Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Fine Tuning Your Vision

On a blustery Iceland day along the south coast, the light was fading fast. I spotted a glistening chunk of ice in the waves and wanted to try to create something out of it. Its was a tough photographic challenge. The sea, if captured with a fast shutter speed, made for a confusing image. There was no separation between the ice and the waves. It all blended together and looked awful. The only answer was a long exposure to smooth out the sea water as waves poured around the ice. I was lucky that the ice block was heavy enough that it didn't move during the long exposure. If the ice lost its sharpness, I had no photograph. Initially, I had previsualized this image as a B/W photograph. Then, the guy next to me on the beach was shining a green laser on the ice. The light was so bright and colorful, it completely changed my perspective on the drab scene. I asked for a quick blast of light on my ice chunk and magic just appeared.

How many times have you heard, "Geez, you've got a good eye?"

That's a rewarding compliment for any shooter. It makes the photographer feel like they've tapped into something special, unique, and personal. It's why we do what we do. Half the fun of being a photographer is getting out and exploring, putting ourselves in a position to capture a moment that is definitively ours. The second half is being successful at communicating our vision inside a single frame. Lets face it, content is everything. It requires timing, good exposure, and more often than not, luck. But, I've always defined luck using that old photojournalism slogan,  "F/8 And Be There!" Ya can't win if you don't enter, right? You have to be out there making photographs, searching for subject matter, refining your craft to create great photographs. A musician can't get better without practicing. And, neither can a photographer.

The great photographer Henri Cartier Bresson once said, "Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst." It takes time to polish your vision. There are many layers to understanding the depths of photographic communication. Following your own instincts is the most important step. When subject matter calls out to you, that's a message. Listen to it. This is the first step in defining your own style. It came from you, not someone else. Set aside what you've seen done before on similar subject matter. Ask yourself, "what is it that drew me in?" Was it the color, texture, or composition? Were there visual relationships between the clouds and waves? Was a monochromatic scene interrupted with subtle colors in the moss in the foreground? Whatever it was, find that answer.

Once you understand what it was that called out to you, the next step is capturing it. Sounds easy, right? This is where photography is challenging and requires work. How one records that message is the difference between a snapshot and a photograph. The right ingredients of lens, aperture, perspective and exposure all combine to fine tune your vision. Exploring your subject thoroughly often reveals little secrets that further stimulate your imagination. You get to know your subject intimately. Sometimes giving your subject a 360º walk around provokes you to seeing it in a new way. Maybe from behind is the best side? By the time your done following your instincts, examining your subject, you know it so well that chances are pretty good you'll walk away with the essence of that moment. If nothing else, you leave with enough material that in your edit, one image will speaks louder than the others. Suddenly, your style is developing.

Giving yourself options during an edit forces you to become a better photographer. Too many photographers just show everything. They are afraid to make choices. And consequently, they bore
their audiences with repetition. When you ween through images, asking yourself why one frame is better than the other, even though they are similar, you learn more about your own images. There is a reason one frame is stronger than the other. Image by image, you eliminate the weakest in the herd. By the time you make a final select, you have the strongest image..........and you know why! 

You are a better photographer for plowing through that process.

Other considerations for fine tuning personal vision include preference for color or black & white. My roots are in black & white. The intense tonal relationships that beckon my camera
based on tonal values alone still reach me. At times, I only see in B/W. It's a different way of seeing, more organic perhaps. I say that because my past (film days) dealt with light sensitive silver halide crystals that become excited when exposed to light and came alive when processed in chemicals. Digital is different, but nonetheless part of seeing in B/W for many photographers is a way of seeing, period. For them, its reality. Color can at times infect content with color alone. A case where color dominates the photograph first, overriding content. However, isn't that just the flip side to allowing B/W tonal values define the image? There is no right answer to this. Its a personal choice based on the individual situation. Choosing the right medium to allow your voice to be heard is just good decision making. It's a question of personal style fine tuning your vision.

We spotted the well known black & white church in Budir along the western fjords and knew immediately this scene demanded representation in B/W.  The clouds, the stone wall and grasses simply blended in tonal magic. There was never any question of using this in color. Use of a wide angle lens added drama to the scene. But, I was careful not to go too wide. I didn't want to lose the connection with the white crosses to the right in the cemetery.

In the case of the "Blue Door" at Skogar Folk Museum, I watched everyone walk passed the door. The blue had me so excited. It was like glacial blue. Perfect for Iceland, right? I had to wait for everyone to leave the room so I could huddle into a corner and aim my wide angle at the door. The hues of blue in the corners confirmed my stop. The image had balance and color that electrified my vision of this simple yet complicated scene.

Along the coast I spotted a cliff with marvelous columnar geology, relatively common in Iceland. It was another overcast, dreary day and perfect for this type of photograph. Using a telephoto lens, I framed the subject and using a long exposure, waited for the wave action to provide me with a highlight in a fairly grey scene. I choose B/W over color for two reasons; One, the rocks were a lovely tone a gray, and secondly, the lower portion of the rocks had a green algae growth to competed with the geology. By choosing not to go with color, you don't see this distraction and the power of the volcanic action moves forward.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Costa Rica Photo Tour

Sometimes ya just gotta do what needs to be done to get the photo.

