Terra Galleria Photography

Photographing Biscayne National Park from the Air

In addition to water visits, I spent an hour in the air to photograph Biscayne National Park from an airplane, and another one from a drone. This post offers quick aerial photography tips, illustrated with photographs that reveal perspectives on the park not visible from the ground.

Aerial photography offers two benefits: access to places not easily accessible from the ground, and an unusually high perspective that can help tell a story

For the first reason, I have photographed from the air in most of the Alaskan national parks, as well as places like Canyonlands National Park and Everglades National Park. Biscayne National Park, just a dozen miles from Miami, at first doesn’t seem like a remote place, but you need a boat to visit, and since Sept 2013 there are no concessionaire services.

Flat places lack high viewpoints from which you can see the lay of the land. The flatter a place, the more it benefits from a high perspective. This makes the Florida parks subjects that are particularly suitable for aerial photography.

Chartering a plane isn’t as expensive as it sounds. Most flight schools in the US can get you in the air for about $200/hour in a small plane. They often operate small Cessnas which work well for aerial photography. They fly at a slow speed (for a plane) have high wings, and side windows that open. Helicopters are more suitable for aerial photography, thanks to their slower speed, lower flight altitude, and possibility to fly with the door removed, but they are more expensive.

I prefer the back sit rather than the passenger seat, as it allows me to shoot on both sides rather than only towards the right. The front side window opens, but not the back windows. With no passenger, I can still access the front side window from the back seat. If not shooting towards the sun, using the techniques described in How to Photography Through Windows yields clear images through the back windows, provided that they are reasonably clean and scratch free. Just make sure to have the pilot clean them before take-off, or ask permission to clean them. Those windows are made of plexiglass that scratches easily, so use microfibre or chamois skin cleaning cloth.

The main challenge of aerial photography is to get sharp images. I shoot close to wide open, and set the ISO so that I can maintain a shutter speed of at least 1/500s. Since the subjects are distant, the polarizing filter is essential for reducing haze. Be prepared to shoot a lot and anticipate compositions, since at the speed a plane is traveling, viewpoints change very fast. It is essential that you have enough room on your memory card, and to have a spare battery! Two camera bodies will allow you to switch from wide-angle to telephoto faster so you’re less likely to miss something.

Drone aerial photography is an alternative to airplane and helicopter aerial photography that is gaining in popularity. The advantage is low cost, and the possibility to fly at lower elevations. The main limitation is that you need to get close to your subject on the ground, since you can control the drone only within half a mile, with a mile being an extreme situation.

In addition, drones are banned in National Parks whereas there are no limitations on plane and helicopter flights. However, the ban means no take off, landing, and operation, but not no overflights. I made the photographs of the Convoy Point shore by standing in adjacent Homestead Bayfront Park. I see aircraft and drones as another set of useful tools to keep in your photographic arsenal. Give them a try!

Everglades Mosquitoes and Cypress Domes

The NPS website states “Camping at the southern tip of Everglades National Park is an experience to remember!”. I indeed vividly remember camping at Flamingo on my first trip to the Everglades in January 1998. Although it was during the relatively bug-free winter, that night I was overwhelmed by the mosquitoes. I had never gotten as many bites in my life before. I wowed not to camp at Flamingo again, moving for the next night to the Long Pine Key campground. I found the mosquito level to be quite acceptable there, compared to the Flamingo campground.

Having recently discovered the beauty of the summer season in the Everglades, this year, I came back to the park for the third year in a row during the summer. 17 years after my first night there, I eventually returned to the Flamingo campground. September, at the tail of the wet season, is the time of the year when the mosquitoes are at their worst, as highlighted by a mosquito meter at the visitor center.

Sane visitors could not be found anywhere. Although the Flamingo Campground has more than 300 sites, I did not see a single other person camping there. What brought me there – besides the fact that the less buggy Long Pine Key campground is curiously closed in summer ? I hoped to capture great sunset and sunrise clouds, and in between a time-lapse with thunder storms over Florida Bay – something you don’t see in winter. At least, I was pretty sure nobody would steal my unattended camera!

After Boca Chita Key, the score was: mosquitoes 1 – QT 0. I wanted to see how I would do with better preparation, which meant bug jacket, bug pants, and Deet only on hands (I dislike the toxic stuff). It turned out that I spent a better night in the tent than I did at the hotel, because there was no need for noisy AC. In the small volume, it was short work to kill the mosquitoes that had followed me. Even score. The most annoying time was in the car. Mosquitoes would hide in all corners. Driving with all windows open didn’t get rid of them at all. I neutralized them by cranking the AC and fan to max (60F). The combination of temperature and airflow prevented them from biting, but I had to roll down the window frequently to warm up, and, each time I got out, my glasses would fog instantly.

During my time in the park, because of mostly overcast conditions, I explored the cypress domes more than anything else. I’ve written before about the wonderful experience of walking into a cypress dome. The most accessible large dome I’ve found is 1.2 miles to the west of the Pa-hay-okee turn off, on the south side of the road. You can step in the dome within a minute of getting out of the car.

This helped because this time, I was also carrying my underwater housing – that I had brought for diving in the Keys. It was overkill – a lighter system such as those described here would have been preferable. I was interested not only in the primeval beauty of the domes, but I also tried to capture how the trees grow out of water. The merging of the trees and the water was what made those forests unique to this part of the world. I sought of ways to merge visually the above water and the underwater.

A day on the water in Biscayne National Park

I just returned from a trip to Miami. Why did I find myself there in summer again ? The Miami Country Day School (MCDS) is hosting my National Parks travel exhibit in the Sol Taplin Gallery as part of their “Campaign for the Arts” until Oct 10. They invited me to visit for three days to talk with the students, in both large and small groups.

Summer is not my favorite time to be in Florida, but I was intrigued by the prospect of talking with students – I had previously exhibited only in galleries and museums. The new experience did not disappoint. The gallery was beautiful and the hosts extremely gracious. The best was that as I shared my experiences with students of various ages, I was touched by the candid comments they made directly, and rewarded that the photography moved them. Thank you to Jenny Knight, Yvonne Moyer and Jonina Pitchman for making this happen.

The one thing the Florida summer is favorable for is water activities. No cold fronts and fewer winds normally mean calmer waters and better water visibility. I mentioned to my hosts that I would like to re-visit Biscayne National Park. A concessionaire there provides island transportation to Elliott Key and Boca Chita Key outside of summer, as well as snorkeling trips year-round. However, in September 2013, the park’s concessionaire went out of business overnight and had not been replaced since. The lost of the concessionaire is more problematic than at other parks, because it means that to explore the park besides Convoy Point, you need your own boat. Water occupies 95 percent of the park’s surface area.

(photo at right by Alyssa Larson)

The school put me in touch with the adventurous and kind Larson family, who offered to take me out on the water for a day. Their son, Max, who attends MCDS fifth-grade has already visited more than a third of the national parks! Glenn, who operates a marine construction company knows the area well, and Alyssa (working with 35mm and MF film!) suggested an early departure. They went out of their way to help me, borrowing their friend’s boat – based at a sumptuous mansion in Coral Gables – to shorten the water trip. I am so grateful to them for taking me to areas that I wouldn’t have been able to visit by myself.

