Photographing Desert Dunes

I’ve just returned from the Sultanate of Oman.  It is a fascinating Arab country on the Arabian Peninsula that has literally been built in the last 40 years from virtually nothing but sand. Where there were only camel paths, Bedouins and fisherman, there are now highways, homes, hospitals, schools and a modern society.

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But untouched are two of Oman’s great desert areas: Wahiba Sands and Rub Al Khali (The Empty Quarter).  I spent about 40 hours in each, shooting a total of four sunrises and four sunsets.

I learned pretty quickly about how to capture the desert dunes (and how not to!) and this should give you the head start I didn’t have if you are able to get to a desert with your camera.

I have wanted to photograph the dunes ever since I saw my first screensaver. The beautiful warm orange sands, the deep contouring shadows, the luscious curves…it all seemed like the perfect photographic landscape subject and I wanted in.

   A giant dune in Rub Al Khali, about 200’ tall…screensaver style.

A giant dune in Rub Al Khali, about 200’ tall…screensaver style.

I was pretty sure that I was looking for those giant majestic dunes that must tower 200-300 feet from the desert floor in order to get those sweeping curves and contours.  And that was my very first mistake.  I discovered quickly that the sense of scale in the desert is almost impossible to assess, especially with no elements to create a perspective of size.  Without a frame of reference in a photograph, like a person, a shrub or an old animal skull, a 10 foot dune looks just like one 100 feet tall.  The only exception is the wind swept ripples in the sand that are often, but not always present.

   This dune rose a whopping 15 feet, shot from about ten inches off the sand.

This dune rose a whopping 15 feet, shot from about ten inches off the sand.

 And so if we are going to photograph small dunes and large ones, what focal length lenses are needed?  Because I wasn’t entirely sure, I brought 14-24, 24-70 and 70-200 for my full frame Nikon D850.  As it turned out, the 14-24 was the most used, and I did make a few images from about 70-100mm, and almost never used the 24-70.  

The next thing I discovered that there’s a lot of hiking involved!  And its hiking in soft sand which means that you are actually best off barefoot.  You are moving from dune to dune looking for that perfect shape, that perfect complex curve, that perfect shadow.  And no backtracking because your own footprints will ruin the shot!  

   Once you’ve made footprints, there’s no going back to shoot that area. Go slow.

Once you’ve made footprints, there’s no going back to shoot that area. Go slow.

So off you go with your lens of choice, your tripod and remote release and your bare feet.  Oh, and some kind of serious headcovering.  Why?  As the sun goes down the wind comes up.  The desert cools very quickly and the superheated desert air quickly drops as it cools creating convection winds that blow during your perfect golden hour of shooting.  So, unless you want a free microdermabrasion session, use your head and neck covering of choice.  And forget about changing lenses, there’s too much risk of sand into your camera body.

   My feeble attempt at a turban. But I found out how useful they are, those bedouins are pretty smart!

My feeble attempt at a turban. But I found out how useful they are, those bedouins are pretty smart!

 You will begin to see the colors of the sand change about 45 minutes before sunset and about 5 minutes after sunrise.  And in each case, you have about an hour of prime shooting time. One of the tricky things I discovered is getting the warm orange sand with the blue sky.  I had to shoot with a warmer white balance to really get the sand color which kind of wrecked the sky color.  I also made some images to favor the sky color.  I did make the needed adjustments in post production which is helped by shooting all files in RAW mode.

   Getting a blue sky and orange sand is tricky. They’re at opposite ends of the color spectrum.

Getting a blue sky and orange sand is tricky. They’re at opposite ends of the color spectrum.

I also shot at my camera’s base ISO (which is 64) to get the finest grain possible. The closer the sun is to the horizon, the longer your shutter speed will be.  You’ll want the maximum depth of field, so that means you’ll be shooting at f/11 or smaller, so you have a corresponding shutter speed of 1/15 or even slower.  Your tripod and remote release are a must.

After the shoot your post-processing with be pretty minimal.  You may want some color adjustment and some use of the neutral gradient filter if you use Lightroom.  You may also want to emphasize the form of the dunes by converting some of your images to monochrome.  Using black point and white point, a bit of tone curves and some sharpening and that’s about it.