While scouting locations for an upcoming October 2014 Costa Rica Photo Tour, the clouds begin to clear over dinner at the Smithsonian Observatory Lodge near Mt. Arenal, one of Costa Rico's more active volcano's. Almost always shrouded in cloud's, it's rare to see the volcano. So, it was a treat to see it at night, backlite by the resorts on the opposite side of the mountain and stars ablaze all around. The real kicker, she was smoking! A photo had to be made of this.

So, why was I mad?  Well, I was kicking myself because I brought a minimal amount of gear for this trip. I knew if I brought my normal assortment I'd be working the whole time and miss scouting opportunities because I'd run outta time. But, this was too good to miss.

The elevated deck overlooking the jungle beneath offers a lovely panoramic view of the volcano just steps from the dining room. It's a large deck with a skinny walkway that runs the parameter of the dining area. I knew a night shot of the mountain would require me to move as far away from the dining area as possible. The light streaming on the jungle below would surely be overexposed during a 30 second exposure. Getting ground level was useless because the canopy would hide the mountain.

And adding to the complictions, I had no tripod!  I left it home with lots of other gear. The thin metal railing would not support a camera and tables and chairs were the wrong height to clear the middle railing. However, there was opening near the bottom of the railings approx. three feet up. I went back to my room to find objects I could use to make a sturdy makeshift tripod. I grabbed the end table next to the bed, my flips-flops, and an extra sock and returned to the deck.

I went all the way to end of the walkway away from the open deck area. It was darker over there and not many people ventured over that way. This was good because vibrations of people walking during an exposure could ruin the shot. I set the camera down, used the flip-flops to elevate the 14-24mm so it would point slightly upward giving me more sky and stars, and then slipped the dirty sock underneath to hold the lens snug. Focusing on infinity, I shot wide-open for thirty seconds. The shutter clicks, exposes. I bent over and glanced at the monitor....WOW!  You could even see steam rising from the volcano. Thirty seconds was perfect. I tend to start there when I want to see stars and not star streaks. To get stars streaking you need to go at least two minutes. Thirty seconds will get you stars.

I snapped a few more frames, people would look over and wonder what in the heck is that freaky dude up to over there. Then, the clouds moved in and I adjourned for the evening with a grin.

Equipment?  Naw, A dirty sock will do.

Monday, November 18, 2013


It's always exciting when a new book comes out.
(Copy and paste the below link to see the entire book)

The newest book from our office is now out there to review.
LIGHT OVER ICELAND • Photography At 66º North 

Links is below for the Hardcover version. While there, you will also see the eBook version just above it. Just click on the title below.

This book is a project for photographers and those interested in the vast opportunity for visual artists that exits in this incredible location. It will be immediate to the reader that Iceland is a special place for the photographer.

Iceland is filled with a rich culture, fine people, and a landscape that must resemble the LIGHT OVER ICELAND • Photography At 66º North origins of Earth, it will tantalize the desires to visit this land of fire and ice.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Galapogos-Under The Surface

Sometimes its just for fun!

There is no real story line to these clips taken with a GoPro while conducting a photo trek for the Mentor Treks in June in the Galapagos Islands. They are simply a fun collection of moments captured while swimming with the sharks.

It takes a while to get to those fun projects that are meant simply to share.
But, its always worth it!

Click the link below to watch.

Galapagos-Under The Surface

Friday, October 18, 2013

Chicago Sun Times Fires Photography Staff

Lets see, fire all the photographers, give reporters iPhones for cameras, then sell ONE OF A KIND PHOTOS from the archives to the pubic.


Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Photography In Bad Light

Forget the hassles of shooting in snow, rain, wind.  It's worth chasing bad light.

Early morning rainstorm provided a lovely sheen on the wet tracks.

 For whatever reasons this summer, the weather gods seem to have it out for photographers.

Sure, we've seen sunshine off and on. But, rarely that lovely light that inspires us to grab the lenses, go out and shoot. For the most part, its just been hot & humid or dark & rainy.

Like most shooters, I always find something to photograph in poor weather. In fact, I see it as a challenge and embrace the concept that fewer photog's will be out there. Thus, offering more opportunities to capture something no one else will get. Still, day after day of dank weather takes a toll. When the light finally breaks, you feel energized. But, the wasted time digging deep for treasures in that awful darkness that produced minimal rewards.

Welcome to being a photographer!

The diner lighting was great, but the people were in deep shadow. Over exposing allowed room for post-processing dodging and burning and not letting a wonderful street portrait get away.
 There is no perfect life, just life. Those difficult challenges are usually the ones you remember most anyway, right?  When you capture something worthwhile in poor conditions you learn a lot. New ways to see, how to protect your gear, where to go in poor conditions, ect.

Terrible mid-day light, a white colorless sky and black frigate birds flying over.....Hmmmm, what can I shoot? A perfect situation for a silhouette. Already mostly monochromatic, nature's design pops off the page.
 Next time its pouring, snowing like a blizzard, tree whipping in the wind, grab the cameras and get out there. Cool stuff awaits you.