We started at Boca Chita Key, a small island with a picnic area and a harbor popular with boat owners. It is home to the most recognizable landmark in the park, the Boca Chita lighthouse, as well as a few historic buildings.

Looking to explore for nature subjects, I was eager to check out the nature trail that circles the island, but since we didn’t bring insect repellent, the others declined to come with me. I found out why when the mosquitoes swarmed me along the trail.

I (very) quickly photographed a few small isolated mangroves east of the campground area, and ran back to the dock, having suffered what felt like hundreds of mosquitoes bites within a quarter of an hour. No more island landings for the day!

At this time of year the water is normally glassy in the morning, getting breezy mid-day and windy in the afternoon. However, on that day, the wind had already picked up in the morning. After stopping at two reefs where the conditions were poor for underwater photography, we headed back to the keys. The water was also full of jellyfish, which appeared out of nowhere since the visibility was so low. The salt water worked wonders for the mosquito bites, but now it was time to avoid being stung!

The keys to the north of Biscayne are solid, but those in the south are penetrated by water, in the form of lagoons, channels, and creeks. The concessionaire doesn’t provide transportation to the southern keys, so the area is best explored by private boat. It would have been easy to get disoriented and lost while navigating their maze-like network.

The southern Biscayne keys are an excellent place to explore the mangrove shores. The water was considerably more clear than at Convoy Point. Mangrove shores are not thought of as swimming areas, but there is much to see underwater by snorkeling.

Besides dense schools of juvenile fish, I was surprised to spot the largest angelfish I’ve ever seen below the root system of the mangroves.

When taking the underwater photos, I made the mistake of not using a close-up diopter filter on the lens because I was thinking mostly about the split above/under water images. The filter is used when shooting with a dome. Without the filter, the above water part is sharper, but the under water part is less sharp. As I ended up photographing mostly under water, those images lacked sharpness despite stopping down to f/22.

Instead of making the images available at full size, I reduced the pixel dimensions to 2,000 wide. I went back to Biscayne NP, at Convoy Point, to photograph more underwater images in the mangroves, but, predictably, the water wasn’t as clear. That was a tough lesson learned during a photo opportunity difficult to reproduce, but on the positive side it gives me a reason to try and come back…

More images: Boca Chita Key, Southern Keys, Underwater mangroves.

Three How-to Landscape Night Photography Books reviewed

The history of night photography stretches back to the early 20th century, all the way to Alfred Stiegliz. However, it is only in the last decade that, ignited by advances in digital cameras, natural landscapes (as opposed to man-made structures) have become a popular subject for night photography. Making a natural landscape photograph that captures at the same time the beauty of the night sky requires much knowledge, and more careful planning and technique than daytime photography.

The three books reviewed in this article aim to teach all of this to you. I can recommend each of them without reservation. Despite the inevitable overlap, there are singular elements in each of the books, and each author has a distinctively different approach.

They are not for photography beginners, as they assume you can shoot in manual mode with a DSLR or mirrorless camera, and that you are familiar with post-processing software such as Lightroom or Photoshop. Despite being tightly focussed, skipping the basics, and skipping photography of man-made environments, they are still substantial books with no fluff. There is much to learn there!

Seeing the Unseen: How to Photograph Landscapes at Night by Alister Benn

When published in March 2012, it was the reference book about its subject, covering a vast range of topics from preparation to field techniques and exposure, both single and multiple.

Alister Benn takes a somehow philosophical approach to photography, which is reflected in the book – and the choice of Guy Tal for the foreword. He tries to avoid getting bogged down in too technical considerations, which makes the book friendly for beginners. Besides the foundational knowledge and techniques of night photography, Seeing the Unseen touches on visualization and composition, but doesn’t dwell much on gear or processing. Subjects covered range from relatively basic and strongly worded advice (such as the useful high ISO test shot) to more advanced considerations such as the rarely discussed use of GNDs filters at night or how to orient yourself to find the kind of star motion you are after.

Recognizing that photography starts with light, Benn uses the different types of light available at night as a guiding framework for much of the book. He starts by categorizing those types as different parts of the night and of the lunar month, and proceeds later by explaining how to evaluate and then capture scenes in each type of light. Although some readers might find that this mode of presentation a bit disjoint and redundant, it does make sense. Besides the technical data, each of the inspiring images – made in many locations around the world – also identifies the type of light under which it was created.

I noticed an emphasis on the moon and its phases, as well as the blue hour. Benn advises to shoot in the evenings for the first weeks of the lunar month (new moon to full moon) and at predawn for the last two weeks, resulting in images that are fairly bright. As the title indicates, this is a book which deals substantially with capturing the terrestrial landscape.

Seeing the Unseen: How to Photograph Landscapes at Night is a 96-page ebook with about 24,000 words, designed like a traditional book (facing vertical pages) but with many pages consisting of relatively short paragraphs. It is available both as a PDF on the author’s site ($15) or as a Kindle book on Amazon ($8) – which doesn’t provide high resolution images unlike the PDF.

Nightscape: A Complete Guide to Photographing Under the Night Sky by David Kingsham

David Kingsham made his mark as a photographer of the night sky. Those two words are fittingly included in the subtitle of the book. It distinguishes itself by its sensitivity and attention to capturing the beauty of the starry night sky (a style sometimes referred to as “astro-landscape photography” when little moonlight is present. Within that focus, the treatment is deep and full of useful tips.

Recognizing that preparation is key, Nightscape (2014) starts with two excellent section on understanding the night sky and its variations. I read for the first time about “airglow” there. Post-processing is strongly covered, with the book featuring the most detailed exposition I’ve seen anywhere of how to process photos in Lightroom (a set of LR presets are provided by download) so that they depict accurately the colors of the night sky, including colors of the stars.

Although the tone makes it very accessible and appealing to the photographer with no night photography experience, Nightscape touches advanced multiple image techniques, which the author acknowledges were necessary for nearly all images in the book. Their coverage is rather brief, but all the essential ideas are there and many links are provided. The book ends with a complete step-by-step tutorial on creating some of the most tricky night images: meteor showers with multiple meteors composited. This very specialized section appears a bit out of place compared with the rest of the book, which is a relatively light read, especially since it relies on Photoshop, which is not used elsewhere. However it gives the reader a good taste of the complexity of some images and the work behind them.

As part of the excellent Craft and Vision offerings, Nightscape: A Complete Guide to Photographing Under the Night Sky emphasizes craft over gear, however it does mention all the useful specialized equipment, even the fog filter. Like the other C&V titles, it is an affordable ($12) PDF with horizontal pages designed to look particularly attractive on the computer screen, with legible typography and large, beautiful photographs (with technical data but nothing else) resulting in 120 pages, although the word count is also about 24,000.

Collier’s Guide to Night Photography in the Great Outdoors by Grant Collier

Although Collier’s Guide to Night Photography is the most recent (2015) book about this subject, Grant Collier is a long-time practitioner of the genre, with 12 years of night photography experience, starting in the film days. I’ve long admired his Arches National Park work, in which night views reveal a new vision of familiar scenes, so I was pleased that Grant sent me a review copy of his guide to night photography.

