Sunday, December 26, 2010

Adventure Photography Part IV: Advanced Tips

This is the last part of a series of articles to help travel and adventure photographers bring home better images.  In Part I, we looked at cameras for adventure and travel photographers; in Part II, we looked at some techniques; in Part III, we looked at Post-Processing; and in Part IV, we will conclude this series with some Advanced Tips.

This is Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a place where thousands were tortured and killed by the ruling Khmer Rouge in the late '70s.  Before I shot this, I knew I wanted to preserve the somber mood by making a gritty image in black and white.  I wanted the barbed wire to stand out against the white building and sky.  I stopped down (used a small aperture) to keep the barbed wire and building sharp.  The guy in orange walking in the corridor was a bonus.  Orange is the color the monks wear, and is the color of hope.  I kept him in color.  Nikon D300, 18-200mm, -1/3EV, 1/1000, F/16, ISO800

Previsualization
It is said that cameras take snapshots, but photographers make photographs.  What's the difference?  Let's say you walk up to a pretty scene, you say "that's nice", whip out your camera and take a shot.  That's taking a snapshot.  On the other hand, if you walk up to a pretty scene, and say "that's nice, but this scene would really look better if I could change my position to get lower (or higher, or closer to the subject), and if I came back at sunrise (or sunset).  And what would really nail the shot is if I change lenses and use a really small aperture to maximize depth of field, etc...".  That's making a photograph.

Previsualization is having an idea of what you want the photograph to look like, and then going out to create it.

There's nothing wrong with taking a snapshot.  Some great photographs are just found that way.  But most other times, we have to work at it.  The best way to learn previsualization is to study the photographs of others and yourself.  How is the final image different from yours?  How did they make the shot?  What lens did they use?  What aperture/shutter speed?  How was the light?   What would you have done?

Wedding, Delhi, India.  I don't really know if this image is good or not, and this would be a good example of a shot I would want to have critiqued.  I like the emotion in the dancer's face, but certainly there are a lot of distracting background elements that I wish weren't there.  Nikon D300, 12-24mm, 1/125, F/4, ISO1600.

Photo Critiques
A photo critique is a written or verbal evaluation of a photograph based on careful observation to garner feedback about your images with the goal of improving them.  Getting your photos critiqued doesn't have to be a painful, ego-busting experience.  There are plenty of photo critique websites, and most of them are very supportive.   It's a great learning experience.

These prayer flags at the top of Poon Hill in Nepal were fluttering around.  I was trying to capture the rising sun and Machapuchare peak between the flags.  The sun is a little higher in the sky than I would have liked, but otherwise, this is the shot that I was going for.  Nikon D300, 18-200mm, fill-flash.

Composition
We've all heard the 'Rules': The rule of thirds, the 'level horizons' rule, the 'get closer to your subject' rule, the 'watch your edges for intrusions' rule, the 'less is more' rule...  and we have all heard the phrase 'there are no rules', so which is it?  Quite frankly, these 'rules' do have a place in photography, especially for new photographers looking for guidance.  Having said that, travel and adventure photography is generally very dynamic, and you may not have the luxury of time to place your subject according to the rule of thirds, level your horizon, move closer to your subject, while watching the edges of your frame, and simplifying your image.

The rules are best left to analysis or photo critique after the fact, and used to build up photography experience and develop compositional 'instincts'.

When I look through the viewfinder, I'm just seeing shapes, lines, color and flow.  I move these elements within the viewfinder until it looks good to me, and then I shoot it.  I don't really analyze stuff when I put the viewfinder up to my eye, it's more 'feeling' and 'emotion'.  The hard thinking is done in the previsualization phase before I lift up the camera to my eye.

Trekking the Annapurna Circuit, Nepal.  Taken near mid-day when the sun was high in the sky.  I made a back lit shot for added drama, stopped down (small aperture) to get a nice sunstar, and waited for a trekker to walk into my picture.  Nikon D300, 10.5mm, 1/400, F/20, ISO200.

Light
There are a lot of different lighting conditions, and each has a different emotional response.  Light has:
Direction (front, which is normal and; side and back light, which is dramatic);
Quality (diffuse or soft, and hard); and
Temperature (warm which is golden or red, and cold, which is bluish).

I'm an editorial shooter, and my job is to grab an editor's attention with bold, punchy images.  But I don't have the luxury of time to wait until the light is perfect to shoot what I want.  So I do it the other way.  I shoot what the light allows me to.  At sunrise or sunset, when the light is warm and the shadows are long, I can get dramatic scenic or landscape shots.  When it's overcast, I'll try to get some portraits or close-ups.  At mid-day, I can get shots with some bold color, but I'll need to watch the shadows or tone them down with some fill flash.

Rules?  We don't need no stinkin' rules! Get out there and play!  This is Ginger, my golden retriever, reaching for her favorite toy.  I was playing with my new camera and underwater housing.


Play
The last thing you need is someone telling you how to have fun, and really, that's what photography as a hobby is all about.  Sure, its good to want to be better, but at the end of the day, (if you don't have clients or editors ;o) the only one you need to please is yourself, so get out there and shoot!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Confessions of a Peak Bagger

"Mountaineers consider routes, peak baggers count summits."
Bagging Alexandra Peak, Mt. Kinabalu Massif, Malaysian Borneo.  Photo courtesy of Jack Chen.
What's a peak bagger?  It's a somewhat derogatory term used by 'real' climbers to describe a person who has no real interest in the technical difficulty of the route by which he ascends a mountain.  The primary goal of a peak bagger is to reach the summit (or a collection of summits), usually by the easiest possible route, and usually for the purpose of 'bragging rights'.