Raining outside, but the softened light gave this still life inside the kitchen of the Grand Portage National Monument a wonderful glow. Natural poor light can be really effective at times.

Using your umbrella, walking around in the rain with the camera around your neck provides opportunities in inclimate weather you won't find on sunny days. Its real life and worth the hike out-n-about.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Tornadoes, Global Warming & Photographers

A tornado touches down May 19th, 2013 near Elmore, Kansas
As a young photographer, something Ansel Adams did as a photographer first, conservationist second, had a profound impact on how I view our medium. It stuck to me like a view camera on a tripod.

The joy one obtains from creating photographs can't be lost in the persuasive power photography has to push forth ideas. Adams used his marvelous prints of the Sierra's as a tool to convince lawmakers in Washington that wilderness needed protection. Certianly, it was easier and more cost effective sending prints to persuade members of Congress than to take the long journey to the mountains of California to witness the wilderness on their own. Let's face it, that could've backfired. What if it rained or snowed the whole time? Sending beautiful prints was a brilliant idea.

I've been lucky to be able to participate in a similar circumstance here in my own regional neighborhood. Wisconsin resident and wilderness advocate Martin Hansen loved the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior. The archipelego of 21 islands is designated as a National Lakeshore and is managed by our National Parks. Hansen loved these islands and wanted to prevent any further development from compromising their wilderness status. Hansen hired writer Jeff Rennicke and myself to do a book on the Apostle Islands. Hansen then took copies of the book to Washington D.C. to use just as Adams had, as a vehicle to persuade lawmakers to protect the islands.

It worked. Once again, my belief in the medium as an art form and instrument for change was confirmed.

Today many of my peers are working on projects to further their photography but also use their work as a voice for change. James Balog's incredible film CHASING ICE, documenting the receding glaciers of the world, Karen Kuehn is working on protecting our waters, Daniel J. Cox is documenting the rapidly changing arctic. Personally, I'm very interested in global warming and the effects it's having on weather patterns especially here in the Midwest.

Over the last decade I've experienced warmer winters here and our summers are producing more violent storms, especially those involving straight-line winds. Those selective and damaging storms have tripled in numbers in recent years. The issue of global warming is indeed controversial. The debate over its causes shifts constantly between science and politics. However, the bottom line is, it's happening. A warmer planet is changing our weather.

Rain released over Oklahoma/Texas border
Since the Midwest is here, it makes financial sense for me to cover this area. So, I've decided to embark on covering storms and weather patterns here as they affect people, crops and landscape. As time allows I will chase storms, photograph crops, drought, floods, wildlife, all I can to shape together an era of changing weather through photographs.

Green color indicates hail inside super cell storm, Oklahoma

This May, 2013, coverage continued by joining Melanie Metz, a veteran storm chaser/educator based in Minneapolis. We followed storms in Tornado Alley in both Kansas and Oklahoma. A few of those images can be seen here. Photography is such a valuable tool in educating people in an instant. A good caption carries the purpose one step further.

Wall Clouds forming near Elmore City, Oklahoma
I'm not saying as a photographer you have the responsibility to promote and document causes. I'm saying, you have the opportunity to if you wish. And it can be accomplished on any scale. A blog, a magazine article, a gallery exhibition with a specific theme. Your art and vision can carry a message. In a world crazy for instant visual gratification, this is an exceptional time to let your visual voice be heard.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Listening To Your Vision

"If you listen carefully, you can hear your vision speaking. 
It's good to stop and hear what it has to say."

I recall coming upon this foggy curve in the road in the mountains of West Virginia. What a moving scene it was. Getting out of the Jeep, grabbing the glass and acknowledging the joy of the moment made for a nice capture.

Monday, March 25, 2013

You Never Know

Years ago I was watching a 60 MINUTES broadcast while overnighting at a hotel. The story they were covering was about a bright young man who had grown up in Harlem, became successful, and now was returning to his old neighborhood, buying old beat-up buildings and remodeling them into affordable and safe housing for people to move in to. It was a wonderful story.

As the TV crew followed him through the hallways, up the stairs, into an apartment to visit with one of the new tenants, I noticed the wall behind them had one of my photographs made into a poster. I jumped up looked closer, and sure enough, an old wolf image of mine made into a poster. I laughed out loud and shook my head with a big grin. Hey, I made 60 MINUTES..... and in a good way! HA.

Sometimes you just never know why an image is gonna end up where it does. These little surprises are a nice treat. Its part of the fun in this business. Recently, during one of my winter photography workshops, a brutally cold morning gave us the perfect ammunition to create an image that you can only achieve in this sort of hostile environment.

It was -36º F Below Zero. When you toss up a ladle of hot water into this frigid air, that hot water instantly vaporizes. It makes for a wonderful images combining both science and art. It soon appeared in National Geographic's "Your Shot" collection of online images.

Another example of how unusual circumstances result in unexpected placement, came from a photograph I snapped while shooting a Smithsonian Magazine assignment. I was in North Dakota covering a feature story on a farmer who collects tractors. While crossing from one field to another across his land, I stumbled onto a sort of "old car graveyard." I spotted this 54' Ford Crown Victoria with an Ash tree growing right outta of the hood.