Collier’s Guide to Night Photography at the same time covers more topics and goes into more depth than other books on the same subjects. As a night photographer with some experience, it was clear to me that the advice and tips in the book come from the numerous hours spent in the field. It is the night photography book from which I have learned the most. I wish it was available when I started. Despite the amount of advanced material, the night photography beginner will also benefit from the book thanks to the clear, concise, and no-nonsense writing.

Some of the most impressive photographs by Collier are his unique multiple-image panoramas. It is a technique he perfected to overcome the technical limitations of early digital cameras. The two previous books have made the case for why multiple image techniques can help realize one’s vision of creating images that can’t be achieved with a single shot. However, only Collier’s book goes into detail about how to blend and stitch images together – maybe the most intriguing material the book for advanced photographers, together with light painting and star trails. The last chapter goes beyond Lightroom in detailing Photoshop techniques. As those take a lot of explaining, more can be found in a companion video offering.

Another difference with the previous books is that Collier goes beyond the generic, not hesitating to discusses specific gear by brand and model, such as lenses, various lights for light painting, and equatorial mounts. He also list specific resources, such as weather, star, aurora websites and apps.

The images used to illustrate the techniques are very varied and all superb. Besides the expected technical data, they are presented with a brief, but informative technical comment about the main challenge they posed, making them suitable for learning by example.

Collier’s Guide to Night Photography in the Great Outdoors is published both as an ebook ($18.95) and a paperback. ($29.95). Because of that, the design is that of a traditional book, with dense paragraphs: the book has more words (75,000 words) than its 160 pages would suggest. That’s what makes it possible to be so comprehensive and detailed.

Did you read any of those books ? Are there others that you would recommend ?

Con Dao Islands, Vietnam’s last unspoiled costal destination

The Con Dao Islands are possibly the last unspoiled coastal destination in Vietnam. Traveling there, you feel you’ve made it to the end of the country. Less than two decades ago, the only air link to the mainland was a helicopter carrying mostly military personnel that flew a few days a week. Read on to find out why those remote and obscure islands should be on the adventurous traveler’s list.

Last spring I traveled to Vietnam – for the tenth time – to attend my mother’s funeral with my family. When I announced to our relatives our intention to visit the Con Dao Islands afterwards, they all said it was such a sad place, and suggested Phu Quoc Island instead.

Con Dao’s past

The Con Dao Islands have a grim reputation amongst the Vietnamese because starting from 1862, under French colonial rule, they were home to the most feared penal colony in the country. Most of the prisoners were nationalist and independence activists. An estimated 22,000 died on the island.

Since the closure of the prisons in 1975, the visitors to Con Dao have been mainly Vietnamese on a patriotic pilgrimage to honor national heroes. The most celebrated of the Con Dao prisons victims is Vo Thi Sau, at age 19, the first woman to be executed on the island in 1952.

The town of Con Son

The attraction for the visitor is that the islands tragic history, combined with its remoteness, has left them remarkably untouched. The Con Dao Islands are located in the South China Sea, 115 miles (185 km) south of Vung Tau, 143 miles (143 km) from Ho Chi Minh City. Of the 16 islands and islets, only the largest one, Con Son (also known as Con Lon), is inhabited.

Con Son, the only town on the island, feels like a sleepy village. The atmosphere is more relaxed than any other place I’ve seen in Vietnam. Cars are rare. Crime is non-existent: residents don’t even lock their doors or their bikes. It is surreal to stroll the seafront promenade in Con Son and see it totally deserted most of the day.

Some activity takes place at sunrise, mostly on the piers where fishermen unload their catch. However, it is in the evenings that the locals gather there. The main beach goes from almost empty to quite popular with a few street vendors offering foods.

The streets are lined with tall trees. Fading colonial-area buildings confer a sense of visiting an abandoned outpost of French Indochina.

The old custom house has been restored, and transformed into the only beachfront cafe, a great place for a drink or ice-cream.

Loi Voi Beach is at the north end of the promenade. An Hai Beach lies at the south end of the promenade. You’ll find there beach front resorts with stunning views of Con Son Bay and offshore islands and islets.

Bay Canh Island

The largest of those islands, Bay Canh, is entirely located within Con Dao National Park – which also protects most of the forested interior of Con Son Island. It was interesting to see Vietnam’s implementation of “America’s Best Idea”, complete with maps, a visitor center and ranger station, interpretive signs, and paved trails.

We hired a boatman with a speed boat to take us for a day to Bay Canh. The turquoise waters invited snorkeling. Traveling with the family, I didn’t scuba dive, but I wasn’t surprised to read that Con Dao offers by far the best diving in Vietnam. I saw two dive shops in town, which appear to be certified to international standards.

The coastline of Bay Canh is quite varied. One of the last primeval mangrove forest in Vietnam grows there, home to tank-crabs foraging for food. There are also sandy beaches where sea turtles lay eggs at night during the mating season.

Con Son South

Because of its small size – 20 square miles (51 square km) – Con Son island can be easily explored by rented motorbike or by taxi. Going south, the road ends at the colorful fishing port of Ben Dam, set in a beautiful lagoon.

On the way, you’ll pass Nhat Beach, maybe the most beautiful beach of the island, with its fine white sand, rocks, and backdrop. I didn’t see a soul on the wind-swept and pristine beach.

Con Son North

Going north, the road skirts the mountains (elevation 1,500 feet) which make the island so rugged. The number of beaches is limited, however their backdrop is spectacular.

It ends at the airport. Orange sand Dan Trau Beach sits right at the end of the runway. Unlike at the other beaches on the island, which are all undeveloped, two makeshift restaurants offer food and drinks, as well as restrooms and showers. Because of the rugged topography of the island, the airstrip, bookended by two beaches, is short, accommodating only propeller planes.

While waiting for our flight, Con Dao Island had one last treat in store for us: a stand selling edible bird’s nest. The congealed saliva of Asian swiftlets are one of the world’s most rare and expensive foods – sometimes dubbed the “caviar of the East”. Once reserved for emperors and their courts, the food is consumed as a porridge. I find it rather bland, but it is believed to deliver a lot of health benefits – at a price: a kilogram (32 onces) retails for about $2,500. The nests are harvested by climbing on the sea cliffs and the sea caves of Con Dao’s archipelago small islets. I wished I had learned from them before, so that we could have to arranged a visit to witness the precarious activity.

Traveling to Con Dao Islands

Con Dao Islands are a 1 hour flight from Ho Chi Minh City via Vietnam Airlines, the only airline to fly there. There are about 5 flights a day, with the cost in the $150-$200 range (RT). For individual travelers, renting a scooter offers the most flexibility, however taxis have recently become available.

