's the adventure.
To see more of Linde Waidhofer's Patagonia images, visit her website at www.westerneye.com.