Africa Through Larry's Eyes

Note: this post is about our Botswana Safari from June 2018, and is excerpted from Muench Workshops’ guest Larry Blau's trip reports, thanks Larry! You can see more of Larry’s trip reports here

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Bush Planes and Camp Arrival. This plane was a one engine prop that held all ten of us plus the pilot. I sat next to the pilot. The flight was forty five minutes. As the plane got closer to the Kalahari , the terrain was turning into more desert. There were sporadic watering holes and we started to notice wildlife around the watering holes. We passed by a large single elephant and some zebra. We then landed on a dirt runway. The plane pulled up to two open air safari vehicles, our safari guides were were waiting for us. Our Camp was about a fifteen minute ride away from the airstrip. We finally arrived at Camp Kalahari.

As we walked into the Camp, a large bull elephant greeted us. The camp staff told us that this elephant stays around the Camp and they have named him “George”. How amazing this was. I was awestruck by the size and beauty of this animal. 

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Night Game Drives. It was now time to board the open air vehicles for some night photography. We were going looking for Aardvarks. Aardvarks are nocturnal. You may think that we are in a desert, but it is quite cold at night. Our guide had a huge flood light and and as he drove, kept on scanning the high grass for nocturnal animals. We came across a springhare, but he called it the "African Kangaroo". It is a small animal, with a long tail that hops through the grass. We also came across two porcupines. I did not know that they are nocturnal. The driver finally spotted an Aardvark. They are funny looking creatures with large ears and look similar to a giant mouse. He stopped the vehicle and the Aardvark crawled into a hole. We all got out and saw the Aardvark digging inside the hole, deeper and deeper he went. A great sighting, but not a photograph this time! What an interesting day this was. I could have never imagined that I would one day be in the Kalahari Desert and stay in a Safari Camp.

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Wakeup call. Before sunrise we are greeted by a soft knock at the tent, and a voice: (softly, lilting, and getting a tiny bit louder, each time), “hello….”, “helloooo….”, “good morning…”, “hello…”. What a beautiful way to wake up. The voice brings coffee and tea and a morning biscuit to us in our tent. Now it’s time to hop in our custom land cruisers and head off to the meerkats. Our local guide, gave us a great narrative on the family structure of meerkats. There is one alpha male and one alpha female. The alpha female is the one who normally gives birth to offspring and the others help raise them. We eventually arrived at their den, after sunrise, and just waited around for the first one to appear. The way you normally take pictures of meerkats is that you get down on your stomach and lower yourself to their height. The first one appeared. When they come out they turn their heads almost three hundred and sixty degrees looking for any predators such as foxes, eagles and small mammals. Eventually the whole family came out, including the young, to warm themselves. By that time most of us were lying on our stomachs waiting for them to do something and clicking away. They then started to move away from their den and forage for food, digging for insects and scorpions. Such beautiful, tiny, cute, social creatures, I was deeply moved!

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The San Bushmen. This afternoon, a group of San Bushmen came to the Camp. There were men, women, and children dressed in their traditional clothing, which consisted of hides with some ornaments. They then took us for a nice long bush walk and spoke to us about all the grasses and plants they eat and use for other purposes. A woman stopped at a bit of long grass and started to dig. She eventually dug up a huge tuber which was the size of a volleyball. She handed the tuber to one of the men and he shaved off some of it and showed how they squeeze out the watery liquid inside. Survival. He then handed it back to her and she reburied it to grow some more. These people live off the land. They are not farmers, but they do hunt. They showed us a tree that they make poison from and then put the poison on arrows to hunt game. They eat everything they kill and are very responsible towards the land. They then led us to a large watering hole where we took some great pictures of them as the sun set. The sunsets here are truly awesome, the colors cannot be described. What a way to end the evening, enjoying a campfire next to a Makgadikgadi watering hole surrounded by a dozen San bushmen!

Dinner. Dinner was very tasty beef and a potato pie. I then went back to my tent, and as I walked back, I almost walked into George. Remember him? He is the local elephant that roams around Camp. George walked right by our tent and as I write this I can still hear him outside roaming around. How wonderful to be a guest in the animals’ world!