Con Son offers a range of accommodations for all budgets, from budget guesthouses (starting at $20) to resorts ($100), with the outlier being the Six Senses Resort ($600-$2,000). We stayed at the Con Dao Sea Cabanas (also known at Con Dao camping). They offer the most reasonably priced beach front accommodation on the island, in the form of tent-shaped, A-frame individual bungalows which are small but adequately equipped (mini-fridge and AC). We didn’t make a reservation and just asked the taxi driver to take us there from the airport.

Con Dao’s future

With its great natural beauty, it is clear that the future of Con Dao Island is bright. It is interesting to compare it to the other southern archipelago, Phu Quoc Island. They are the two most compelling beach destinations in Vietnam, partly protected as national parks that include thick interior jungle and turquoise bays.

Phu Quoc, large and fringed with wide sandy beaches, home to a recent international airport, is on the verge of major development which the Vietnamese governement hope will make it the next Phuket. By contrast, they would like Con Dao to become a high-end destination pioneered by the Six Senses Resort – where “Brangelina” has stayed. However, because of the respect for the tragic history of the place, development has been very slow. To this day, foreign visitors remain very rare. Will you be one of them ?

More photos of Con Dao Islands

How to photograph through windows: my top 12 tips

The only way to get some of the most striking cityscapes and city skylines is to shoot through windows, often from high-rise hotels. The techniques described in this post will let you overcome the obstacle posed by the glass to get a technically perfect image.

The day after I returned from a trip during which I hiked and scrambled all over the place through canyons in Zion National Park, I sprained my ankle on a sidewalk while running our Chihuahua. Not being able to travel in the great outdoors opened up some time for a few architectural and urban assignments, one of which consisted of photographing the skyline of San Jose, CA for a client.

The San Jose skyline is low because downtown is directly in the approach path to San Jose International Airport. Nevertheless, it includes a number of landmark buildings. After identifying the Hilton hotel as the spot from which most of those buildings could be captured in a single shot, I booked an upper floor room – although I live in San Jose! I had photographed many times before through windows, so I came well prepared for the shot, and was confident that I would be able to produce usable images. So will you after you read this post.

The two main issues when photographing through windows are glare and reflexions. Those can be used to artistic effect (I have a whole project about window reflexions), however this post is about eliminating them. Newly published research details an algorithm able to separate reflections, but while we are waiting for those results to make it into a product, manual post-processing is extremely difficult, so for now the best is to take care of them while shooting.

1. Look for single-glass windows

Modern hotels often have double or even triple glass windows. With them, there is a reflection from the inner pane and another reflection from the outer pane. The additional glare and internal reflections sometimes cannot be totally eliminated even with the tips below. If possible, try to avoid them.

2. Clean the window

It’s easy to forget, but it’s worth to take time to inspect the window carefully. If necessary, wipe down a large portion of the window, not just the area in front of the lens. If you can also clean the outside, be sure to do it. However, even if some dirt remains outside, take heart that it will not show up in the image when applying tips #4 and $5. However, it will reduce contrast.

3. Time your shoot so that the window is not lit

When the sun strikes a window, not only it creates glare, but any defects and dirt become more visible. Try to time the shoot when the window is in the shade. If the building casts shade on parts of the window, position yourself to shoot through that part. That’s just not the sun, though. Be careful that windows can be illuminated from outside at night. The darker it gets, the more problematic it is, especially with double glass windows.

4. Use a large aperture

Shallow depth of field minimizes the effect of window glare and defects by reducing depth of field. In fact, with a wide open lens, you can even shoot through a fine grid – such as mosquito net – without it showing in the picture when it rests against the lens.

5. Shoot from as close as possible to the window

Besides helping reduce reflections, this reduces the effect of window glare and dirt by pushing them out of the depth of field area (see #5). The closer you get to the window, the more its surface gets out of focus.

6. Beware of vibration if touching the glass

If shooting straight (see #7), resting the lens against the glass creates enough of a seal to eliminate reflections. However, if using an SLR, the contact against the glass amplifies the vibration caused by the mirror. In that case, use live view.

7. Shoot as straight as possible

The more directly you look through the glass, the fewer reflections you get. At a large angle, you get light that bouncing inside the window glass, causing a displaced ghost image, more noticeable with double-glass windows. A lens with shift is ideal because it let you shoot with the lens straight on, while varying the composition. Also, note that wide-angle lenses capture more reflections than longer lenses.

8. Beware of using a polarizing filter

One of the main uses of polarizing filters is to reduce reflections and glare on surfaces, however polarizing filters can create undesirable patterns while shooting through transparent materials. Shooting through the windows of an airliner with a polarizing filter almost always create weird color shifts. Some high-rise hotels use polarizing glass in their windows which result in a similar effect. The effect is strong in the image below, but it can be subtle enough that you will notice it only when processing the image on the computer, when it is too late!

9. Turn lights off and move away bright objects

To avoid reflections, the key is to make the interior as dark as possible. Naturally, you’ll want to turn off all the lights if you can. Also move away from the window bright objects such as lamps, and cover white sheets. In order to make the room darker, you might be tempted to draw the curtains, leaving only an opening for shooting, but this is counter-productive. Most curtains have a light-colored lining to reflect the heat, which will also bounce light back onto the glass.

10. Wear dark clothing

You will be standing close to the camera, so make sure to wear something that doesn’t bounce light back to the glass!

11. Bring a rubber hood

Although major camera and lens manufacturers provide only rigid hoods, you can find third-party lens hoods made of rubber. Their intent was to make the hood collapsible and adaptable to various lenses. However, in this case, their point is to make a seal keeping light from getting in between the window and the lens if you place the hood onto the glass window. The flexibility of the hood allows you to angle the lens a bit if needed.

12. Bring a dark cloth

If you need more flexibility than a rubber hood can offer, the solution that often works when everything else fails is to use a dark cloth over the camera so that you create your own dark space. For the San Jose shot, I brought a large black cloth that I used to focus my large format camera. I affixed it to the glass using gaffer tape – which does not leave marks unlike some duct tape. Although the space was large enough for my head and the camera, after composing, I got out of the dark cloth to make sure the seal was perfect. When traveling, I don’t always pack the dark cloth, but I always make sure to have a jacket lined with black fabric (Marmot’s Dryclime shirt is great). If I do not have tape, after composing, I put the camera on self-timer and hold the jacket against the glass with both hands (note #6, though). In a pinch, draping a dark T-shirt around the lens can work, but it can be difficult control its intrusion into the picture.

Using those techniques, I was able to photograph the images that illustrate this post. If you’ve made nice photographs through windows, please share them! Are there other tips you’ve found useful for shooting through windows ?

Galen Rowell Books

Summary: A survey of more than ten of Galen Rowell’s books, representative of the whole arc of his career, by a photographer he deeply inspired.

Galen Rowell (1940-2002) was a man of many considerable talents who touched several universes: one of the world’s most accomplished climbers and adventurers, a prolific author, an advocate for conservation and Tibet, and the “the world’s best known photojournalist”. However, like Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, and Philip Hyde before, his enduring love and most influential area was landscape photography. Although his work, also primary published by Sierra Club Books, can be traced to this great American lineage inspired by Transcendentalism, Rowell differs from them in a simple, but profund way. Whereas they all relied on the large format camera, Galen Rowell worked exclusively with 35mm cameras and color slide film.