   Monochrome conversion emphasizes the shape and texture of the dunes.

Monochrome conversion emphasizes the shape and texture of the dunes.

The desert is a beautiful, magical place that was even better than I expected. I hope you have a chance to get to a desert and make some beautiful photos of your own!

   The light gets low…and warm.

The light gets low…and warm.

 

 

 

Photographing the wild horses of North Carolina

What is is about the form of a horse that evokes so much emotion? Is it their gentle nature as they gaze in a pasture? Or maybe the power of their muscles visibly flexing as they gallop? We have all seen horses in competition, at the track, maybe have ridden a time or two, and many of us have had the pleasure of being up close and personal. But the wild ones…

With no halter and reins, and their harem and only the open land, wild horses are truly a sight to behold…and to photograph. This past October I spent four days with wild horses on two barrier islands near Beaufort, North Carolina. Each island had two characteristics in common: you could only get there by boat, and there are no people or homes there. The horses are in charge.

On Bird Shoal is the Rachel Carson Reserve, over 2000 acres with a group of horses that tends to stay together, about 30 in total. On Shackleford Banks, the horses prefer to stay in harems, groups of one stallion, perhaps one or two mares, and any recent foals as the family unit. There are about 120 horses on the nine-mile long island.

  Shackleford Banks is the long thin island and the Rachel Carson Reserve is just above the west end.

Shackleford Banks is the long thin island and the Rachel Carson Reserve is just above the west end.

To photograph the horses, you need to find them. That’s not necessarily an easy task unless you have some understanding of horse behavior, and have some insiders knowledge about these horses in particular. Wildlife photographers quickly learn that you’ve got to do your research. Learn about your subject and their habits. I was very lucky to have the help of Jared Lloyd who conducts workshops in the area, Fred at ncwildhorses.com, and Captain Monty of Seavision Charters, who was incredibly helpful in understanding the horses behavior and feeding patterns.

A word about gear: as a Nikon shooter, my primary camera is a Nikon D850 and because I knew I would be walking (and walking and walking) through dunes, brush, mud and thigh deep water, I needed a light enough rig that would give me the reach I needed and not weigh me down during 3-4 hour shooting sessions at the beginning and end of the day. So I went with the recent Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 and the TC-14E III teleconverter. Some of the morning shoots I used the 70-200mm f/2.8 with the teleconverter as well. The combination is sharp, light and on the end of my monopod was just right to throw over my shoulder while moving around.

 Using a long telephoto lens doesn’t mean you have to be far away.

Using a long telephoto lens doesn’t mean you have to be far away.

Each day brought us to different light conditions and different activities. So what do wild horses do all day? Mostly eat. That means most of the time their heads are down, in the grass, munching. For a photographer that means patience is needed. Lots of patience. As with all wildlife photography, your goal should be not to interrupt the behavior of your subject. Looking for natural gestures in a natural setting will make your nature photography more meaningful.

Also, look for interesting abstracts or patterns. Sometimes its all about the eyes, but sometimes its not.

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Fortunately these horses see people quite often and are not frightened by them. You are permitted to approach as close as 50 feet but do remember they are wild, and therefore unpredictable. Sometimes, in fact, the horses may be curious about you and come in for a closer look.

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As my goal was to create photographs that feature the form of the horse I processed the images in monochrome. I processed the RAW files in Lightroom using the split-toning section, toning only the shadows.

If you are interested in photographing wild horses, there are several places around the country that you can find them. On the east coast, in addition to this area, the northern part of the Outer Banks as well as Chincoteague Island in Virginia. In the west there are wild horses in parts of Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada and South Dakota.

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How a photographer is busting the stereotype of Syrian refugees

I heard all the news reports beginning in 2012.  First it was a few hundred, then a few thousand Syrians killed by their own government.  Then tens of thousands.  I said to myself, wow, the world can't possible let this continue.  Eventually, as we now know, over a half million dead and 11 million displaced from their homes with almost half outside the country looking for a new place to live.