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Truly The Middle of Nowhere. We then boarded our quad bikes and it was off for a ninety five kilometer ride over the Makgadikgadi Pan. Once we got out to Salt Pan, we really opened them up to about seventy km/h or 45 miles per hour. I felt exhilarated and refreshed. We were in the middle of nowhere and going to some place I had never even heard of. The quads created some dust and we were wearing turbans over our heads, Lawrence of Arabia style. The sun was very intense, but it was not extremely hot. We stopped for lunch in the middle of nowhere.  We made our way over this flat type of topography sand could see what looked like water in the distance. Of course, those were mirages. At age 69 I was driving a quad cycle over the Makigadigadi Salt Pan. What an experience. Sometimes the drive was through curves and around and through tall grasses that looked like dune grass. When we had to go over rocks we had to slow down and the rocks created quite a bumpy ride. We finally arrive at “Lost Island of the Baobabs.” Baobabs are weird looking trees that have huge trunks and some of them are over one thousand years old. They are only found in a few places in Africa, Madagascar, Arabia, and Australia. This is no ordinary island. I see that there is a full kitchen setup, and dining tables, sleeping areas, and changing tents. Home for a couple nights of night photography! We shoot amazing sweet light landscapes of these magnificent baobabs at sunset, and then blue hour afterward. Then our camp staff serves us an amazing three-course bush dinner, under the stars and guarded by one of the largest baobabs. After dinner, we all go just outside camp and set up for our all-night star trail and time-lapse photography. We are intent on capturing the Milky Way behind the beautiful baobab silhouettes. Once set up and ready, I am about to call it a night and crawl into my large sleeping bag on the ground. We were not using tents. Just us all lined up in sleeping bags on the ground with the stars as our ceiling. The sleeping bag has a hot water bag in it. I wonder why?

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An Amazing Wildlife Experience. I had an amazing photography experience our last morning in the Kalahari. Knowing that my chances are almost zero that I will ever return to this remote part if the world, I hoped that the Kalahari would give me a grand send off and she did. We started our morning by all meeting at 6:00 AM for our game drive to look for wildlife. As the sun began to rise, we came across a large herd of wildebeests grazing and playing. The sun was rising in the background that created a beautiful scene. We then drove and drove looking for some more wildlife. Our guide and we decided to look for the lion that had been spotted over the previous days. We drove and drove but saw nothing. Finally we got out to the start of the Makgadikgadi Pan and then we spotted them. Two lions, male and female, and the male was following the female. It is unuasual to see lions in the Makgadikgadi and since there was no grass around, they were both visibly outstanding. Each sat down facing each other. Then the fun started. The female started to taunt the male. The male chased the female a little and then the female gave up. The five of us couldn’t believe what we were seeing and couldn’t stop clicking. A little about lion breeding. Lions breed for three straight days in twenty minute intervals and do not eat during this time. The alpha male normally has a few females. The females are the hunters. The males are kept by the females and their only purpose is to breed. What an animal. If a female gives birth to cubs that are not the alpha males cubs, then he will kill them. The urge to pass on the alpha males genes is very strong. This is what the Kalahari gave me for a going away present. My images appear to be outstanding.  Being in the right place at the right time. A memory that will last forever. Thank you, Kalahari!

Africa has gotten into my soul. The serenity, calmness, stillness and beauty of the bush is tranquilizing. You lose track of everything outside and appear to be engulfed in a world that is far away from everything. For me, it was mental, spiritual, and photographic nirvana. 

How I will cope with the reality of being back is for another day.

—Larry Blau

 

 

 

Health Challenges of High-Altitude Adventure

By Gordon Saperia, MD, FACC

(Note: Gordon is a good friend of Muench Workshops and a physician (cardiologist). But he's not your health care provider and we suggest you discuss all the medical issues raised in this article with yours.)