With them, Rowell traded descriptive power for mobility and speed, with emotional appeal being the main goal. He pioneered a kind of photography in which he was not a detached observer, but rather a participant in the scenes that he photographed. His presence (sometimes explicit, often implied) added a new meaning to the photographs, for the landscape and the adventure were part of each other. His light equipment made it possible to reach the mountain tops and show the views from there. It also allowed him to seek ephemeral moments when light and landscape interact in ways that transcend specific situations.

As a testimony to the appeal of his approach, unlike Eliot Porter or Philip Hyde, several of his books are still in print. The power of those books can be attributed to his writing as much as to his photography. Rowell was a writer with considerable intellectual depth and broad knowledge. Like Ansel Adams, his two main subjects were photography and the natural world. However, unlike Adams, he articulated his vision specifically to place his photographs in a story. He understood that the photograph alone could only arise emotions, whereas words would add facts and context. Although Rowell lectured, exhibited, taught workshops, and wrote in magazines, his books made the strongest impact.

The Vertical World of Yosemite: A Collection of Writings and Photographs on Rock Climbing in Yosemite

Galen Rowell took up photography to document his climbs in Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada, starting from 1962. In 1972, he boldly sold his small automotive business to become a full-time photographer, while he was the father of two small children. By a turn of luck, within a year, he landed a National Geographic assignment to photograph a climb in Yosemite. Exceeding expectations, he participated in the first clean (without pitons) ascent of the face of Half-Dome, producing a reportage which became the cover story of the June 1974 issue of the magazine. His first book also emerged from that effort.

Although The Vertical World of Yosemite (1974) is the first pictorial volume about the world of climbing in Yosemite, it is not of interest to photographers, except maybe to see how Rowell started. The book is an anthology, for which Rowell edited the texts by fellow climbers, wrote introductions, and contributed photographs – slightly less than half. All the photographs by other climbers are in black and white. Some of Rowell’s are in color. Most of the photographs are action photos from the wall, with a few striking portraits. They are essentially documentary and not particularly well reproduced. However, amongst them are “El Capitan Clearing Storm”, one of his greatest images of the Valley, which I feel captures its dynamic nature like no other. Its low vantage point places the viewer in the scene, unlike Ansel Adams “Winter Clear Storm”, whose high viewpoint imbues it with a comparatively disembodied quality.

The Yosemite

John Muir’s explorations of Yosemite took place a century before Galen Rowell’s own, but the juxtaposition of their work in The Yosemite (1989) is felicitous. With his spiritual perspective and clear description of the park, Muir created a classic work of natural history. The book alternates between the reproduction of Muir’s entire work, and pages devoted to Rowell’s contributions, highlighted by a different typography. For each of the 100 plates of photographs, Rowell not only selected a quote from Muir relevant to the photograph (as Philip Hyde would also do in his last book) but also answered Muir in his own words.

As a climber residing in Berkeley, Yosemite was naturally Rowell’s playground. Following in his footsteps, I also spent countless days hiking, climbing, and skiing in the park, eventually resulting in a book. Having memorized each of the turns on the road from Berkeley to Yosemite, I often tried to improve my personal speed record for the drive, until clocking in at what I thought was a respectable 2 hours and 15 minutes. I subsequently learned that Galen Rowell had bested David Brower’s record of one hour and half (source).

Rowell’s initial focus was on adventure. After the publication of his esthetic manifesto in Mountain Light, photography took first place. Rowell’s intimate familiarity with Yosemite has resulted in one of my two favorite color photography books of the park (the other one is William Neill’s). Although the landmarks are there, Rowell managed to create intensely personal images through attention to light, weather, thorough exploration of out of the beaten path locations (such as Ribbon Falls and Diving Board), and the inclusion of figures in the landscape. Not all images look impressive, but the more you know Yosemite and its iconography, the more you appreciate what Rowell did as a whole.

In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods

In 1975, Galen Rowell was invited to join the American expedition to K2, his first trip out of North America. In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods (1977) combines a particularly candid account of the human dynamics within the failed 1975 American expedition with an extensive recounting of former K2 expeditions. The first book he wrote and illustrated entirely, it is about mountaineering and climbers (rather than even the climb), however the photographs convey the beauty of the region.

Most of the book is devoted to the narrative, which has become a mountaineering classic. Small black and white reproductions of images from a number of photographers, including Rowell, serve merely to illustrate the narrative. In addition, six groups of eight plates reproduce Rowell’s photographs in color. They include many of the enduring images he would discuss in Mountain Light.

Mountains of the Middle Kingdom

It is in the Himalayas that Rowell’s life as an mountaineer-explorer blossomed. Inspired by the new frontiers, Rowell would combine his intellectual curiosity, writing, and photography into pioneering adventure photojournalism. In 1980 and 1981, Rowell travelled through all the eight mountain provinces of China – the first westerner to do so – climbing many peaks along the way. Mountains of the Middle Kingdom (1983) is “a rediscovery of mountain regions lost in history, created by a blend of past and present, exploration and politics, mountains and people”. After reading seemingly every book about the region, Rowell wrote with exceptional insight about the natural history, history, and politics of the region, adding mountaineering for good measure, in what became his trademark synthesis. In particular, although his sympathy lies with the Tibetan people, he manages to weave a nuanced story which neither follows the official Chinese nor Tibetan points of view.

The photographs in the book testify to the vast range of his interests, including landscapes, and cultural images. The book cover features his most famous image, “Rainbow over Potala”, which was taken on the first of his trips. Packaged by Yolla Bolly Press, the book design reproduces Rowell’s main color images on full pages. Expedition and historic images are incorporated to the text and reproduced in black and white. Galen would later upgrade the status of one of them, “Anye Machin in high winds” (p 164) by selecting it for Mountain Light – in color.

My Tibet, Text by his Holiness the Fourteenth Dali Lama of Tibet

In this first books, Rowell’s writing was as important as the images. Feeling that the most significant contribution he could make to the Tibetan cause was to make great photographs to show the world what should be preserved in Tibet, he strived to create a “visual record of one of the earth’s unique wild places”. From the start of the My Tibet book project, Rowell envisioned the writing to be by the Dalai Lama. The idea of such a respected political and religious leader commenting on images by an adventure photographer looked unlikely, if not preposterous. However, Rowell arranged an audience with the Dalai Lama, and during the slide-show that he shared with him, they bonded over their common passion for Tibetan wildlife.

My Tibet (1990) consists of photographs of varied subjects, paired with specific comments about them by the Dalai Lama, who also contributed a few essays. Those photographs defined how the world saw Tibet. Nobody had made a better portrait of the region, and nobody probably will, given the unfortunate changes that have occurred since then. Galen’s growing reputation allowed him to turn into a life-long advocate for the environment and culture in Tibet.

