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Two Seasons In Patagonia
Photography means many things to many people. To me, photography is first and foremost an adventure. I’m not thinking about extreme physical adventures like rock climbing or river running with a camera around my neck, but rather an adventure in seeing, in wrestling with the world around me and trying to interpret and reinterpret it.
Adventure implies uncertainty and risk and taking chances. If I know in advance how things will work out, then it isn’t an adventure. That’s why I’m an outdoor photographer, probing nature with my camera in search of fleeting images, rather than a studio photographer, arranging known objects under controlled light.
If the unpredictable light of landscape photography represents one level of uncertainty and adventure, then the transition from film to digital represents another adventure. Digital photography is my latest passion, and the transition to digital has its share of risks, new problems to solve, new possibilities and new rewards.
Why did I switch? The answer has several parts, but the main reason is image quality. I’ve always worked in 35mm, so any new method of image capture has to be compared to my beloved Fujichrome Velvia carefully exposed on a tripod. With Nikon and Canon now battling each other to offer affordable, professional-quality digital SLRs, the quality factor has tilted dramatically toward digital.
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.
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 6×17 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.