The photojournalists were instrumental in bringing all this to our collective attention and a few incredible images finally started the world moving. This amazingly sad photograph by Aylan Kurdi was among the most powerful.

I thought to myself, I'm no photojournalist, what can I do?

Have you ever felt that you had to do something, but didn't know what?  Have you ever felt that you're just one person, what difference can you make?

After seeing a presentation about a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, it hit me.  What do we really know about Syrian refugees?  Sure we see them trying to flee a war torn country and we see the despair in their eyes.  But so many people are unwilling to allow Syrian refugees to resettle in their country.  Is it because they don't really know them?

So I created a project called Open Minds, Open Doors.  I formed a team with a journalist, a researcher and me, the photographer.  We would find Syrian refugees who not only made it out of Syria, but who had successfully resettled and integrated into a new country.  We would interview them, and photograph them, and create an exhibit that would travel the USA introducing people to Syrian refugees and telling their story of hope and what it looks like when refugees and given conditions to thrive.

We raised just enough money for travel and in December we went to Berlin.  There, with the help of many NGO's and other contacts, we interviewed and photographed over a dozen incredible people that are making a new life for themselves in Germany.

I assembled a portable studio with a single soft box and strobe with a second stand to hold a narrow backdrop.  We'd shoot a full length portrait with some environment showing on either side of the backdrop, and a headshot.

 Here's my field kit with water jugs as stabilizing weights.

Here's my field kit with water jugs as stabilizing weights.

To keep the images consistent, I shot a Nikon D810 with the new Sigma 85 ART lens at a premeasured distance for each image.  We also interviewed each person and asked them questions about them as people, so we could really get to know them.

 We ask questions in english and arabic.  We hav a journalist and a translator.

We ask questions in english and arabic.  We hav a journalist and a translator.

The end result looks like this.  Here's Kefah:

And here's Farhan:

Each person we photograph will have two images displayed.  This month we'll travel to Toronto to interview and photograph more.  We've set up a Facebook page at facebook.com/openminds2017.  And this spring, after raising more funds to create the exhibit, we'll start touring the USA to educate, open some minds, and open some doors.

Is there something you want to do to to impact change?  Use the power of your will, and your camera, and make a difference.

How this image got from start to finish

On March 23 I was in Kearney, Nebraska to view and photograph the annual migration of the Sandhill cranes.  These birds are graceful, awkward, beautiful and kooky all at the same time.  They fly with grace, but while on the ground sometimes exhibit some of the funniest behaviors you'll see from a bird.  With a wingspan of up to 7 feet, these birds aren't the biggest, but they're some of the biggest most of us will get to see.

Every spring, hundred of thousands of them, 80 percent of the world's population in fact, gather in a 10 mile stretch along the North Platte River in Nebraska.  It is a sight, and a sound, to behold.  So on our way back from Wyoming to Massachusetts its always a good stop.  It's not always a great photo opportunity, though.  The weather can be bad, the light can be bad, and so on.  Plus, it's hard to get my wife to want to stay in the middle of Nebraska for very long!

This year there weren't as many cranes and they were hard to find at first.  I think we may have come a bit late in their migration cycle.  But once I found them, there they were.  The photographic problem was that it was heavy overcast, the light was flat and the cranes were acting skittish.  Usually I can approach them on the ground within about 50 yards and photograph them doing their thing with a telephoto lens, but this year I couldn't seem to get anywhere near them before they would hop or fly away.  Hmmm...  I started trying to get some flying shots.  Typically the flying shots aren't my favorite as there are lots of them out there and I try for something at least slightly unique.  But there I was with my tripod and long lens so I thought I'd point upward and see what happened.

I got this.

Yuck.

What was I going to do with that?  Well, I'll take you through my thought process, and then post-production process in the hopes that you may find it interesting to see how one photographer gets from here, to something that I think isn't too bad at all.

I didn't like this image at overall but there were a couple things that I did like.  The two birds at the top were in just about opposite points in the wing movement.  I thought that was interesting. But there were many things wrong.  Like the birds were way too dark.  The sky was drab. They were flying the wrong way!  (I like animals to move left to right, I have no idea why!)  And finally, the bird at the bottom was doing the same thing as the bird above it and that was boring.