Poles Apart: Parallel Visions of the Arctic and Antarctic

The sub-polar regions have always been a fertile ground for adventure. Rowell’s all-around abilities excelled in their forbidding terrain, harsh beauty, and pristine condition. At the time of publication (1995), the poles hadn’t been reached yet by mass tourism. Like Eliot Porter’s, Rowell’s trip to the Antarctica was accomplished on scientific ships with the aid of NSF grants. The sense of exploration and discovery is palpable in the book. The photographs are impressive and inspired, striking a remarkable balance between fine art photography and photojournalism. Rowell aimed to make them accessible by balancing the unfamiliar with the familiar. He succeeded by mixing images of scenery, wildlife, and human interest – mountaineers as well as scientists and native inhabitants.

The organization of the book is original and compelling. Part one consists of 37 pairs of matching photos – one from the Arctic and one from the Antarctic – reproduced full-page on a spread, with a short caption. They reveal the fascinating similarities and differences between the northern regions and the southern regions. Part two contains 24 two page photo-essays on a range of topics. Most of the writing is in part three. It consists of comments on each of the photographs in parts one and two, providing a mix of background information and details on how he came to make the photographs.

Poles Apart is more photo-centric than his previous books. The photographs shine, with plenty of white space. They are well reproduced, at a size when their grain isn’t readily apparent. There is just enough text in the extended captions to provide understanding for the subjects, yet not overwhelm the photographs. The design achieves some of the best balance between information and photographs I’ve seen in a photography book. For all those reasons, I consider Poles Apart to be Galen Rowell’s best photography book.

Bay Area Wild: A Celebration of the Natural Heritage of the San Francisco Bay Area

After a lifetime of exploring far and wild places, Galen Rowell turned his lens towards his native San Francisco Bay Area relatively late in his life. His inspiration came upon his wife Barbara’s observation that the Bay Area’s parks offered more diverse landscapes than Costa Rica, a much touted ecotravel destination. “Though I had spent decades celebrating the grand design of natural areas around the world in words and photographs, I had looked right past the extraordinary rich and varied wild hills, valleys, deltas, bay, ocean, islands and mountains in my own backyard.”

Some say that you do your best work close to home. However, after traveling to the most spectacular places on earth, would Rowell find enough inspiration in the Bay Area ? “I’ve known all along that more of what I am seeking in the wild is right here in my home state of California than anywhere else on earth. But… I couldn’t say it with authority until I had all those journeys to Tibet, Nepal, Pakistan, China, South America, Antarctica and Alaska behind me”. Living conveniently near the locations allowed him to return frequently, resulting in some of his most carefully crafted landscape photography. Great variations of light and feeling characterize a mature vision. In this seemingly modest ground, Rowell produced images rivaling his work from remote corners of the earth.

For the text of Bay Area Wild (1997), Rowell chose to deliver a conservation message, highlighting environmental issues, and our responsibility to protect the planet, viewing the book as a “guide for other rapidly expanding metropolitan areas”. The Bay Area wildlife can be more elusive than in wilder places. To complete the project in a timely manner, Galen enlisted photographer Michael Sewell, who had spent years developing unusual techniques to capture wildlife images in the Bay Area. It is interesting that Sewell also contributed some landscape images which could easily have been attributed to Rowell. At a book signing, I asked Galen Rowell which of his books were favorites. He placed Bay Area Wild on his short list, together with Poles Apart, My Tibet, and The Yosemite.

North America the Beautiful

In this latter years, Rowell focused less on expedition-style photography than on more mainstream (if the term is appropriate for any of his photography) nature photography. As his Mountain Light business demanded more of his time, expeditions became shorter and less intense. North America the Beautiful was published by AAA (2001), and then reprinted by White Star (2006) and JG Press (2010). The book consists of portfolios organized by vast geographic regions, from Hawaii, Mexico, and the Caribbean, to Greenland, the Canadian Arctic and Alaska with the temperate areas in-between. Each of them is introduced by personal comments by Rowell about the region.

Because of the oversize format of 14.3 x 10.5 inch (largest of any of his books), and the availability of images by other photographers of some of the same subjects, the book shows some of the limitations of Rowell’s 35mm approach. The printing often appears overly grainy and lacking in tonality, particularly in colorful skies. Nevertheless, as the last book he wrote and photographed, North America the Beautiful sums up magnificently Galen Rowell’s life work in the natural areas of our continent.

Mountain Light: In Search of the Dynamic Landscape

One of the main subjects Galen Rowell had been writing about is photography. He was interested not only in the mechanics of the medium and the physics of light, but also in its cognitive aspects and its relationship to human perception. In his own photographic work, Rowell was particularly fond of optical phenomena in the natural world. He referred to his landscape photographs as “dynamic landscapes”: not only because of the fast-changing conditions, but also his strenuous pursuit of the best camera position at the optimal moment. His photographic practice could be summarized as: anticipate opportunities, seek edges (both geographic and temporal) and travel light.

Mountain Light (1986) developed those topics amidst a backdrop of inspiring travel narratives. The book is organized into 7 sections of short essays discussing various aspects of Rowell’s work, alternating with 8 “exhibits”, which consist of photographs thematically related, each accompanied by a comment on the context of the photograph. Galen understood that light is the primary ingredient for photographs. He looked for it to express peak moments in nature. The exhibits start with types of light: magic hour, backlight, soft light, sundown to sunrise, artist’s light. They end with dynamic situations: figures in a landscape, light against light, unexpected convergence.

I first realized that the type of mountain photography I was doing could be elevated to an art form through the words and images in Mountain Light, when a friend from North America shared his copy with me in the late eighties – Rowell’s name was hardly known in France back then. Although the book is almost as much about mountaineering than about photography, I still rank it as one of the all-time classic books about photography. Now it its 10th printing, it is one of the most successful how-to photography books, called “the classiest how-to text on landscape color photography ever published” by the New York Times. As an instructional book, what make it shine is that it teaches by example. Rowell teaches not by telling you what to do, but by telling you what he did, and what he thought at the time he took the pictures. In addition, the tone throughout is remarkably informal and honest. Unlike others, Rowell doesn’t hesitate to share his unsuccessful stories.

Galen Rowell’s Vision: The Art of Adventure Photography

In the later stage of his career, Rowell became an active photography educator. In 1987, Steve Warner invited him to write a column for Outdoor Photographer, which had launched two years earlier. I always considered that column to be the best part of the magazine, and judging by its popularity, I probably wasn’t alone. Galen Rowell’s Vision: The Art of Adventure Photography (1993) is a compilation of 60 of those columns, revised for publication as essays in a book. As you should expect from columns, the essays form wide-ranging musings, rather than a chapter book. Their topics cover equipment tips as well as philosophical discussions, often veering far from photography.

Part 2 (“Preparations”) include two innovative photographic techniques that Rowell used in order to extend the dynamic range to be captured on film. Many landscape photographers, including myself, credit Rowell with introducing them to graduated neutral density (GND) filters. The line of filters he developed in collaboration with Singh-Ray were at that time almost the only choice for exacting work. I remember driving to his Mountain Light gallery in Albany to purchase a set, which was handed to me by Gary Crabbe himself. Another less known contribution was his technique of using balanced fill flash to lighten the deepest shadows in a subtle way.

