How Far To Go For The Ultimate Photograph?
There seems to be no end to the dangerous things photographers will do to get the ultimate photograph. Each of us has to decide how far to push the limits, but collectively, we’re all influenced by other photographers’ failed attempts. I’m increasingly concerned by the imposition of more rules and restrictions to our access in both public and private locations due to the government’s or the private owner’s perceived need to protect themselves from liability and to protect ourselves from our own recklessness.
Boundaries. I know, those low fences on the bluffs and “Keep Off, Restoration in Progress” signs are annoying. You’re sure-footed, and you can tell a wildflower from an exotic invasive species, so why shouldn’t you be able to cross the line to get your photo? Two reasons: we’re not always as smart or as adept as we’d like to think we are, and with our big lenses and pro gear, we’re a high-profile example to others. Where we lead, others are likely to follow. If you have a real need to enter a restricted area, you probably can get permission. Sometimes forgiveness is easier to get than permission, but you may find yourself on the bad end of a citation and make it even more difficult for the person who follows you to get consent.
Road Work. The roadside photo opportunity rarely seems to come with a place to park, especially in public environments. I often encounter photographers stopped in the road, or barely off it, opening their doors into traffic, determined to get that shot of the elk herd or moose. Before long, the cars are lined up and spectators are blocking the road in both directions. Sometimes, you just have to be content with seeing the possible photograph—and let it go.
Another menace on the roads are the photo-racers. They’re trying to make it to a good site before the sun rises or sets. The photographers-in “training” drive me craziest. Their goal is to shoot the train at one spot, then beat it to the next vantage point. Does it mean you’ve lost your edge if you won’t risk your life and others’ to get the photograph? Not in my book.
Know Your Limits. Just because someone else can, doesn’t mean you should. Professional risk-taking photographers go to the ends of the earth, and they put themselves in danger on a regular basis, but they’re prepared, they know their abilities and they have backup. I’m remembering a photograph of Galen Rowell, leaning out from a cliff face (probably El Capitan in Yosemite), hanging from a rope with one hand, a camera in the other, and taking a picture of the person who was taking his picture. His superb physical abilities and endurance allowed him to photograph in situations in which most of us would hope to never find ourselves.
Then there’s Frans Lanting, who for National Geographic takes off for some of the most isolated places on earth, where the smallest health problem or injury can be catastrophic. Yet he comes back time after time with incredible images from places none of us has seen, in a world that we’d think had been completely photographed by now.
Nick Nichols is always on the edge. Whether it’s traversing equatorial Africa or stalking tigers in India, he’s always exceeding the bounds of common sense, but he consistently produces amazing images for National Geographic. He has paid an incredibly high price in physical risks to do this.
But remember, these are truly extraordinary men in terms of not only their boldness but also their photographic abilities. I don’t want to be the one to discourage the next Galen, Frans or Nick, but recognize that few will ever achieve what they have done, and just being willing to take risks doesn’t make you a great photographer.
The image featured here shows photographers in Rocky Mountain National Park in the process of taking their own picture with lightning in the background (the enlarged section of the image shows them setting the camera on a rock to capture a self-portrait with the storm). First of all, they’re exposing themselves by being on a high place and, secondly, the lightning is already flashing over their heads. It was time for them to get into a building or a vehicle. Luckily, they got down without being struck.
Q) How would you compare the aspects of reciprocity failure in long exposures on film versus digital SLRs? My first forays into digital long exposures have given me poor results.
A) In long exposures on film, there’s a noticeable loss of image quality due to reciprocity failure, which is revealed in color shift, excessive grain in underexposed areas of the image and an unexpected lengthening of the exposure due to the inability of the layers of silver to record the information efficiently.
From the beginning, digital cameras corrected the color shift and controlled the exposure time, but long exposures on the early D-SLRs generated a lot of noise—tiny, misplaced artifacts of color in the darker areas that resemble the grainy look caused by reciprocity failure in film. In a digital camera with a large number of pixels packed onto a very small sensor, the opportunity for misplacement increases dramatically. But with the latest processing and chip technology, including larger sensors with bigger pixels, noise is greatly reduced in digital long exposures. Couple the camera technology with noise-suppression software in our computers, and the end result is that digital long exposures represent a huge improvement over film. It’s still not perfect. Underexposed areas in very long exposures (more than 30 seconds) still show some noise. But the results get better with each new generation of D-SLR, and even the digital point-and-shoots are offering more creative possibilities with long exposures and higher ISOs.
Q) I’m seeing some beautiful black-and-white images in magazines and exhibitions lately, and I know the photographers are shooting with digital cameras. How would you advise dedicated black-and-white film photographers to fulfill their visions in digital format?
A) Some point-and-shoots offer a black-and-white mode through the camera’s software, but these aren’t going to yield the quality results you’re seeking. Most professional-level digital SLRs shoot color only; black-and-white renditions are achieved after capture with imaging software. Keep in mind that, as in any other quality image, the digital capture requires good exposure, good contrast and sharpness, whether the final print will be rendered in black-and-white or full color.
To maintain a full range of tones in the imaging process, most knowledgeable digital photographers use a channel mixer adjustment layer set to monochrome, where the percentages of red, green and blue color can be manipulated to give the desired effect, as if you had used filters at capture. Once you’ve converted the image to black-and-white, you can make precise adjustments within the imaging software to attain the kinds of effects you used to work for in the darkroom. But you can achieve much greater precision with skilled use of imaging software than was possible with burn and dodge, and who needs the chemicals?
Finally, you can finish your black-and-white image with any number of excellent printers and a wide variety of papers and other media. Epson’s 2400, 4800, 7800 and 9800 printers use eight pigment inks, three of which are blacks. Canon’s new iPF5000 and iPF9000 also offer three black inks, as well as eight additional pigment inks, yielding a wider color gamut that gives excellent tonal range in black-and-white prints, coupled with easy and efficient switching of inks for top performance on glossy and matte papers.
For the ultimate tonal range in black-and-white photography, try a professional D-SLR converted to receive only infrared light. In infrared landscapes, skies go dark, foliage goes white and clouds are brilliant. For portraits, skin tones are softened and eyes are exceptionally clear. To find sources of IR cameras or to have one of your digital camera bodies converted to IR, do a Web search on digital IR.
Q) Now that you’ve moved to Colorado, what advice can you give about proper exposure for photographing snowy landscapes? My snow pictures tend to be either washed out or dingy gray.
A) With either digital or film capture, first take an exposure reading off an area of bright snow. But wait! If you use that reading, you’ll get gray snow because every exposure-metering system wants to convert the metered area to a middle tone. The answer is to open up from the metered reading by one to one-and-a-half stops, then lock that exposure into the camera’s manual mode. The end result is a white snow, with detail. Your experience will tell you how far to go with the increased exposure. The locking of the exposure in manual is necessary because you might have darker objects in the frame and auto-exposure will take that into consideration and skew your snow-oriented reading back into overexposure.
If you’re working in digital, after capture, check the histogram on the LCD, which graphs the tonal ranges of the pixels in your image. If your graph piles up the pixels against the right side, you’re overexposed and there will be no detail in the snow.
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