It struck me immediately, NATURE'S REVENGE.

I sent the image off to one of my favorite clients, Patagonia, and they soon used it on one of the cover of their clothing catalogs, then in their beautiful book, UNEXPECTED. Now, over a decade later, they are using it again as a design for one of T-Shirts.

How cool is that?  Ya just never know.


Monday, March 18, 2013

Great Lessons In Photography

Why is it that the most significant lessons in life are always the toughest? It probably has to do with that age old concept "we learn more from our failures than our successes." I hate to say it, but it's true to the bone. Its akin to the You Can't Win If You Don't Enter theme.

Ya gotta be out there generating images and creating the most articulate ways to visually communicate. That instantaneous moment when content and art blend together is magical. It motivates one to continue aiming their lenses at the world.

In its roots, photography has always been a science driven medium. Indeed, it can be hard to see it that way, what with all the auto-this and auto-that available today. One barely needs to understand the science to get decent exposure. For the general public this is a monumental advancement. Scoot over to the most recent photo technological advancement, iPhone's, taking a photograph is amazingly simple, can be processed and shared world-wide within seconds.

My photography roots emerged from black & white photography. I was hooked on the medium the moment I witnessed a print emerging in a well seasoned tray of dektol. I studied the works of Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Minor White, Paul Caponigro, Dorothy Lange, Wynn Bullock, and Margaret Bourke-White to name a few. One quickly learned, they embraced the science of photography. They knew what film and developer combination would produce a decent negative. Understanding the complexities of printing those negatives to show off the myriad of zones and tonal values to achieve an exquisite silver halide print defined the fine art photographer of that era. Science, all science.

Wow, times have changed and digital dominates the industry. Its still science, not as organic as the chemistry laden past, but driven by math, this technology takes such giant steps it can be difficult to keep up with the changes and the costs. But, grasping digital technology and understanding its capabilities continues to be the edge photographers need to pull the most out of the visual situations they face in field.

In a recent workshop, a participant was drawn to a very contrasty scene. She looked at it, made her composition, and snapped the shutter. As she walked away from it I heard her say, "that'll never work. I'll lose all detail in those shadows." She looked at her camera monitor and sure enough it was contrasty. But, not all is lost. I explained to her, the beauty of digital is dark areas are digitals' playground.

That said, I wanted to show everyone a quick and easy way to pull out those dark, contrasty areas out of your digital captures. As many of you know, I tend to stay away from the techno lessons because I'm more concerned with people learning to see visually. But, part of learning to see is not walking away from compelling situations because you worry they just worn't work. Chances are damn good in today's digital world what you see in your mind can be accomplished photographically.

Let's take a look at this image below. While teaching in Cambodia on a Mentor Series Worldwide Treks ( we were photographing a small village with several temples and a small monk monastery. I spotted this young girl leaning on a railing. She appeared unhappy and very preoccupied. I heard sounds of chanting and music coming from the area immediately to her right. Curiosity begged for a more defined reason why she was not engaged in the music. As I moved closer, I could see the monks, all men, holding service. She was not allowed. I wanted to capture her mood and yet also include within the frame the source of her discontent.

But, as you can see it's an exposure problem. There's probably four f/stops in difference between her face and the dark room where the monks are holding service. While my eyes can accurately witness the scenario, it's a photographic nightmare of extreme exposure differences. Yet, for this to be a good photograph, it needs all the information in the scene. Not to worry!

Click on the images to enlarge

Proper exposure made on young girl creates severe darkness to the right
Using the Adjustment Brush tool in Photoshop or Lightroom
as a mask, we can bring up the dark areas

Wow, is it that simple?

Yes, it's that simple to bring back the image as observed on site. You won't lose the valuable editorial content necessary to understanding the moment that was hidden in the dark areas to the right.

If you are a Photoshop or Lightroom user and have not used this tool, learn to do it. It will save numerous images in your files and provide the confidence when out shooting that tough situations can be brought to life right out of your RAW files. Chances are darn good the information is there. You just need to learn how to bring it out.

This is an over simplified peek at this technique. But, one you will love if you have not used it in the past. All those images you were so worried about.... go back and give em' life. Science is a tool!

When opening RAW Files, choose the Adjustment Brush Tool, seen on top. Then, I like to check
the SHOW MASK box at the bottom, so I can see what areas I'm masking.
Here, you can see the masked areas I brushed on the right side. Once brushed, I turn off the
SHOW MASK (the fog disappears but is still there) and move up to the Exposure slider and move to
the right if I want it brighter, and magically watch the masked area come back to life. I have complete
control of how much I want it to brighten.
The finished image! You have great control over how you do this, the amount, the feathering, ect.
And, when you like what you see, when going to OPEN IMAGE, use OPTION-CLICK on
the open-image button to open without updating image metadata keeping your original
RAW file just as you had originally exposed it.

Here's another example; A beautiful blue door inside a historic farmhouse in Iceland caught my eye. I loved the color and the wonderful composition of little patches colors and lines criss-crossing about the scene. But, I also wanted more detail in some of the dark shadow areas to give the viewer more information in the room. Using the Adjustment Brush, it let me lighten those hidden areas.