Galen Rowell’s Inner Game of Outdoor Photography

As Galen Rowell’s Outdoor Photographer column ran until his untimely death, there was enough material for a follow up. Galen Rowell’s Inner Game of Outdoor Photography (2001), the exact twin to Galen Rowell’s Vision, is likewise organized into four parts: Visions, Preparations, Journeys, Realizations. Like its predecessor, to keep it affordable, the designer found an ingenious solution. The 66 essays are printed on matte paper, with the illustrations vividly reproduced on glossy pages grouped into blocks, cross-listed with the essays. The trim was also kept smaller than photography books.

Of the four parts, three of them are essentially timeless. Like in the previous book, the first part, discussing various aspects of perception and the creative process, provide the most insight into photography. The third part relates travel experiences in a diaristic style, whereas the forth part articulates various thoughts on publishing, conservation, and the role of photography. Only sections of the second part, about equipment and technique, may sound outdated because they are specific to slide film.

Galen Rowell: A Retrospective

In 2002, on the same day as this post, Aug 11, Galen and Barbara Rowell perished in a small plane crash. A few years later, the editors of Sierra Club Books, Rowell’s primary publisher, compiled a magnificent tribute. Galen Rowell: A Retrospective (2006) is the only book to trace the entire arc of Rowell’s career. Numerous essays and comments are contributed by friends and associates from the many worlds that Rowell touched: mountaineering, conservation, publishing, and photography. Contemporary art is not one of them, but critic and curator Andy Grundberg writes in his essay “Rowell, with his 35mm equipment and adventurous spirit, was someone who both traveled light and traveled with the light. His faith in the revelatory powers of light as it appears on film coincided with a deep conviction in the power of images to reflect the aspiration of the human spirit”.

The 175 plates representing all the aspects of his career include most of his great “hits”. They benefit from the best reproduction of any of Rowell’s books by far, made possible by the new digital workflow which helped produce accurate colors and mitigate 35mm grain. The clean design, with plenty of white space, presents each of the seven chapters as a portfolio: The Mountain photographer, Expedition chronicles, Conserving the Wild, Asian Kingdoms, To the Ends of the Earth, Coming home, The Visionary Landscape. This sumptuous, oversize volume is the clear choice for an excellent overview of Rowell’s career. However, there is one missing component. The book was not put together by Galen Rowell, and feature little of his writing, even though Andy Grundberg points out that “what distinguishes Rowell’s photography was the pictures symbiotic relationship to narrative”.

Galen Rowell was a tremendously prolific photographer and writer, with credits over thirty books. I have limited this survey to the books on my shelf. I am sure I have missed good ones. What other books of Galen Rowell are your favorites ?

Part 5 of 5: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Virgin Islands National Park’s Hidden Gem: Salomon Beach

If you visit Virgin Islands National Park, you almost certainly won’t miss famous Trunk Bay and its neighboring beaches on the North Shore. On an extended stay, you may explore the wilder part of the island, on the side opposite to Cruz Bay, the island’s main town. However, it may come as a surprise that the beach I found the most photogenic in the entire park is not only a walking distance from Cruz Bay and the visitor center, but also pretty quiet despite that proximity.

What makes Salomon Beach a favorite is the presence of three small palm trees right on the beach, with taller palm trees quite close to the water. They lend themselves to a number of compositions that evoke a tropical feeling. No other beach in this National Park presents a similar configuration. Note that as the tree on the left is quite small, I sat down on the sand for this composition, to make sure its palms didn’t overlap with the trees fringing the beach.

Why is this very pretty beach out of the beaten path ? Salomon Beach is much quieter than other north shore beaches because it takes a bit of a walk to reach. It is only about 1 mile each way, but you are walking in the heat of the tropics. Most people don’t care about carrying their beach gear that far when they can park a short distance from other beaches. The beach is pristine, which means absolutely no facilities.

The trailhead is not obvious, although it starts right behind the National Park Visitor Center! The Visitor Center parking spots have a time limit, but you can get an extended parking permit inside. To start, climb the unmarked stairs on the side of the road opposite the Visitor Center, then veer left on the Lower Lindt Trail. You follow a well-maintained trail along the hillside before descending towards Salomon Beach on a steeper spur. If you continue 10 minutes on the main trail, you’ll reach Honeymoon Beach, not as pretty and more popular due the proximity to the Caneel resort. From there, you could return through the Upper Lindt Trail, which, unlike the Lower Lindt Trail, offers some views.

I’ve read that more people visit in the morning, maybe because the palm trees provide more shade on the beach at that time of the day. For photography, the light on Salomon Beach is best from mid-morning to sunset, precisely when the palm tree shadows are less distracting. In the late afternoon, the trees are better lit, but mid-day, the water is a more vivid blue turquoise. When I visited the beach, I had the whole place to myself in the late afternoon, before a party of three arrived before sunset. They promptly left after the sun set. I stayed alone for night photography. The distant lights of St Thomas provided some faint illumination. Photographed backlit, they looked like a setting sun, although they were dim enough to allow the stars to shine above. Some additional light from my headlamp helped enliven the image with the greens of the palm trees.

Four Camera Systems to Photograph In and Above Water

A particular equipment challenge occurs when you are photographing mostly above water, but you may be briefly drenched or submerged in water. To address a range of needs, I review four camera systems that I’ve used in those situations, in increasing order of complexity, cost, and image quality.

There is an entire industry dedicated to underwater photography. However, most underwater camera systems are overkill, and often not even usable in situations when most of the photography is above water, but the camera may also be submerged at a shallow depth, such as in rafting or canyoneering… or just a family holiday at the beach.

Phone: Moko flexible case

These days, the most commonly used cameras are phones. During our descent of Zion’s Mystery Canyon, everybody in our group (except me) took pictures only with a phone. It is easy to make a phone waterproof while maintaining its picture-taking functionalities.

In a pinch, a good ziplock bag protects a phone against a short submersion. Somehow surprisingly, the touch screen works just fine. An inexpensive IPX8 certified waterproof case uses the same idea, with a thicker plastic and a more reliable locking mechanism which is claimed to work underwater down to 98 feet.

Point & Shoot camera: Olympus TG

A mid-range P&S camera is a step-up in image quality, flexibility, and ruggedness. However, unlike for a phone, putting a camera in a waterproof bag reduces its functionality, as controls become difficult to operate. The solution is to buy a amphibious P&S camera, which does not require an enclosure.

Almost each major brand offers one. When I bought my first waterproof P&S camera, a Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS1, I relied on reviews emphasizing image quality and functionality. It died on the first trip, an easy Hawaii vacation. The one thing that you want to make sure is to buy a camera which is actually waterproof. With similar small sensor sizes, all those cameras yield comparable image quality.

When I looked for a replacement, I eliminated all the cameras that had any reviews on amazon with owners complaining about leaks. This led me to the Olympus TG-2. So far it is still working. Being shockproof and crushproof it is good for lending to the kids or to my wife! We can assume the current Olympus TG-4 is as durable, and offers better images- it has RAW capture that the TG-2 lacked.

