Soft Water

Lower Calf Creek Falls, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Lower Calf Creek Falls, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

Shooting water in all its endless variety is one of the creative pleasures of nature photography. From drops of dew reflecting a crisp autumn morning to the power of cascading falls frozen in time, the camera allows many unique perspectives of our most abundant resource that are seldom seen in a passing glance.

A polarizing filter is a favorite tool for photographing water as it slows exposure and increases contrast, both of which serve to enhance the emotional response to a scene. While some may say this is altering reality, it’s good to remember that art is more about personal expression than documentation.

“Most creative photographs are departures from reality and it seems to take a higher order of craft to make this departure than to simulate reality.” ~Ansel Adams

This image of Calf Creek Falls in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was made on an overcast day with a long exposure of 20 seconds. The cloudy sky diffused the harsh mid-day light and saturated the colors of the moss covered rock, while the slow shutter speed gave the falls a silky look.

©Russ Bishop/All Rights Reserved

What You See Is What You Get

Sunset over the Channel Islands and Ventura Pier from San Buenaventura State Beach, Ventura, California
Sunset over the Channel Islands and Ventura Pier, Ventura State Beach, California

WYSIWYG (or “what you see is what you get”) is computer lingo for software that optimizes the screen display for a particular type of output. Back when word processing and desktop publishing software first hit the scene this was nothing short of a miracle. The software emulated the resolution of the printer in order to get as close as possible to WYSIWYG, but the main attraction was the ability to previsualize what you were producing prior to printing.

We now live in a far more advanced digital world of 4K monitors, massive image files, and the processors and video cards to handle them, but without color consistency across devices we might as well be living in the dark ages.

Monitor calibration has a reputation as being one of the great mysteries of digital imaging, but it really doesn’t have to be. Printing images that accurately represent what you see on-screen is a reasonable expectation that shouldn’t break the bank on wasted ink and paper. But unlike the out-of-box WYSIWYG experience you get when printing documents, your monitor requires a little assistance when it comes to images.

What you need is a spyder, and I’m not referring to those furry creatures lurking in your garage. Several companies sell highly accurate and reasonably priced kits like the Datacolor Spyder5Pro that include everything you need to guarantee that your output is consistent from screen to print. The spyder is actually a color sensor (called a colorimeter) that plugs into a standard USB port and works in tandem with software to read your monitor’s output. The process is known as calibration and it creates a custom profile that tunes your display to an industry reference standard, which is then used by image editing programs like Photoshop and Lightroom to provide consistent reliable color.

You trust your eyes and photo equipment when it comes to accurately representing your vision in the field, but it’s all for naught if your monitor doesn’t faithfully reproduce those tones and colors. Much like driving in the dark with your headlights off, editing images without a calibrated monitor is a guessing game. So before you buy another lens or camera body, don’t overlook one of the most important investments you can make as a digital photographer. A quality monitor and calibration kit may not be the most exciting gear you’ll buy, but they do guarantee that what you see is what you get.

©Russ Bishop/All Rights Reserved

The Value of Filters

Evening light on Watchman Peak above the Virgin River, Zion Canyon, Zion National Park, Utah
Evening light on Watchman Peak above the Virgin River,  Zion National Park, Utah

Back in the days when I shot film filters were an indispensable part of my technique that enabled me to control the light, balance dynamic range, and give a little extra snap to every image. Well guess what? Fast forward to the digital age and the same still holds true.

It’s easy to get caught in the trap of saying “I’ll just fix it in post”, but the truth is filters are every bit as important in the digital age as they were in the days of film. Photography after all is about shaping and controlling light, and whether your image is preserved in celluloid or pixels there is still no substitute for capturing the best possible image up front.

Two filters that I consider essential are the graduated neutral density (GND) and the polarizer. The GND is available in several densities with both hard and soft transitions allowing you to ideally balance the contrast in the scene. This magical filter works best for landscapes where the foreground is in shadow and the background has direct light. Through the viewfinder washed out clouds suddenly become more defined and foreground subjects emerge from the shadows and retain their natural color. Positioning the filter takes a little practice so that the transition seamlessly blends into the horizon and is not obvious in the final image.

The polarizing filter blocks scattered light rays to remove reflections from water and foliage, and definitely spends more time on the front of my lens than any other. By turning the filter you can control the amount of polarized light reaching the lens, which has the added benefit of saturating colors, darkening skies and increasing overall contrast. In addition, the polarizer works like a neutral density filter to slow exposure times allowing for a silky effect when shooting flowing water.

There are many other excellent filters available, but these two are a great starting point for creating more dynamic images and saving considerable time at the computer.

©Russ Bishop/All Rights Reserved

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua tree and star trails at night, Joshua Tree National Park, California
Joshua tree and star trails at night, Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Tree National Park in the southern California high desert east of Palm Springs is an exotic arid playground that stimulates the imagination and rejuvenates the spirit.

As a world-class rock climbing mecca, its multitude of quality climbs and ideal off-season temperatures attract athletes from around the globe. And then there’s the landscape – a surreal mix of granite boulders strewn across the park like a giant’s marbles, and the namesake Joshua Trees with their whimsical spiny branches that conjure images of Dr. Seuss characters. From a photographic standpoint it’s a paradise of grand proportions, and when the sun goes down the night sky puts on a show of its own.

At the junction of two ecosystems, Joshua Tree National Park is host to both the Mojave Desert to the north in the higher elevations, and the Colorado Desert to the south. The Joshua Trees thrive in the slightly cooler Mojave Desert in the western part of the park, while the lower Colorado portion plays host to a multitude of spring wildflowers, a cholla cactus garden and the lush Cottonwood oasis near the southern entrance.

Summer temperatures can be unbearably hot, but the rest of the year is ideal for photography, climbing, hiking or just soaking up the visual experience in this otherworldly landscape.

©Russ Bishop/All Rights Reserved