Contrast and Luminosity

“Seeing” an image involves 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 understand, 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

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, require 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 lowered 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 was trying 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 or 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 the what the camera can capture, most photographers use what is called HDR, or high dynamic range technique. HDR is a term for capturing additional image files of lesser and greater exposure value to capture 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 looked good and how the histogram looked. After you’ve repeated this process many times, your eyes will develop a sensitivity to the light naturally 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!

Mongolia Holds a Special Place in My Heart

By Kevin Pepper

From my magical first visit five years ago, I remember driving through the rolling countryside headed towards the ancient city of Karakorum along country roads dotted with nomadic families that had come down from their winter locations. It felt surreal, as if I was stepping further back in time the more I travelled from Ulaanbaator. No roads, vehicles became scarce, and families living as they have for thousands of years… yet there I was, transporting myself back in time.
 
As a history buff I had read about Mongolia, often wondering what life would have been like when Ghengis Khan ruled most of the world from the city that would be my destination, Karakorum. Now, here I was, seeing and photographing life as its been since Genghis Khan founded this city in the year 1220. On that first visit, I wasn’t sure if it was the heavy weight of history that filled the air, or was it the earliest surviving Buddhist monastery in Mongolia , the Erdene Zuu Monastery? Regardless, the photo opportunities were special, and the memories still exist.
 
From Karakorum it was time to head west. My destination was Ulgii, a small town in Western Mongolia that hosts the annual Golden Eagle Festival every October. The Golden Eagle Festival is a celebration of the ancient art of Falconry on Horseback. The earliest recordings of hunting with Golden Eagles on horseback I could find come from the 12th Century. Today, approximately 250 Kazakh men live in the western Mongolia province of Bayan-Olgi and carry on a tradition known as “horse riding eagle falconry”. The skill of using a Golden Eagle to capture prey while riding through the mountains. 
 
I have had the pleasure of witnessing and photographing the synchronicity between man and eagle. Both hunter and eagle showing off the skills needed to once tip the scales between starvation and survival, now showing off the skills to feed a family, but more to embrace the long standing heritage and show off the prowess of the art of hunting fox. As I sat there and watched the two work in tandem, I couldn’t help but wonder how close the bond had to be between a wild golden eagle that was taken after birth from a nest, and the Mongolian Eagle Hunter. Was it a skill that the two mastered together, or was it some pavlovian genetic instinct of the eagle to hunt, combined with man’s superior mind. Was the hunter using training methods of reward so the eagle would hunt?
 
My answer came to me after closely watching both men and bird during my time living with a Kazakh family in Western Mongolia. There, immersed in the ways of the past, watching the eagle live with the family, I spotted the first of many first tender moments of man and bird. The bond did not spawn from the birds need to hunt, nor did it come from training, it came from creating a special and unfathomable respect between a wild bird and a simple man. The man would command, the eagle would listen, instinctively hunt as it has done for centuries, then wait for the hunter to arrive with prey in its talons.

This was that moment that made the trip for me. That tender moment between an eagle and a man made this trip more than a visit to a festival, it made this trip an eye-opening experience that two beings, normally hunting to survive as competitors, can learn that working together, producing a better life. 
 
For me, trips to Mongolia are not just about the photography. While the photo opportunities are ones that are some of the best I have ever had, it’s the people, the cultural and the jaw dropping landscapes that you drive through to get to the destinations that I love. I would love to share this with you in 2018 as I lead another workshop for Muench Workshops. I am taking a group of 8 to three amazing experiences… the Kazakh Eagle Hunters, the Naadam Festival and the Reindeer Herders. 

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See you in Mongolia,

- Kevin Pepper

The Photographer's Guide to the Airline Electronics Ban

There are already restrictions on carrying electronics larger than a smartphone in the airplane cabin if one is traveling to the US from one of ten different airports in the Middle East and North Africa. The UK has a similar ban in place. Based on the latest news reports as of this writing, it seems that the US Department of Homeland Security electronics ban (aka “laptop ban”) could be implemented for all flights into and out of the US. What is the the traveling photographer to do? In this article we will present solutions and give ideas on how to travel successfully and safely with laptops and photographic equipment.

Because “we don’t know what we don’t know” we are going to make the following assumption: “any electronics larger than a smartphone” not only means laptops, tablets, e-readers and the like, but also includes camera bodies, lenses, hard drives, drones, power bricks, and spare batteries. If and when the extended ban happens, you should expect that rules will be difficult to understand and not consistently enforced from one airline to the next, from one airport to the next, or from one country to the next. Anticipate the most stringent rules, assume you will deal with confused security personnel and airline staff, and prepare for both.

I DON’T HAVE GEAR INSURANCE.