Premium compact: Sony RX100 with Meikon UW housing

The Sony RX 100 ushered in the area of “premium compact” cameras. Its relatively large 1-inch sensor, RAW capture, and relatively good lens let it capture images significantly better than P&S cameras (some say almost DSLR-quality) while remaining pocketable. There is only one camera in this class which is waterproof, the Nikon 1 AW1, but, as you can see in the 1-star reviews, there have been complaints of leaks.

Instead of going this route, I bought an underwater housing for my RX 100. Being designed for scuba diving, those are tough, rigid boxes sure to keep your camera dry! They are dedicated to a specific camera model, and equipped with buttons and dials designed to match almost each of the camera’s controls.

Underwater housing for larger cameras are extremely bulky and heavy. This is not a problem underwater where they become weightless, but it makes them unsuitable for use above water. However, the RX 100 is so small that its housings are only the size of a chunky compact, very manageable above water. The other issue with underwater housings is that they are usually quite expensive: the ones sold by UW specialist Backscatter range from $475 to $1,250. However, in the case of the RX 100, the Chinese manufacturer Meikon makes an affordable housing sold with various branding. Similar housings are available for the RX 100 II, RX 100 III and RX 100 IV cameras.

Compared to the more expensive housings, the Meikon’s controls are not as smooth, and there is no way to rotate the central dial in the back, however by assigning carefully custom controls, it is possible to operate all significant functions.

DSLR: Outex

To shoot with your DSLR in a wet environment where the camera might be briefly submerged, there are only two solutions that I have found to be practical.

You can keep your camera in a small dry bag. When you want to photograph, you take it out of the dry bag. When there is a risk of submersion, you seal the dry bag.

If you want the camera to become waterproof so that you can keep it deployed at all times, the best solution I have seen is the Outex system. The Outex is IP08 tested, which means it can be submerged to depths of 30 feet, good enough for anything but scuba diving.

The other bag-based systems (such as EWA-marine) use a clear heavy vinyl. This let you see the dials, but the rigidity of the material makes it problematic to use any controls on the camera or lens other than the shutter release. A photographer I know liked it to “trying to use a camera with mittens designed for subzero conditions”. By contrast, the rubber used in the Outex is flexible enough to give reasonable access to controls above water. On the other hand, the Outex is totally opaque, so you need to be familiar enough with your camera that you can operate it without looking at the controls!

The Outex is a modular system. The basic system consists of a cover, optical lens, viewfinder adaptor, and viewfinder lens, all fitted to your camera body and lens (about $400). You need to be careful when ordering components, since Outex does not accept returns. If you don’t want to have to purchase multiple optical lenses, you should make sure to get the largest filter thread size you need, then adapt to smaller lenses with a step-down ring. Choose also carefully the main cover. For instance, the basic cover, with openings just at the front and back, cannot be converted for tripod use. If you ever plan to use a tripod, you need a cover with a hole for the tripod adapter.

Installing the Outex takes some effort, as you have to pull and stretch it over the camera so that it passes into openings that are smaller than it. You also have to make sure the pressure rings are properly screwed. It takes me about 10 minutes, so it’s not something you can take on and off easily.

For a while, I was frustrated by a serious design flaw: the viewfinder lens and adaptor does not stay in place in its slot. Once it falls off, it’s difficult to see through the viewfinder and it’s tricky to put back on, making the unit barely usable. However, I solved the issue with an easy (in hindsight) DIY solution: wrap a string around the top of the adaptor, tie it to the tripod mount in order to prevent the viewfinder lens from sliding up, keep the tension with a cord lock. Other problems which cannot be fixed are that the dials aren’t easy to turn (especially in the water), the viewfinder lens prevents access to some buttons, and it is not easy to see the viewfinder if you are wearing glasses.

In spite of those limitations, the Outex works. It kept my Canons dry while splashed by the rapids of the Grand Canyon and while wading in the pools of the Zion Canyons. I would not hesitate to use it again for similar outings.

Have you photographed in such situations where you most of the photography is above water, but the camera may also be submerged ? What was your equipment choice ?

Five ways to photograph the Zion Narrows (and other places) without people

The Zion Narrows are amongst the most unique hikes in America. For details, refer to my post: National Parks Photo Spot #10: Zion Narrows (whole series here).

The downside of accessibility and awesomeness is popularity. Compared to the canyons mentioned in the previous posts, the Zion Narrows can feel downright crowded. For photography, this is a problem, because the canyon is the “trail”. Yet, on a summer visit, I was able to make photographs without people in them, and even find some measure of solitude. Here are five ways to do so.

Hike further

If you want to see fewer people, hiking further always works. The Narrows are no exception. There, the threshold appears to be the Orderville Junction, which is only about 1.5 miles from the end of Riverside Walk. Most people turn around here, so if you continue, you’ll find considerably fewer people. Even at the Imlay Rock, only about 0.5 miles from the Orderville Junction, hiking traffic was sporadic.

Start early or stay late

During the summer, you cannot drive your car into Zion Canyon, but instead you must use the park’s free shuttle. The system has been great for relieving traffic congestion, but limits the day hike window. In the summer, the first shuttle starts at 6:00am from the visitor center. The last one leaves from the Temple of Sinawava at 9:15pm (schedule here). When traveling up canyon, I’ve noticed that the shuttles before 7:30am are quite empty.

The last shuttles are quite full, but it doesn’t mean that day hikers stay late in the Narrows, as the setting is more intimidating than regular trails. Hiking back from the Imlay Rock at around 6:45pm, I was rewarded by the experience of having the whole Narrows by myself. I didn’t see a single other person until the trailhead at the bus stop. I certainly had to work fast, but I still had enough time to make long-exposure photographs at several spots, and catch the 9:00pm bus – leaving myself a bit of a margin.

Photograph close-ups

Even when there is an almost continuous stream of hikers in the middle of the stream, if you photograph only one side of the canyon, you will find that most will have the courtesy to walk behind you.

Use a very long exposure

Sometimes, the light dictates you to photograph at a particular time of the day. If people in the scene are moving, they will not register in an exposure which is much longer than the time they stayed in the scene.

Blend multiple exposures

If you cannot use a shutter speed slow enough (for instance because it is quite bright and you forgot your ND filter) and waiting for all people to clear out from your picture takes forever, you can turn to Photoshop. It’s my last resort option, but at least, there is a way which doesn’t require too much work.

Erasing people from a single frame with the clone tool can be extremely time-consuming because you have to re-draw the background behind them. My preferred technique consists of using multiple exposures with the camera on a tripod and then blend the images. You just need to take enough pictures that each spot is free of people in at least one picture.

This example uses three pictures, and combines the right of picture 1, the middle of picture 2, and the left of picture 3. In Photoshop, layer the pictures, align them, then use the eraser tool on the people in relevant layers. It works like magic! You can also try File > Scripts > Statistics > Median (Photoshop Extended or CC required) to do the same automatically, but in my experience this works well only if you have at least a dozen pictures.

Although the examples in this post are from the Narrows, where it is more difficult to exclude people from the landscape than on regular trails, the ideas are applicable to other locations as well.

Zion Canyons: Part 5 of 5. 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5