Here, you can see the areas I decided to utilize the Adjustment Brush and mask
the areas I planned on boosting up the exposure to resemble a look more like my
eye had seen inside this room.
A comparison with the before and after

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

There's Still Hope for Photographers-Good Luck-Good Light story in the NY TIMES

With all the bad news, like this Hire A Photographer for $10 crap, its good to see something good happening in the photography world once in a while.

Check out the link below to read more about GOOD LUCK-GOOD LIGHT. If it does not take you there directly, copy and paste the link.

And, this sort of thing (below) might become the norm for some, but rest assured it will eventually kill the photography business as we know it today. I'm not sure how it will affect the editorial world, but most photography eventually finds its pricing methods in editorial. All I can suggest, is don't be stupid and go for this sort of thing.

Its important that you understand the value of your work if you intend to stay in to make a living. If someone wants to offer someone $10 to shoot a assignment, let them use their own iPhone and post the images themselves. Even that work, which will take valuable time, will cost more than $10.

Thursday, February 7, 2013


Those people intimately familiar with winter, know that your nose will run like crazy out in the cold. It comes with the territory. That's why long sleeves were invented. Its also a great opportunity to capture images that many shooters miss.

Hot water vaporizes on minus -26º F morning near Ely, Minnesota
Its not easy shooting in winter. Trudging through deep snow is tough physical work. A mental mindset also needs to exist. Warding off the pain in your fingers when trying to change settings can tax even the experienced winterized photog. A different set of equipment is necessary to get places. Snowshoes, dog teams, snowmobiles, cross-country skis are all options. But getting to places to where only critter tracks
mark the snow, the velvety cotton landscape comes alive with a different kind of silence. Mainly, there's just less people out there.

Consider the iconic photographic destinations, like our national monuments and national parks. If you visit these places in spring, summer or fall, those classic photographic gems are often jammed with people. Everywhere in your frame is a person, tripod or goofy hat. They are shooting the location, each other, others shooting each other, and so on. Its almost impossible to obtain a clean shot. The super-duper secret to getting that shot? You can lessen the distractions by going in the cold months. And, the bonus? Obtain images and an experience that few others care to tackle. It sets your work apart and presents a new and fresh perspective.

I plan several annual winter outings for shooting. One is a dogsledding adventure photoworkshop I teach at WINTERGREEN DOGSLED LODGE in Ely, Minnesota. We just wrapped up our 21st year and experienced quite the temperature swing. We started at 33º F and ended with minus -36º F. Its the best of two worlds really. We spend our days out in the wilderness mushing and our evenings in a cozy lodge with food prepared by a wonderful French Chef, Bernard Herman.

Wintergreen's French Chef Bernard Herman
Dogsled teams gliding across frozen lakes on the edges
of N.E. Minnesota wilderness
Don't let the temperature swing concern you. Its not normal. But, there are opportunities on both sides of the mercury to photograph. On those warmer, often overcast days, when a weather system is moving in trapping the mild air, the light is more often evenly lit. When high pressure moves in, it shoves out that cozy temperature and replaces it with biting, gin clear air where even the slightest breeze creates a wind chill that cuts you like a razor. And, with that bright light comes extreme contrast. You have to choose your battles. Even in the contrast however, a silhouette can speak volumes. Use what you have. It is what it is.

Harvesting ice blocks from a frozen lake.
Harsh light allows room for experimenting.
Overcast skies provided the perfect light source that brought to life
this frozen rock wall covered in frost crystals and ice formations.
Remember the key to a good winter experience is being prepared for the cold. Not only for your equipment, but you. Dress in layers. Stay away from fabrics like cotton. There's an old saying in winter
locations; "Cotton Kills."  If you get wet, cotton holds the water next to your body yanking the warmth right outta your skin. Synthetic clothing, like fleece wicks the moisture away keeping you insulated and  warm. Wool does the same.

When active, like dogsledding, I wear a pair fleece thin long-johns on top and bottom along with a good windshell. This keeps the heat in and the wind out. If I get chilled, I'll pull on another layer of thicker pile fleece or down, and pull over the wind shell. I can't stress how important the wind shell layers are. The key to comfort in winter is this; if you start to overheat, drop a layer. When you get chilled, put on another layer. Keeping dry is essential. If you are traveling over sea ice or frozen lakes, its a good idea to carry extra clothing just in case you flop into the drink. A good hat, balaclava and neck gator offer protection. If you are in windy conditions, use your ski goggles. They'll make you life like a day at the beach. Lastly, have thick mittens on hand. The kind that have a wind shell on them. Gloves only protect individual fingers and in really cold weather, you get cold fingers fast. When the fingers can work together keeping each other warm, the difference is remarkable. Light fleece gloves for shooting so you can feel the dials. Stay away from those fingerless gloves in winter. They're useless.
After your shot, pull the mittens back on.

