Tuesday, August 21, 2012
Lessons Learned From Galen Rowell
Beyond his talents and his enduring and inspirational art, Galen Rowell was a great mentor to many intrepid outdoor photographers. We discuss a few of his most famous techniques and how you can apply his approach to your photography.
For some reason, I look back on the '90s and I associate Galen with the popularity of the graduated ND filter. He didn't invent it and wasn't the only one to use it, but he wrote a lot about the application of graduated ND filters, he used one in many of his photographs, and he had a great influence on many who thought of him as a mentor. Galen built his business on the notion of mountain light, from the Sierras to the Himalayas. In this realm, the range between bright and shadow is significant, so it would be natural for him to embrace the graduated ND filter. I can recall that there was a time when we would write about grad NDs in the magazine, and the response by readers would be great, as though people were being introduced to a single filter that surmounted the greatest shortcoming in the abilities of film to record the natural environment. In the photo shown here, it's easy to see the use of a graduated ND in the dark trees below the illuminated peak. Today, the topic of HDR solicits a similar popular response as the modern software solution to controlling high-contrast photos. Some photographers overindulge in HDR while others engage in moderation and keep its effects as undetectable as possible. Like any tool, it's up to you as to how you use it, whether it's to control the contrast in a scene or to generate garish colors and gritty comic-like images.
If you're known to be involved in the photography industry, or known to be the smart friend, you're undoubtedly asked by others, what's the best camera? The correct answer is always the one that you have with you. In the early years of Outdoor Photographer, two of our columnists, Galen Rowell and Dewitt Jones, famously used the Nikon FE and FM2 cameras with E-series lenses. This gear was downsized compared to the pro models, and it was designed to appeal to amateurs. Galen was extremely fit and would admit to a genetic advantage for coping with altitude in places like the Rongbuk Monastery in the Everest region—not a bad trait for a mountain climber. He would tell stories about running to the tops of mountains or speed-hiking to less accessible locations with this lightweight gear, sometimes just an SLR body and a zoom lens. Of course, this approach to equipment meshed neatly with the "ƒ/8 and be there" philosophy. Today, it's easy to be a proponent of affordable, portable DSLRs with their high-resolution sensors over the pro models that can cost more than $6,000. Furthermore, it's still the lens that captures and delivers the light, and should be the most thoughtful of your purchases.
This used to be the stock answer of snide photographers when asked, "How did you get that great shot?" For those who have grown up in a world where exposure settings are passé under the umbrella of Program Mode or Creative Settings or full automatic, ƒ/8 referred to the middle ƒ-stop, implying that the camera settings were far less important than being in the right place at the right time. As a professional, Galen had the advantage over most of us to spend extensive time in the outdoors to be at locations when the light was right. Anecdotally, his son Tony Rowell has shared photographs with me that were taken by him at times when he accompanied his father and they're remarkably similar. There's a lesson here, though not precise. I've seen many similar photographs over the years from photographers, pro or amateur, who happened to be at the same place at the same time. Penguins on an Antarctic iceberg, a clearing storm at El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall like a thread of gold all come to mind. Despite the paradigm shift from film to digital and the extreme sophistication of modern equipment with its fixation on megapixels, subject always trumps quality (with the exception of sharp focus, which is always critical and unfixable).
In the category of outdoor photography, Galen was influential in bringing legitimacy to 35mm. There's also the agility of the lightweight camera that, I tend to think, frees up creativity. Over the years of changing gear preferences from 4x5 to medium to 35mm, it has always been noticeable to me that creativity in composition tends to be inversely related to format size. The larger the format, the more unadventurous or stiff the composition, as the photographer is encumbered by the sheer weight of camera and tripod. I've seen this to be true even with the images from individual photographers who use a range of formats in their work. Carrying the Galen example into the present day, there's a great deal of freedom afforded by image-stabilized lenses, reduced noise at high ISO settings and improved quality in smaller sensors. It's interesting to ponder how Galen would counsel his students today.
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