I must confess that in wanting to climb Mt. Everest, I have become a peak bagger.  This really shouldn't come as a surprise, as I feel most climbers (myself included) choose to climb Everest not for the aesthetics of the route, but more for 'bragging rights'.   

Heck, if there was an easy way up the mountain, I'd take it.  The thing is, there is no easy way.  The altitude makes any physical activity difficult, and even with supplemental oxygen, humans are at the limit of physical endurance near the summit.

I've chosen to climb up the North Ridge, from Tibet, next Spring.  This is one of the 'standard' routes up the mountain, the other being the South Col route via Nepal.  In terms of technical difficulty, they are about the same.  But in terms of danger, the North Ridge surprisingly trumps the South Col.  Even though the single most dangerous place on the mountain is the Ice Fall near the bottom of the South Col route, statistically, the North Ridge is twice as deadly as the South Col (Source: The Deadly Side of Everest, Alan Arnette, 2009).

I don't have a death wish, and the statistics are what they are.  The decision to climb from the North has more to do with marketing (and sponsors), as no Singaporean has successfully climbed Everest from the North.  So in just a few short months, Singapore's top long distance female triathlete, Esther Tan, and myself, will be heading off to climb the North Ridge of Everest with the sole prupose of 'bagging' the big 'E'.

 

Friday, December 3, 2010

Adventure Photography Part III: Shooting RAW and Post Production

This is Part III in a series of articles to help travel and adventure photographers bring home better images.

Low's Peak Via Ferrata, Malaysian Borneo.  I applied a desaturation effect in Lightroom to maintain the simple clean lines in the image.
I was a die-hard JPEG shooter when I wrote this article 'Optimize Your Camera Settings'.  At the time, I thought shooting RAW was complicated and I wanted to keep things simple by shooting JPEG, and letting the camera 'process' my shots for me.  Pro Mountain Biking photographer, and fellow blogger, Seb Rogers, talked me into giving RAW a shot.  I'll be frank: It was a struggle, with a steep learning curve.  But, if I knew then what I know now, it might have been a lot easier.

Monk at Ta Prohm, Cambodia.  This is one shot that would not have been possible with JPEG.  The monk is sitting in shadow, but I was able to bring back some detail in his face with some creative work using Adobe Lightroom.

The Problem with JPEG...
For a travel and adventure shooter needs to work fast, and usually gets only one chance to make a shot, the two biggest reasons to shoot RAW are:

1. Adjustable White Balance
Loosely speaking, white balance is the color temperature of the scene.  In tungsten lighting, it is warm, and JPEG shooters walking indoors will have to change the White Balance setting on their cameras from Daylight to Tungsten, in order to avoid overly orange looking images.  If you forget to change the white balance when walking back outside, you'll end up with bluish images.  The JPEG White Balance AUTO setting usually does a fine job in DAYLIGHT, but struggles in unusual lighting, like tungsten or underwater.  With RAW, I simply leave it in AUTO, and adjust it back home on my computer if required, when I have plenty of time, and no pressure.

2. Greater Dynamic Range
Correctly speaking, this should read greater exposure latitude.  What I'm getting at is that with post-processing in RAW, you can recover a greater range of tonal details, from dark shadows and washed out skies.  Even with a properly exposed shot, a JPEG shooter, who has less exposure latitude, may end up with washed out skies that he cannot recover.

Climbing Mt. Rinjani, an active volcano in Indonesia.  Highlights in the sky at sunrise are retained in the RAW image.
Those two reasons should be enough for any adventure/travel shooter to switch from JPEG to RAW.  If you're not convinced, here's the kicker:


RAW is SIMPLE
The problem with JPEG is that once you've clicked the shutter, and the image is made, there is very little leeway to change whatever is wrong with it.  This means that you have got to get it right in-camera.  To maximize my chances of getting it 'right' when I shot JPEG, I used to spend quite a bit of time with each new camera adjusting and testing each parameter (Exposure, Saturation, Contrast, Sharpness, etc) in order to optimize it's settings

Shooting RAW, I still need to test out the camera, but now I usually only test for Exposure.

It's in the Software
The key to keeping it simple is in the software.  I use Adobe Lightroom 3.  To me, it's like Apple's iPhoto on steroids.  It's an organizer, library, image editor and slideshow creator.  The real strength of Lightroom is in it's Develop (editing) module.  I can't remember the last time I used Photoshop, as Lightroom does enough for me.

Step one to using Lightroom 3 is to get some education, and probably the best reference book is Scott kelby's Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3 for Digital Photographers.

Goatherd and son, India.  Nikon D300, 50 F/1.4G.  Standard Import Preset settings applied in lightroom.
Step two is to set up an Import Preset, so that when you import your images from your camera, all the settings you want done are automatically done for you.  The trick is to figure out what settings you would like made on ALL your images.  I like bright, punchy images, so I use these settings with my Nikon D300:

Presence:
Clarity 35
Vibrance 35
Saturation 0

Tone Curve:
Medium

Sharpening:
Amount 50
Detail 50
Masking 50

These settings work for the 90% of images that live on my hard drive.  For the 10% of images that I deem worthwhile, I'll also work on the white balance, tones, dust removal (if required), etc.

The beauty about working RAW files in Lightroom is that image editing is non-destructive.  That means that you can play around with these settings while you're learning, and if a few months later, your skills improve and you decide you want to rework those images, they are all there for you.

Next:
Part IV: Advanced Tips