Even though I knew we would be at about 16,000 feet above sea level, I hadn't fully realized how much of a challenge altitude would be before setting out on the 2018 Muench Workshops trip in the Atacama Desert in Chile. After all, who gets altitude sickness in a desert? Nevertheless, the first time I was seriously concerned happened shortly after we arrived in our home base of San Pedro de Atacama (8,000 feet; 2,437 meters). One of my fellow travelers felt ill, and then promptly collapsed to the restaurant floor with a very slow heart rate and a low blood pressure. At the local medical clinic, the physician concluded that high altitude was indeed the cause of our companion’s medical issue and that he needed to transfer to a hospital an hour away. Fortunately, he made a substantial recovery overnight from what was later determined to be a gastrointestinal infection and rejoined the group. The second time I became concerned about the altitude was  24 hours later when, after a short car ride to 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), we began hiking a slight incline—my significant shortness of breath was now an existential problem and had me briefly concerned for the rest of my trip. Fortunately, I had not fully acclimatized and within two additional days I was dramatically more comfortable—even at 15,992 feet.

  photo ©Gordon Saperia

photo ©Gordon Saperia

For many of us passionate landscape photographers, our bucket lists include hiking at high altitude to view some of the world’s tallest and majestic peaks (think Everest, Denali, Mount Kilimanjaro, Nanga Parbat, and the peaks that surround Atacama). We dream about the beauty of the tall mountain and its surrounding landscape, crave a short time away from the complexity of our daily lives, and seek the opportunity to bathe ourselves in the culture of others. To enjoy high altitude adventure and photography anywhere in the world, there are some helpful things to consider.

Good general health coupled with being physically fit  is essential to meet the dual challenges of being above 9,000 feet and long days of hiking. In advance of travel, a routine of regular physical exercise, including some training for trails that are at times steep, is a must. Other health challenges include solar eye damage (snow blindness), waterborne diseases, dehydration, and painful blisters. For those who are trekking, the following preventive strategies should be kept in mind:

  • Do not push yourself beyond your physical and psychological ability. 
  • Attempt to get as much restful sleep as you can. However, avoid sedative type medications as they interfere with breathing. 
  • Stay properly hydrated. Climbers aim to keep their urine “gin clear” as simple evidence of adequate hydration.
  • Consistently wear sunglasses when the sun is out. 
  • Pretreat drinking/cooking water by boiling, filtering or other method. Waterborne pathogens, such as giardia, are present even at high altitude.
  • Wear properly fitted and tested foot wear. Protect “hot spots” on your feet before they become blisters with protective tape (duct tape actually works well).

You should consider carrying the following medications in addition those which you take on a regular basis:

  • Metronidazole or tinidazole (for giardiasis)
  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol®)
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as Motrin or Advil
  • Oral benzocaine (Orajel®) (for unexpected dental pain)
  • Dexamethasone (Decadron®) and Acetazolamide (Diamox®) for altitude illness (discussed further below) 

Good health and proper training will lessen but not eliminate the possibility of high-altitude illness. Altitude illness (sickness) is really a spectrum of medical problems that occur when the rate of ascent exceeds one’s ability to acclimatize (adjust). It manifests most often in a person who lives near sea level and then travels to high altitude (generally over 2,000-2,500 meters). Symptoms are uncommon below this altitude and more prevalent above 2,500 meters. Severe medical problems rarely arise below 3,000–4,000 meters. Individuals may also become symptomatic when ascending further when already at high altitude. Even with careful acclimatization, some individuals may develop one or more symptoms of high-altitude illness.

The symptoms discussed below are caused by the reduction in oxygen available as the altitude (above sea level) increases (the air becomes “thinner”). Since our survival is dependent on our ability to supply oxygen to vital organs such as the brain and heart, we have developed mechanisms to help compensate for low oxygen environments. The capacity to acclimatize varies greatly among individuals and is dependent on many factors. The body begins to adjust within minutes of ascent, but requires several weeks to complete the process.

A good example of planned acclimatization is the Muench Workshops trek in Tibet. The following is a summary of the peak altitude during the first days:

  • Day 1 (Xining): 7,500 feet (2,300 meters)
  • Days 2, 3, and 4 (Lhasa): 12,000 feet (3600 meters)
  • Day 5 (Shigatse): 12,800 feet (3,900 meters)
  • Day 6 (Shegar): 12,000 feet (3,650 meters)
  • Day 7–14 : 15,300–17,000 feet (4,600–5200 meters)

As mentioned above, most individuals do not experience high-altitude illness, or may develop only mild symptoms, particularly with proper preparation. However, severe high-altitude illness is not predictable and can occur in the healthiest and most physically fit individuals. It is not possible to predict one’s threshold, in part because there may be genetic determinants. That said, for those of you who have “done well” at high altitude in the past, you are likely to do well on most high-altitude photo adventures. Other factors including obesity, strenuous exertion upon arrival at altitude, a past history of high-altitude illness, a rapid rate of ascent, and alcohol use are predictors of altitude sickness.Interestingly, it turns out that age has not been shown to be an independent predictor of the development of high-altitude illness.