Bad light can be great light for some subject matter in winter.
I knew B/W coverage here would set the ice apart from a scene already monochromatic.
Waiting for just the right moment when the ice block caught the backlight was essential to the images success.
For your equipment, if you are out all day in temps around zero degrees or colder, those little hand-warmer packets that keep working for 8-10 hours, are good to toss in your camera bag next to batteries, and your extra batteries. Just keeping the chill off them keeps them in smooth working order. Extra batteries in extreme cold is a must. And, remember when you return back to the vehicle or your lodge, after being out all day in the cold, don't expose your camera or lenses to the warm air. Condensation will carpet them instantly. Wet and digital electronics are not friends. They need to be kept away from each other. Keep your cameras inside the bag, wrap your coat around it and let it slowly come back to room temp to prevent the condensation.

Experimenting with visual options. This entire day felt like a walk back in time.
I used pixlr-o-matic app to help create an image that looks like it came
out of Grandpa's old shoebox.
I predict you'll find that being cold is just a myth. The sights and sounds winter offers are as unique as underwater photography. Not many do it, and those images waiting be captured are there for the taking.

And don't forget that ever handy iPhone. This little video was made using a app called Vintagio. Buckets of fun.

Safe journey's!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013


One thing is etched in stone. The first day for out of town assignments is the most stressful for photographers. You can't wait to dive into the work, make contacts, capture moments, feel that twitch you gain with new visual discoveries. Reality?  The thrill is tempered with all the cab rides, ferry's, permits, weather, ect.  It tortures the eager shooter. Its the game we play

This of course, is magnified when venturing out on a wilderness assignment. What you carry are the tools you'll have to complete the job.You are limited in your choices, to specific equipment. There's no turning back for more. Hard choices are made and you live with those decisions.

Even more aggravating, the unexpected. What you came to photograph seemingly vanishes from the landscape. Where did it go? What are we missing that nature is trying to communicate?

Day three into a six day assignment on Isle Royale brought storms and a complete absence of all wildlife. It felt spooky. "It had to be the storms," I said to myself. The wildlife has taken shelter in the forest. The forecast showed improvement in the weather in the upcoming days, but we were running out of time. We came here to photograph moose. Yet, there was no sign of them anywhere.

Calf Moose on Isle Royale from previous assignment
I've traveled to Isle Royale National Park numerous times over the years on assignment. A marvelous place, its isolated island ecosystem cherished by wildlife researchers. Initially, I became fascinated with the forty-five mile long island in Lake Superior while covering stories on wolves in Minnesota. Isle Royale had become well known for its wolf related history and I had become very familiar with the island.

Rolf Peterson, the famed wildlife biologist studying the unique closed ecosystem of Isle Royale, had taken incredible photos of the predator-prey relationship between wolves and moose. His images of wolf packs surrounding a moose from his research airplane just tickled my fancy. And then, I had seen Mitch Kezar's incredible photograph of a moose browsing for National Geographic and that further stimulated my interest in the long Lake Superior rock.

For years I had told writer Gus Axelson about the abundance of moose at Windigo. "We need to do a moose story here," I frequently bounced off Gus. Every Fall on the western end of the island the moose congregate for the rut. You couldn't hike anywhere without a moose sighting. Each and every one of my trips, moose, moose and more moose. If you want to do a story on moose, head to Isle Royale in the Fall and camp near Windigo. The four-legged men and women gather there.

(Left, moose blocking hiker along the trail near Windigo)
The Lake Superior storm brewing was big enough that N.P. staff were going tent to tent and hut to hut informing people that there would be no Ferry Service for several days. If they wanted to leave, they had 30 minutes to pack and get on the Ferry. Fall storms on Lake Superior are not something to take lightly. The shoals and reefs around Isle Royale have gutted many a vessel over the years and are testament to the violent wrath Lake Superior can bring.

We weren't leaving and plans were made. An eight mile RT hike would bring us to an exposed face of the island to view storm first hand. I love shooting storms. The risk can be worth the effort. I had packed proper rain gear and a watertight backpack for my cameras. Trails were open. Although, upon arrival, we were greeted by the NPS with cautionary advice about the horny moose and some trails will be littered with large debris from a earlier storm. Just be alert and careful was the advice.

(Right, dock at Windigo with Ranger Talk after disembarking)

So, we headed out. The chance for spotting a moose and snapping the shutter seemed promising. Eight miles is a lot of ground to cover and hiking past a variety of terrain put the odds in our favor. I've never been skunked locating moose on Isle Royale. And, the storms could add a new twist to a familiar subject. I was pumped for sure.

Then, the unexpected.

Its useful to combine knowledge and instincts in the wild. Storms can wreak havoc on the unprepared. Only experience can tranquilize necessary tasks in the wilderness. I felt the need to split off from Gus and friend Mike Kooi. I wanted to set my own pace, listen the way a photographer needs to hear and observe. I would meet them back at camp. Then, the wind and rain began pelting the island. My moose radar jumped to high. The wind was snapping off tree tops and with every crack, I whipped around concerned a moose was gunning for me. I often laughed at myself being startled so many times.

Stress seemed to follow every step. The audio level of high speed rain slapping my hood was deafening.  I couldn't hear anything in the forest. My pace slowed to a crawl. I would stop every 50 yards and take a 360º spin to look around. Dang, if a bull moose didn't try to make a date with me, surely a tree falling would take me out. The woods were outta control and the tree tops whipping like grasses. It was strange. It was exciting and eery all at the same time.