So I checked the image to make sure it was sharp (that's the first thing I do) and decided to focus on the two birds on top.  I cropped it and flipped the image so they were flying the right way and got this.

Now, most photographers and artists will tell you that you should never have two of something.  One is OK, three is much better, but two?  And they're right.  But rules are meant to be broken and I though that because the two were so complimentary in their wing position that it just might work.  But it sure wasn't working yet.  I had obviously messed up the exposure allowing the sky to overpower my camera's meter and not compensating for that.  So the next thing I'd have to do was to adjust the exposure of the raw image from my camera.  After a little tweaking the image started to look a little better.

At least now you can see them!  But still boring.  Because the light was so flat, the contrast is low, the details were hard to see and one of the coolest features of the Sandhill cranes, their red bonnet, was not really evident.  But we have a few trick to fix those pesky problems, and once done, the picture was improving.

OK!  Now we have some nice looking birds.  But it's not much of a picture, is it?  No.  But why?  Maybe if the birds were closer together it would be better because they seem to be doing their own thing and now that I can see them, they appear more separated.  Maybe we should use just one of them.  No, wait, let's keep them both but ask them to move a little closer to each other.

Fortunately these are very obliging birds and once they were closer, and they appeared to be flying together, the image was starting to look like, well, something.  But it just wasn't quite right.

So I put it down for a day.  Sometimes it's better for me to get away from a project and let the brain work on it without my interference.  I came back the next day and looked at it again.  Now I had an idea.  What if the bird on the left were above the other bird rather than behind it?  That might make for a much more pleasing composition.

Now before you think to yourself "Hey, wait a second.  You can't just be moving these birds around willy-nilly.  That's not how they were in nature."  You're right, that's not how they were flying.  And if I were editing images for a nature or bird magazine I wouldn't accept this image.  If I were photographing trying to depict Sandhill cranes in their habitat I wouldn't be making these changes either.  I am making photographs as art, and just as a painter might position the birds in a pleasing composition, so does the photographer when creating art photography.  So let's move the birds a bit.  When we do we end up here.

  By moving the birds and squaring the crop, I now felt that I had a much more pleasing composition and I was starting to like it!  But we were not quite done.  As I looked at the overall image, it started to take on an asian art look to me.  So I thought I should accentuate that and give it an asian treatment.  And when I did, we have the finished product.

By adding a thick white border, a thin red border and placing some Chinese calligraphy I now have a piece that I am happy with.  I'll print his on a parchment style paper and I think it will look pretty good.

If you scroll back to the top and remind yourself of what we started with, you can see that we've come a long way, but we have maintained the integrity of the subject, which is very important.  I'd love to hear what you think of this and what images you may have overlook that you might go back to.  Thanks for reading and your comments are welcome and appreciated!

A photographer writes: Lynsey Addario's "It's What I Do"

I have always been drawn to conflict photography.  If every picture tells a story, great conflict photographs speak volumes and the photographers behind each image have been the source of endless thought and speculation.  "How do they get access?  "How do they handle the stress?"  "What possesses them to put themselves in harm's way?"  Last month I bought "It's What I do - A Photographer's Life of Love and War" by Lynsey Addario.  Addario is a foreign correspondent photographer who has spent her time behind the camera in the world's most dangerous places, at the very worst times.

The book tells the story of a photographer coming to grips with her craft, competing in a world that does not favor her gender, and the balance between life in the trenches of war and the neighborhoods of her personal life when she returns from an assignment.

But for me "It's What I Do" chronicles the evolution of Lynsey's personal photographic style.  Cutting her teeth on last-minute assignments, dispatched by editors managing gaggles of freelancers, starting to travel to unfamiliar lands, navigating the landscape and making up the rules as she goes along, on to reaching journalistic heights with meaningful work that impacted governmental policy, to finally moving from deadline driven frenzy to creating art.  Ultimately the story is Lynsey's journey to understand her subjects so deeply she finds beauty in despair - and captures it for all to see.