At one end of the spectrum of high-altitude illness is acute mountain sickness, which is a term that is used when symptoms remain mild. Mild symptoms resemble those of an alcohol hangover and include headache, fatigue, lightheadedness, lack of appetite, nausea and vomiting, difficulty sleeping normally, and mild shortness of breath with exertion. Life-threatening illness such as cerebral edema (swelling of the brain) and pulmonary edema (water in the lungs) can develop, particularly when mild symptoms are ignored. Severe symptoms include irritability, confusion, inability to think clearly, drowsiness, or stupor, and shortness of breath at rest or with mild exertion and cough that is often accompanied by pink, frothy phlegm.

There are some measures that can be taken to reduce the risk—prevention—of developing symptoms. Taking time (days) at the beginning of the trip to get used to high altitude is the best way to avoid symptoms. After initial acclimatization, gradual ascent is recommended. In general, once above an altitude of about 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) ascent of more than 1,000 feet (305 meters) per day is not recommended. In addition, most experts recommend that climbers stay really well-hydrated and avoid alcohol, which may depress breathing. Experts within the medical community have differing opinions as to whether the drug acetazolamide is effective when used prophylactically particularly if ascent can be gradual. In addition, the medication has a few undesirable side effects.

For individuals who develop mild symptoms, treatment includes rest, hydration. Mild analgesics such as acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) usually are helpful. In patients with more severe symptoms, acetazolamide (Diamox®) is given. Patients with cerebral or pulmonary edema are often prescribed steroid drugs (dexamethasone) and need prompt expert attention, including the possibility of evacuation. If you have anything more than minor symptoms, it is best not to continue your ascent. When possible, take an extra rest day to help the acclimatization process.

Prior to any high-altitude trek, you might want to ask your travel organizer the following questions:

  • Will you be carrying oxygen?
  • Is there a plan to bring guests with altitude sickness to a lower elevation?
  • Who will be our local guides? What is their experience level?
  • Will there be sherpas or others to help carry bags?

In addition, everyone should get approval from their health care providers for high-altitude trekking. The following are questions that you might want to ask:

  • Do you have any reservations about the trip I’m planning?
  • Do I need to change any of my medications while I’m travelling?
  • What pills do you recommend I take with me?
  • Do you recommend that I take acetazolamide to prevent altitude symptoms?
  • I have high blood pressure; should I get my blood pressure checked on my trip and do you recommend any changes to my medications before I go?

But let’s get back to the good stuff. High altitude locations are amazing photographic locations and any workshop or trip to high places such as Tibet should be one of the travel highlights of your life. All you need to do is plan your trip wisely, follow instructions, let your leaders know if you’re not feeling well, AND have a terrific time.

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Into the Air

A primer on aerial photography
by Randy Hanna

I started flying during high school and have been flying ever since. In the Army, I had an opportunity to fly helicopters in an elite aviation unit and learned countless lessons. Although I still enjoy flying, if given the choice, I would rather be photographing from the air than flying—which is a major departure for me. This primer is based on both a view from the cockpit as well as that of a photographer, and specifically for a helicopter as a shooting platform.

There is no doubt that aerial photography is challenging, demanding, and frustrating—unless you have an understanding of the basics. Once understood, you will find yourself wanting to fly just about every chance you get; I know I certainly do.

A VIEW FROM THE COCKPIT

The cockpit, quite frankly, is a very busy place. It is where failure to pay attention to detail can lead to catastrophic results. That said, a well-executed aerial shoot can be not only successful but also exciting. The job of the pilot is to balance his workload in such a manner that is complementary to your shooting requirements. To do so, he or she has to have certain things from you, the photographer, right from the start.