 I made it back to camp. Mike, Gus and I flopped down inside the shelters and the Windigo camp and cooked dinner. While we prefer tents, these shelters were a luxury we refused to pass up.

"Where is all the wildlife, I asked?"

It was freaky. No moose or trace of them, no birds, not even red fox. And red fox are everywhere on Isle Royale. You felt their absence. What message of nature were we missing?

I'm used to seeing so many red fox you have to be careful about leaving anything unattended in camp. They simply steal it and add to their collection. I'm guessing their den resembles a flea market.

(Left: red fox peeks in shelter at Windigo campground on an earlier trip)

By day four we needed to alter our plans. The search for moose, any moose was kicked into high gear. We had no story yet. There were virtually no campers left. No one to check in with to inquire about any sightings. Where can we find them? The last ferry off the island was in a few days and the National Park Service shuts down Isle Royale for the season. Its now or never.

Feldtmann Lake was about 9 miles away and there had been wolf sightings in that area. We put two and two together and figured where there's wolves, there's moose. We packed up and boogied out.

Antlers along Feldtmann Lake Trail
We arrived at Feldtmann Lake camp at dusk and were met with encouragement along the trail. Twice, we came across discarded antlers. Moose!

The trail felt warm. Even birds began to appear. The moose had simply parked somewhere else and with luck, we'd find them. Perhaps our luck was changing?

Again, we met the unexpected.

Feldtmann Lake with Milky Way and Aurora Borealis

We made camp just off the trail that runs along the North shore of Feldtmann Lake. Darkness comes early in Fall. The new moon sky quickly blanketed the forest in blackness. Gus, Mike and I felt the chill of the night, ate some supper, grabbed the headlamps and ventured from camp down across the trail to the lake. You could feel the solitude. No one around, park closing for winter in two days. Its all ours.

It was so dark, so black, the stars took on a movie like appearance. The Milky Way cluster was so obvious in the sky. I had not seen that in a long time. Even the Aurora was dim on the horizon welcoming us. Damn, if our luck hadn't changed. This was promising on so many levels.

In the photograph above, it was much darker than it appears in this image. My friend, the gifted photographer Richard Hamilton Smith once referred to darkness as "digital's playground." The sensitivity of the digital sensor far exceeds the capability of the human eye. Using high ISO settings, even a subtle aurora shows up on the back of the camera alerting us to its presence. You can do so much more with digital in low light than one could in the days of film.

The three of us sat there on a beached log in front of a lake. The lake was like glass. It was so still. The sounds of summer bugs and mosquitos absent. It was so quiet you could almost hear the stars etching the sky. We heard a voice bouncing off the lake from the other side of the remote campground. It surprised us. Who else is crazy enough to be out here? The park is closing in two days and its a good hike to get outta here. Must be some hard cores getting in one last camp for the season.

Down at the lake, I was snapping thirty second exposures, one minute exposures, and several minute exposures of the brilliant evening stars. The brighter stars were reflecting on the surface of Feldtmann. It was an amazing sight. Once our eyes adjusted, I could see reeds off shore to our left and darting satellites gliding across the sky like ice skaters. There's something extreme quietness. Its almost loud its so quiet. We whispered as if we were afraid to disturb it. Suddenly, we heard a splash. A fish? It was loud enough that I put the radar back on high in case it wasn't a northern pike taking down a swimming frog. We heard it again. Something was in the lake.

We became motionless, forcing more quiet on our log bench. A loud exhaling breath broke the silence, then another. Water was splashing, between breaths. A MOOSE! A dad-burn moose was swimming across the lake and we couldn't see it! Not even a glimpse. The night was just too black. Yet, in our minds, each of us could see the moose swimming. Its nose and massive head just above the surface, pushing water, creating its own wake with each deep breath as it swam. This went on for twenty minutes. Our ears brought the visual to life as we listened to the moose come ashore across the lake, shake off, and move into the forest. Soon, the bellowing and grunting commenced. A bull looking for love across the lake. We could hear branches crackling, his movement. But not see a thing.

Then, the unexpected. Again.

We giggled at the thought of a Wildlife Bar scene across the lake. The bull moose looking for a date, the cow playing hard to get and so on. Then, in the blackness of night, a dog bark. But, it came from the opposite direction of the other campers. 

"Who in their right mind would be stumbling into camp this late at night, I asked Gus and Mike?"

This was not a difficult trail, but in darkness it could be dangerous one. With game trails diverting you off trail, steep slopes, rocky ledges, we were surprised to hear anything. But, the dog barking confirmed someone had to be coming in, right? Nothing. No footsteps. No dog barking. No moose. No people?

The cold broke our curiosity and off we went to crawl into warm sleeping bags for the night.

Lake Superior overlook on Feldtmann Lake Trail

Morning comes early for photographers and I'm thrilled Gus is an early riser too. He appreciates the value of crisp mornings, that silence before life stumbles from its cozy quarters. I wanted to catch the morning fog hovering over Feldtmann Lake. This is a normal occurrence in the Fall when air temps drop below water temperature creating a thick blanket of fog over the surface until it burns off with the warming sun. For that first hour of sunrise a shooter can be gifted some remarkable light to play with. 

