Friday, January 31, 2014

Planning a Photo Trip

I enjoy traveling, I enjoy photography, and I enjoy planning my photography trips. I admit, I'm a compulsive planner when it comes to travel, though not elsewhere in my life. I've learned how to wring the absolute most out of my trip; this is the planning process that works for me. 

First Steps
Pick a location: I have a list of places I want to shoot, a list that only gets longer. I have found that photographing a location makes me appreciate it more than if I just visited.  I fell in love with the Southwest after I went to Arizona for a conference and had a free day to shoot in the Tucson area. I had been to the Southwest a number of times, but having a camera helped me really see it.

Pick a time frame: Most people take vacations in summer; I prefer to travel when most others have to stay at home (i.e., after school starts). First, it will probably be less expensive. In many areas hotels want to fill empty rooms and they offer attractive rates during the off-season. Since lodging may be my single greatest expense, this can make a real difference in my travel budget (my hotel bill is often half what it would be during high season.)  Airfares may be a bit lower as well, although I'm not sure I save much. Car rental rates are usually lower. Finally, and maybe most importantly, popular destinations will often have many fewer visitors, which can mean better photo opportunities and quieter locations.

The cooler seasons provide other advantages. Winter skies are usually free of haze and the days are shorter. That may sound like a disadvantage; however if I'm shooting sunrises, sunsets, and throughout the day in between, it's nice to have a shorter day. Otherwise, I'm getting up at 0400 to catch the sunrise and returning to my hotel sixteen hours later after sunset and maybe some night shooting. I've done it, but I prefer a more leisurely day. Finally, because the winter sun is lower on the horizon I can get some interesting light and shadows, and backlit scenes that would otherwise be flat and uninteresting. 

Android: Terrain Maps
One of SunSurveyor's Screens
Finally, I take a look at the lunar calendar as I usually try to time my visit with the full moon. I use The Photographer's Ephemeris to get moonrise, moonset, sunrise and sunset times for any place on earth, any day of any year and visually show me the location of both sun and moon at any time. I have an app on my Android phone, SunSurveyor, which is a great on-site and planning tool. (There is a iOS version as well.) It shows me the locations of the sun and moon at any time, and the times of the golden and blue hours. There is a virtual mode that lets me see in real time where the sun and moon will be while I'm on location. You have to see it to believe it. 

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Shooting the Lower Antelope Canyon

The Antelope Canyons in the Page, Arizona area, are hugely popular with photographers, and for good reason. They offer unique opportunities to capture the colors, shapes and textures of the sandstone walls and overhangs. The colors change as the sunlight, filtering down through the narrow slots, changes in angle and intensity. The canyons have become something of a cliche for outdoor photographers, but there's no escaping their beauty. If you're in that area, they are definitely worth your time.However, popularity creates problems. Others had warned me how crowded it could be, and I saw them literally trucking in visitors to the Upper Canyon, even in mid-December in freezing weather, so I decided not to shoot there. However, I did enjoy the Lower Antelope Canyon, which is located nearby but which is an entirely separate operation. Go about 11 AM for the best light. A two-hour photographer's pass is $36 and well worth it. You must show them your DSLR camera and a tripod; a point-and-shoot condemns you to touring with a guide and perhaps 8-10 others, all of whom are getting into each others' (and your) way. They are strict about the two-hour limit, but that's enough time if you keep moving.

Shoot with a wide-angle lens at fairly high ISO (400) and don't plan on switching lenses in the canyon: it's very dusty and the sand is extremely fine and can get in everywhere. (One gentleman who was shooting at the same time as me, inexplicably removed his lens and accidentally dropped it onto the sand. We did what could to blow and brush the sand out, but I think he was looking at a professional cleaning.) Take a rocket blower and brush in with you and check your lens occasionally. I used a 12-24mm (DX) lens and was very pleased with the quality of my images. However, a tripod is a must and I recommend a cable or IR remote. Of course, shooting RAW is a good idea, as it usually is elsewhere. Look up, look behind you; walk a few yards and repeat. The possibilities are endless. It's impossible to take too many images.

You'll be moving through some tight spaces, so travel light. I foolishly carried my photo backpack into the canyon, but should have left it in the car. My vest would have been sufficient to carry the few items I really needed. There is some climbing up and down metal stairs and ladders, but if you are careful you can manage them while carrying your camera and tripod.
I processed my images in Lightroom. Because of the variations in light, there can be a large tonal range and lighter areas can quickly blow out. I did not shoot HDR (I'm not a big fan) but Lightroom really did a good job opening up the shadows and toning down the highlights.