PRE-FLIGHT PLANNING

I believe that the flights which yield the fewest number of high quality images are largely due to poor planning, no planning, or ineffective communication. If you jump into the aircraft and say ‘let’s go,’ when you should have previously discussed objectives and done some route planning, you will get a scenic flight rather than a photo flight. It is your responsibility to share your objectives and shooting priorities with the pilot. You should also make use of photography planning tools such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris or Sun Seeker and integrate these into your discussion about shooting directions in order to handle shadows and light. The best approach is to communicate your desires to the pilot several days in advance, so he or she can do the necessary flight path planning, check on local restrictions, assess weather conditions, and Notices to Airmen (NOTAM) for last minute issues that could impact your flight.

COMMUNICATING WITH YOUR PILOT DURING THE FLIGHT

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As I said before, it can be busy up front. When I am flying, it is not uncommon for me to be listening to three or four radio channels concurrently plus communicating with the passengers, and oh, yes, flying the aircraft. Don’t be alarmed if the pilot asks for no talking until they get beyond the traffic control area or the congested area. During your safety orientation would be a good time to work with your pilot on desired instructions; in other words, make sure you both are on the same page when it comes to telling him or her how to position the aircraft. Yes, it is your responsibility to tell the pilot how you want the aircraft positioned. One example of this necessary communication would be working together to keep the rotor blades out of the photo. Both of you have a part to play in this. You can rotate the camera up and down; however, your composition may dictate a camera position in which the blades could be in the top of the frame. By using a rehearsed command to the pilot such as ‘tips up’ or ‘bank left / right’ will tell the pilot that he or she needs to rotate the aircraft to the right (or left) along its center axis, thus tipping the blades out of the photograph. Working together and using common commands, this is easy to do.

SHOOTING POSITIONINGS IN THE AIRCRAFT

I always fly in a doors-off configuration. If I have to shoot through the window, I’m really not interested in flying. In aircraft that will support it, I prefer to position all shooters on the same side of the aircraft. This simple trick reduces orbit time around any given point of interest. If shooters are working on both sides of the aircraft, you will find the aircraft pivoting around a point to the left and then to the right to ensure everyone gets their shots. With everyone on one side, it only requires a single orbit, and then you are off to the next location. This positioning will save you lots of time, and time is money with these machines.

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Helicopters, in particular, have a more pronounced slipstream than many other aircraft. As the aircraft moves through the air, the airstream moves across the fuselage in many different directions.

As long as you don’t penetrate this slip stream, you are just fine. As soon as you penetrate the slip stream, you will feel the full force of wind associated with forward flight. When you find it difficult to hold your camera in one position, it is a sure sign that you are in the slipstream. Simply lean back into the aircraft and you will be fine.

DOORS-OFF FLIGHT CONFIGURATIONS

A typical configuration for an MD500 is with both photographers shooting on the same side.

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By far, my first choice when doing aerial photography is the Eurocopter A-Star B350. When shooting from the A-Star, the best seat in the house, as far as I am concerned, is tethered to the aircraft using a harness and sitting on the floor directly in front of the rear seat.

 

NO SECOND GUESSING THE WEATHER

When I was flying in the Army we had a saying: ‘There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old and bold pilots still flying.’ Any responsible pilot will always put the safety of the mission first. This often means making the hard weather calls for the client. Pilots want to please their clients, but sometimes the lines between marginal weather and safe flying can become blurred. For example, if you receive a call in which the pilot tells you that the weather is marginal but we can probably still fly, follow your gut and make the decision to fly another day.

CLOTHING PREPARATION

We all know what wind chill is, so think about this: when you are flying with the doors off, you will be subject to wind blowing by you at hurricane forces as you transit from one location to another. Depending on the aircraft, your wind speeds could range between 90 and 140 knots (100-150 mph). Dress accordingly to make your flight enjoyable and successful. First up, gloves are critical and considered must-haves. Good gloves with gripping texture on the fingers will do the trick. The thickness of the gloves will depend upon the outside air temperature. If you are sitting on the floor with your feet on the skids, you also will need solid wind pants to cover your normal pants. It is critical that these wind pants not be loose-fitting. Remember, you will be exposed to some serious wind speed. I personally use the Arc’teryx wind pants and I often tape the bottom of each leg with gaffers tape. A good shell with a base layer underneath will keep your upper body toasty during the flight.