That part of the story resonates with many photographers who spend sometimes years evolving their photography into something that ultimately satisfies the reason they picked up the camera in the first place.  Lynsey's search and drive for the truth is what turns this book into such a personal journey.

In a particularly poignant passage, Lynsey is on assignment for National Geographic and, just few months after her release from being held captive in Libya, she feels that in order to get the real story of her assignment, she must venture into Somalia, widely regarded at that time as none of the very most dangerous places a journalist can go.  And she does go, because she simply has to.

The book is liberally sprinkled with photographs and is tough to put down.  "It's What I do - A Photographer's Life of Love and War" by Lynsey Addario is published by Penguin Press.

Photos used without permission and I hope its ok!


Waiting...

I spend a lot of time waiting.  Most photographers do.  I wait for the clouds to be just right.  I wait for the wildlife to do something other than yawn or chew.  I wait for the sun to get lower in the sky.  But I have found that patience is very often rewarded.  While I'm waiting I see other photographers come on to the scene, shoot and leave.  Then a few more.  Then a few more.  And I'm still waiting.  

Sometimes I think that the waiting is futile.  And, sometimes it is.  But often, something good happens.  What do I do while waiting?  I have to keep at least one eye on what's going on, and a finger near the shutter, so reading and playing solitaire on my iPhone are out.  I catch up on the news on the radio, I think about my family and friends, I remember all the things I forgot to do yesterday and vow to remember them.  And then...

The sun just peeks over the horizon, and the shot is made.

And then...

The excitement runs right in front of you, and the shot is made.

And then...

The light streams through the window, and the shot is made.

The waiting is never fun, but the payoff is often there.  So grab your camera.  Find a good spot.  Then wait.  And let me know how it turns out.

 

New Exhibit

I'm happy to to share the news of a new exhibition of my work during the month of March at the Whitney Center for the Arts - Gallery W in Pittsfield MA. There will be 14 photographers represented. They will show six of my photographs. I have been in Jackson Hole, WY all winter so we printed the images out here and shipped them today to the gallery. Here's the poster for the exhibit.

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This is from this morning at the frame shop.  Each image was printed about 30x 45 and mounted on gator board.  They'll be hung unframed and they actually look quite good at this size frameless.  Just checking the mounting...

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If you are near the Berkshires stop by!  If not any know anyone who will be in the area, it will be a great exhibit with a total of 14 photographers.  

A visit to Cape Cod

We spent last weekend in Osterville, MA, a small community in what's called the mid-cape.  Just behind our marina the marsh grass in the afternoon light was just perfect.

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Grand Opening.

Well, I haven't hired any clowns and there won't be klieg lights sweeping the sky, but we have opened our web shop for framed and unframed prints!  Like any legit grand opening, we're starting with a sale.  So here it is: now through the end of the month, all prints are 40% off!  That's a real sale.  To get it, you'll use the code AZEHBL at check out.  At the top of this page just click Buy Prints, and jot down the code for 40% off.  Every image on the site is in the shop so the sale applies to them all.  Thank you for looking!
 

Photos in a Series

Sometimes a single image needs friends.  I'm sure you've seen photographs that work as a series; where one just doesn't seem like enough.  Combined with another three or four in a similar style or subject, suddenly it all works.  I've been thinking about the concept of a series lately and today I shot some images in Boston's financial district that may just work as a series.  I'd love to know what YOU think.  

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Leave me a Comment to let me know what you think.  Thanks! 

A new website.

Talk about a fresh start.  The 'old' website was starting to get comments...like "it's ugly."  Then along came my son and daughter to rescue.  As a birthday present.  "Dad, we're going to make you a new website."  Gotta love kids who turn a negative into a positive!

So here we are with a new look, a new selection of images, and hopefully it isn't ugly!

This blog will be connected to the facebook page, because we all have to be connected, don't we.  The facebook page is at Facebook.com/MSCPix or you'll see little facebook icons on this site's pages, for easy access.

So if you run across this page in your web travels, just drop a quick "Hi" in the comments to let me know you've visited.  I promise the next blog post will be full of free stuff, sex and a great new ice cream flavor.