We beat the sun by a good hour. Mike brewed some coffee and we made our way down to the lake. I noticed once we departed the canopy of the dark forest surrounding camp, we gained a full two stops of light near the lake. It was still dark but not so much a headlamp was required to get around.

It was cold. The ground was frosty and the lake covered with fog.

Frost covered trail

When the sunrise hit the lake across from us, I expected the glow to be stunning. Gus and Mike brought their sleeping bags down to waters edge and wrapped themselves in warmth. I had the Nikon on the tripod and waited for the sunrise. Again, from the left of us, a slight barking sounds erupted. 
A soft whimper.

"Hey guys, that dog from last night is back, I stated."

I moved away from the tripod backing out towards the trail intersection that lead back to camp. It was perhaps five yards to the trail up from the lakeshore through the tall grasses. I peered right towards the direction of the sound.......and a lone wolf was standing there, staring at me. It was all clear now. In the darkness last night, it wasn't a dog with hikers, it was a Wolf!

I called over to Gus and Mike, "guys, there's a wolf right there!

They leaped to their feet only to see it bolt off. We could hear it whimper again in the short distance through the birch. I whimpered back. The wolf ran off along the trail that circles around the backside of our camp. My camera still on tripod, I took it off and quickly tiptoed my way back to camp with hopes I might spot the wolf again through the forest. It was still too dark to make a good photograph in the woods. The light was flat, dark and everything kinda blended together in similar hues and tones. But, what choice do I have? I wanted to get another glance of the wolf.

I heard the whimper and a short bark once again. I responded. Within seconds, now from the left, a wolf walks into camp, not ten yards away from me. Was it the same wolf? Damn, if it was, how'd he get over there so fast and come in from this direction? I stood motionless, my camera down by my waist, not wanting to flinch, worried the wolf would spook. As I began to raise the lens, boom. It was gone. I missed the shot. The wolf was gone so fast.

He slunk'd down as he bolted from camp, muddy from its toes midway up his body. Gus and Mike inched into camp. We could hardly believe our eyes. We were so thrilled, adrenaline pumping. I wanted to position myself to get a good shot. Damn, I still need more light!

I put the camera back on the tripod, boosted the ISO and aimed the 80-200mm lens down the trail to the right again. Odds were, if the wolf was gonna investigate us again, it might come down the trail. Its the easiest route for the wolf and the most obvious one. Well, for a human that is. My eyes and lens focused on the curve in the trail about 2o yards away. If the wolf shows, I'd get a frame off this time. 

Within seconds, Gus and Mike are franticly waving their arms and hands pointing to the trail leading behind me. I wheel around and there's another wolf coming right at me. Hands on the tripod, eyes on the wolf, he gets within 20 feet and slips away into the thick brush towards the lake. I was shocked. Not shocked at the wolf coming at me, but where it exited the trail. Any human would have been forced to turn around or push forward down the trail. The wolf, a master of its environment disappears into the brush like a ghost. People just don't think that way. The speed and grace in which he disappeared into that thick underbrush left an impression on me. I learned something in that moment.

I ran to the trail leading to the lake. The same place we listened to the moose swimming at night. I  hoped I might get to snap off a frame as he runs along the shoreline. The distance from the lake to the main trail is only about 10 yards. I reached the intersection to the small path carved through the grasses leading to the lake. The small opening through the grasses allows a peek at the lake and part of the shoreline. Then, in a flash, a moment that stands still, the wolf runs by in full trot, turning his head towards me, framed through the grasses like a painting. A millisecond that lasted for hours in my head. It was the prefect shot. Camera in hand running to the lake.....And dog gone it, I missed it. 
I'm comfortable knowing there was little or nothing I could do. I was still caught in pursuit.

Wolf runs along Feldtmann Lake shoreline

As the wolf rounded the shoreline, I was able to fire off a few clicks of the shutter. But, for a photographer, a shot of his backside doesn't make for significant images. The reflection of missing two  momentous frames already imposing pain over me, it was over with. The entire sequence of events consumed at best, several minutes. 

If a wolf whimpers in the forest and there's no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?  YES!

These incidents happen to photographers, writers, outdoorsman. Experiencing these precious moments of nature at large was an exhilarating thrill. We determined that all the action was created when we rose from the tent the pack of three wolves got separated. Two were on one side of camp, and the other one on the other side. We were uncertain obstacles inbetween. Curiosity forced a conclusion. At no point were we ever threatened or in fear. We were in awe. The process of interacting with a wild animal who thinks cannot be underestimated in the value it brings to the human experience.

A closing note: The wolf pack we had seen might have included the last breeding female on Isle Royale. Wolves traveled across ice to the wilderness island in the 1950's and are now in danger, through inbreeding and decline of breeding females to becoming extinct on Isle Royale. Population numbers took a serious hit two summers ago with several members of a breeding pack were found dead in the bottom of a mining pit, probably victims of falling in during winter. 

Many questions remain about the wolves of Isle Royale. Their presence stabilized a moose population expanding out of control. Global warming has prevented Lake Superior from freezing over in recent years thwarting any possible natural reintroduction.