Camera straps are mandatory. In addition, there can be nothing loose in the cabin that could find its way into the tail rotor. As a pilot, I can do without many things and still fly quite well; however, a missing or broken tail rotor is not one of them.

Eye protection is another piece of personal protection that is often overlooked. I have found that sunglasses are a nuisance because I end up fighting them to deal with changing light. I now just use a pair of clear shooting glasses that are the wrap-around design, again with a strap.

With basic preflight information out of the way, it is time to turn our attention to camera preparation and shooting techniques.

FOCUS

Shooting from the air almost always means you are shooting at infinity. Because most lenses focus differently when it comes to infinity, it is critical to pre-focus your lens before getting into the aircraft. Set your camera on manual focus, pick an object in the distance with lots of contrast, and set the focus. Verify this setting by zooming in on the image using the playback screen. Take extra care NOT to move or touch the lens, thus changing the focus point. Once the infinity focus is confirmed, use gaffer tape to hold the lens at the infinity focus point (this is best done as a two-person exercise). You are now locked at your infinity focus point. Again, it is critical that you disable all auto focus actions.

LENS HOOD

During your safety briefing your pilot will ‘lecture’ you on the importance of NOTHING coming loose from the aircraft and potentially hitting the tail rotor. With the tail rotor perfectly balanced and spinning at nearly the speed of sound, it is easy to understand how even the smallest object coming in contact with the rotor could result in a non-recoverable event. I don’t care how securely your lens hood is mounted, it is not secure enough to overcome the force of the air moving across the side of the aircraft at near hurricane speeds. In addition to the tail rotor risk, a vortex will form inside the lens making it very difficult to hold in a steady position. Therefore, REMOVE your lens hood before you get in the aircraft!

SHUTTER SPEED

In a helicopter you must overcome two things regarding shutter speed. First is the inherent vibration of the aircraft, and second is wind speed. All helicopters are vastly different when it comes to vibration. While modern lenses with vibration reduction will help while you are on the ground, I have found that they are of little use in the air when trying to overcome the vibration.

One tool that can help with vibration is a two or three axis gyro stabilizer such as the one made by Kenton. These gyros normally mount to your camera via a bottom plate and are extremely effective. The downside to these gyros is their weight—three to eight pounds!

Your forward airspeed will generate wind blowing across the side of the cockpit and even more so if you are on the sitting on the skids. Based on years of flying, I have settled on a shutter speed of 1/1250th second as a minimum standard. This seems to be my sweet spot and is now my ‘go to’ minimum shutter setting. If supported by your camera, you should consider using the auto ISO function to help keep your shutter speed at or above the 1/1250th sec setting with changing light conditions.

DEPTH OF FIELD

Operating at a focus point of infinity, your need to use a high depth of field is often minimized. I usually try to use an aperture that is closest to the sharpest, while balancing the need to support the higher shutter speed. I think nothing of shooting at ƒ/4.0 or ƒ/5.6 if I can’t reach my desired ƒ/8.0 due to limited light. Remember, you are shooting at infinity so shutter speed is far more critical than ƒ-stop.

COMPOSITION

With all of your camera settings locked in, it is time to start concentrating on your aerial composition. Things will look dramatically different from the air than on the ground. At first you likely will be overwhelmed with the sensation of deciding where to shoot. Remember all of that pre-planning we previously spoke of? Well, this is where it pays off. Keep in mind that the perspective from the air will be different. My suggestion is to always look for lead-in lines. Try to find symmetry in the geometric nature shapes that will be more evident from the air. Keep in mind that you are shooting in order to take your viewers on the same journey that you are experiencing.

Now, go get this done and enjoy capturing a view seldom seen by most. Enjoy the aerial images from Iceland below.

The Importance of Critique

By Sivani Babu

A couple of years ago, I found myself sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in the back office of a bookstore with celebrated author Tim Cahill — a founding editor of Outside magazine — and seven other writers. For nearly an hour, they picked apart a story I had written. When we were done, we moved on to the next piece. Through it all, there was only one rule: The author of the story was not allowed to speak during the critique. It sounds like a nightmare, right?

