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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Beyond The Range Of Light

From her home in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Elizabeth Carmel is focused on capturing dramatic vistas in transition

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Carmel’s ultimate goal is to overcome the limitations of the camera and image sensor and bring the image as close as possible to what she saw on location.
Granite Spires, Denali National Park, Alaska
Adds Carmel, “Sometimes when on a photo shoot, I feel pulled to a specific location to take a portrait of a place, and know that the resulting image is the product of serendipitous events that will likely never be repeated. Some of my images are more my own constructs, where I seek the realization of a specific vision in my final print. I strive to create images that link us to feelings and perceptions we may not access regularly in our daily lives. I believe that great fine-art photographs are a gateway through habitual thinking to a larger perspective.”

In the field, Carmel uses 35mm-sized DSLRs and Hasselblads. At first, she relied on the 2 1/4-square format to give her maximum compositional versatility as well as image quality when she shot film. Now, as a digital photographer, she still uses Hasselblads, but she has traded in her film magazines for digital backs. Although it has been derided as a lukewarm format—lacking both the large size of 4x5 or 8x10 and the convenience of 35mm SLRs and DSLRs—the reality is that medium format has traditionally been seen by its devotees as the best of all worlds. The large image sensors on Carmel’s Hasselblads combine with the optics that are legendary for their sharpness and contrast in a package that’s much smaller than any large-format setup. Smaller-format DSLRs have caught up in many respects, but for some shooters there’s still no substitute for medium format.

Convergence, Olympic National Park, Washington
Back in her digital darkroom at the Carmel Gallery in Truckee, Carmel makes use of Photoshop’s powerful array of tools. Her goal is to bring her images as close as possible to what she experienced when she took the photograph. Even today, we hear the tired refrain that Photoshop is cheating. In Carmel’s photographs, you can see the evidence of how Photoshop lets a true artist translate the moment of capture to the final print.

Because photography is an imperfect medium, visionary nature photographers like Carmel spend considerable time and effort developing techniques to bring their images back to what they originally saw in the field. Several years ago, OP worked with Carmel on an article that showed how to process two captures of the same scene to preserve bright highlights and deep shadow detail. Today, the technique is called High Dynamic Range photography, and there are several software options that make it simple to do. At the time, however, it was pretty revolutionary, and it shows Carmel’s consistent drive to find digital solutions to some of the fundamental problems of photography.

Using digital technology to defeat a high-contrast scene isn’t the only way Carmel has been a pioneer. She’s a woman in a field that some people still regard as male-centric. When she began her career in nature photography, that stereotype was much more accurate than it is today. Carmel remarks about the presence of women on the trails she frequents, saying, “It’s becoming more acceptable. It isn’t unusual at all to see a woman hiking alone in the Sierras. I’ve encountered very few problems in this career solely because of my gender. I think society has moved beyond a lot of sexist stereotypes with my generation, and I think it’s looking even better for my daughter’s generation in that regard.”

Beginning this summer, Carmel will have more of a chance to help guide future generations of nature photographers. She will be penning a new column in Outdoor Photographer beginning in the July 2011 issue of the magazine. We’re looking forward to having her thoughts and perspectives on nature photography and the environment in the magazine for many years to come.

You can see more of Elizabeth Carmel’s work at www.elizabethcarmel.com.


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