As a photographer and a writer, it is interesting to observe the different roles of critique in both disciplines, and the more I discuss those differences, the more convinced I am that too many photographers are missing out.

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Writers work with editors — not just professional ones, but peers who fill that role as a story develops. We talk about “killing our darlings”— our favorite characters, our clever lines, our seemingly brilliant scenes, and sometimes our entire books. And we seek out opportunities to sit in rooms and listen to strangers deconstruct what took us days, weeks, months, and years to craft. At all levels, critiques are accepted as part of the writing process. But for photographers, particularly for those of us who did not go to school for photography, critique doesn’t seem to be as intrinsic to the process. We seem to be less likely to share our work in places where it will be critiqued. When we do share, we rarely share the images that we know didn’t work, preferring instead to show our favorites and our best. And, on the flip side, when a photographer seeks out thoughtful feedback, too often we don’t fully engage, choosing silence or platitudes over constructive criticism. The differences also go beyond informal interactions. When I am writing a story for publication, there is substantial back and forth between myself and an editor. This is essentially a form of critique. The process starts with the story idea, then continues with submitting the first draft, followed by feedback and revision. Usually, I go through between one and three rounds of revisions with the editor.

For photography assignments, however, the most contact I have with an editor is in the planning stages. With a few notable exceptions, after I’ve shot the story, I submit photos and wait for them to appear online or in print. It wasn’t always this way though. Not long ago, the feedback loop that I rely on as a writer would also have been there for me to rely on as a photographer. More publications had photo editors who worked with photographers at all stages of an assignment to create the best imagery possible, and if we look back at magazines and newspapers of that era, we can see the difference that the process made. To be sure, opportunities in photography to give and receive constructive criticism do exist, but they are not as ubiquitous as they are in writing and when they do arise, we frequently let them pass us by. Why is that? Why is critique less institutionalized in photography? And why, when the opportunities for critique are available, do we fail to grab them in a meaningful way? I can’t offer a definitive explanation. The digital age has had a dramatic impact on the art and industry of photography, and those changes are a major factor, but they don’t fully explain our individual responses to critique. The most common explanation is emotion. We are emotionally attached to our work. We put time and energy into creating images. We might travel for days and endure difficult conditions to capture that single moment when everything comes together. All we have to show for this effort are our photographs, and we’re proud not just of the millions of pixels we recorded, but also of ourselves for being there. So, the idea that someone might have something negative to say about our images, especially the ones that we consider our best work, can be disheartening. Even when coupled with constructive suggestions, critiques can feel personal. It’s just easier to avoid them altogether. There are other possible reasons as well. I’ve heard the saying, “You’re only as good as your weakest photo,” thrown around in photography circles with some frequency. It’s not hard to see how that might prevent people from sharing images they see as weaker for fear of others thinking that’s the best they can do. And I’ve also heard photographers dismiss the benefit of constructive criticism outright. “Personal style,” they say, “can’t be critiqued.”

Each of these reasons probably resonates with someone, and there are others that I haven’t considered. But whatever the reason, there’s a more valuable question to ask: What are we missing out on by foregoing critique? That one I can answer: opportunities. We’re missing out on opportunities to learn from one another; opportunities to consciously develop our own style instead of falling into it haphazardly; opportunities to become better observers; and opportunities to grow as photographers. A photograph is every bit a form of communication as words on a page. An image tells a story, but unless we are listening to how others perceive the story, we can’t know if we’re communicating effectively — if we’re telling the story we intended to tell. And if it seems like it’s easier for writers to accept critique, that’s probably because it is. Because for most of us, writing and critique have been intertwined with the concept of growth since we wrote our first essays in elementary school. Relearning that lesson in a photography context is both a difficult and worthwhile endeavor.

Back in that seminar with Tim, something wonderful happened when I wasn’t allowed to respond to the critiques: I stopped trying to respond to the critiques. Instead, I took in what everyone said without getting lost in any one comment. I became the fly on the wall as people talked about a story. That the story was mine became less important. And when I disagreed with a critique, instead of explaining myself outwardly, I had to turn inward and examine why I disagreed. As a result, a more cohesive articulation of my writing style emerged. Isn’t that what we also want from our photography? So, this is my challenge to everyone, including myself: Seek out meaningful critique of your photos. Start a conversation about an image that didn’t work, share an image about which you are uncertain, or put your best work out there and welcome the lesson if it turns out not to be perfect. Put yourself out there. Then sit back and see what happens when you become the fly on the wall. And if you’re on the other side of a Facebook post, or an email, or a face-to-face question, engage in the process and give thoughtful, detailed feedback — no emoji and no single-word responses. You won’t just be helping someone else out. As a writer and a photographer, I’ve learned so much more about myself and my own work by viewing and discussing the work of others.

All of this might seem uncomfortable at first, but do it anyway. Because on the other side of that discomfort there just might be a better image.

Contrast and Luminosity

“Seeing” an image requires many aspects of ourselves, both mental and physical. There are times we stumble right over an image, simply because we’re thinking of something completely different. I’m not going to discuss those mental and physiological dilemmas, but rather a physical one: contrast.

Our eyes are capable of seeing a much larger dynamic range than most of us realize, and it is only recently that some cameras have begun to equal what our eyes can do. The dynamic range of a scene, or scene brightness ratio, is the luminance difference between the darkest point and the brightest point in the scene. When you look out the window on a sunny day, there is a much greater scene brightness ratio than what you see on a cloudy day, or when you look at the interior of the room you’re sitting in. Most people don’t pay attention to this, but as photographers, we must! 

When you hear of “perfect” light, all this really means is that the contrast of the light actually matched the dynamic range of your camera. If you watch most box office movies, you’ll notice that the light is perfect most of the time. This is because directors are having the set lit by professionals who understand the need to create a scene brightness ratio that the film or digital motion picture camera can capture.

The very same principles can be applied to landscape photography. The big difference is that in landscape photography we don’t have control of the scene brightness ratio. We do have control of timing and point of view though, which provides plenty of creative freedom. Over the years I have tuned my eyes to notice subtle differences in the sunlight and how various atmospheric conditions change it dramatically. In still photography, we can also make use of post-processing tools which give us even greater creative freedom. Post-processing allows landscape photographers to alter the scene brightness ratio even more dramatically than any clouds or natural phenomenon. The amount of post-production or processing you apply to your images is your choice, and the sky is the limit. Personally, I prefer to begin my creative process with the best light I can capture, as this always makes the post-production much simpler, and usually creates far superior work. Here is an example of an image that had great light and would, therefore, required very little post production work.

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This was captured in the late afternoon when the atmosphere blocked some of the sunlight, thus lowering the scene brightness ratio by just enough to enable the camera to capture some of the shadow details on the back side of the dunes.

Here are a few examples of scenes where I knew ahead of time that I would need to edit the scene brightness ratio in post production. The first scene was captured from a helicopter over a braided river in the early morning. Because the river was in shade, there was very little contrast. When I reviewed the histogram in the camera, I realized there was a much lower scene brightness ratio than the camera was capable of capturing, and that I would need to adjust it later in post, to create the look I wanted to achieve.

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The next example is typical of an early-morning or even late-day scene. The colorful sky contrasts strongly with everything below the horizon, and the scene brightness ratio is very large. I knew this was the case just after reviewing the data in the histogram. Because of the clipping that was occurring in both the highlights and shadows, I would need to edit the contrast in post production. Removing contrast (obtaining additional information in the shadows and highlights) in digital imaging is more difficult than adding it, as with the image of the braided river. When attempting to capture a scene brightness ratio that is larger than what the camera can capture, most photographers use a technique called high dynamic range (HDR). This method captures additional image files of lesser and greater exposure value to obtain additional information in the shadows and highlights.

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The best way to learn how to deal with scene brightness ratio in nature photography is to practice as much as you can. The exercise I recommend is to capture hundreds of various images over an hour in as many different conditions as possible, then go review those files, looking mainly at the histogram and noticing which images look good and how the histogram looks. After you’ve repeated this process many times, your eyes will develop a natural sensitivity to the light, and you won't need to rely on the histogram as much.

When you study imagery, you will begin to notice that in many of your favorite images, the light is great. If the light is great, now you know why!