Now more than ever before, you should be covering all your gear with an insurance policy. For some, this might be your homeowner’s or other existing insurance, but you should check the policy carefully, and call your company. Ask specific questions, since many policies exclude things like expensive camera gear and air travel. Also, your insurance company can deny your claim if they feel you are working in any way commercially or in a professional capacity. Anyone doing commercial or professional work (even part-time!) should really have an insurance policy that covers you as a working photographer. It’s easier now than ever before to get coverage, so just do it. Make sure you are getting the right amount of coverage, that it works internationally, and that it covers you for theft, damage, and delays. Make a photographic record of all your gear, including the serial numbers. Insurance is critical since the risk of loss, damage and theft is much higher.

THE BAN IS NOT YET IN PLACE BUT I’M WORRIED BECAUSE I LEAVE TOMORROW, AND WHAT IF IT CHANGES WHILE I’M ABROAD?

  • Get a hard, lockable case (such as a ThinkTank Hard Case) that fits your camera backpack.

  • Carry your gear in your backpack on board your flight as normal and as allowed.

  • Pack non-electronics in the ThinkTank Hard Case and check it in with the airline. You should also bring a soft-packable duffel bag to put clothing in if you need to use the hard case for your trip home. Include a roll of packing tape and a good amount of bubble wrap.

  • If you can travel with the hard case while on your trip, great. If it’s too bulky, store it in an airport locker, or with your hotel. Make a plan for this. If you’re on a photo workshop with Muench Workshops, don’t worry, we’ve figured that out for you.

  • If the rules change while you are on your trip, put your camera backpack with all your gear in it inside the hard case, stuff clothing around the edges to make it safe and secure. Inventory and photograph all of your gear. Fill the soft duffel with your clothing and non-breakable items. Check your duffel and hard case.

  • Important: your SD/CF cards stay with you, on your person, safely stored.

THE BAN IS IN PLACE AND I’M PREPARING FOR MY BIG PHOTO TRIP.

  • Time to invest in a ThinkTank Hard Case or similar case (there are alternatives, check Amazon). This case should be large enough to hold all of your camera gear, hard drives, power supplies, laptop, tablet, kindle, everything. They come with foam interiors that can be customized to safely secure and hold your specific gear.

  • Pack everything carefully. Make a detailed inventory and photographic record.

  • You might have to store your hard case somewhere during your trip. For example, there’s no room on the small charter aircraft used in Africa for these cases. When traveling with Muench Workshops, we already have this figured out for you.

  • If you are worried about your laptop getting damaged, and also about your personal or business data on that laptop, then consider getting a cheap “beater” laptop that will just run a browser, your cloud service(s), and Lightroom CC, or the editing program of your choice. You’ll be surprised at what you can get for a few hundred bucks! Tip for Mac lovers: check out the Apple Refurbished store for good deals.

WHAT ABOUT BACKUP AND STORAGE WITHOUT A LAPTOP?

  • Get a portable hard drive that has built in card reader and WIFI. Western Digital makes a couple different models with huge capacities (find them on Amazon, here. They allow you to copy files directly from your card to the hard drive, no computer needed. The integrated reader is for SD cards, and there’s a USB-3 port as well for your CF card reader. Backups will be slower than you’re used to with your laptop, but at least you’ll be able to make copies of your files.

  • When flying, this device will need to be in checked luggage, still not ideal. But you will be keeping all of your SD and CF cards on your person with you at all times.

  • Travel with enough SD or CF cards so that you do not have to reformat them while on your trip. Figure out how many you will need, and then pack a few extra.

  • Another option, if you have a camera that has dual card slots, write your photos simultaneously to two cards at once. This is certainly the easiest method to get redundancy, as you’ll have two copies of every photo from the moment you shoot. Just remember to keep your cards and card copies separate from each other in two different card cases, and store them in different locations while traveling.

I USE MY LAPTOP/IPAD/TABLET/KINDLE ALL THE TiME TO WORK, EDIT PHOTOS, WATCH MOVIES OR TV WHILE FLYING.

  • Upgrade and upsize your smartphone. Get an iPhone 7 Plus or any of the newer, bigger Android phones, and max out the storage.

  • Download your favorite movies/tv/music/books ahead of your trip. Get the Kindle App for your phone and sync up your favorite books.

  • Learn and practice how to transfer files from your SD/CF cards to your smartphone, so you can use use Lightroom Mobile or Photoshop Express or Snapseed on your smartphone. You’ll be amazed at what you can do as far as editing goes! There are card-reader dongles for your phone, and many cameras also can transfer files via wifi or bluetooth.

CAN I JUST SHIP MY GEAR TO AND FROM MY LOCATION?

  • Yes, both DHL and UPS offer worldwide shipping options, but the costs are pretty high. You can pack your gear in a hard case and ship safely. You’ll have to arrange for receipt of the delivery, by a friend, an agent, or hotel. And you’ll have to arrange for return shipping as well, leaving time for that at the end of your trip.

THIS IS ALL JUST TOO MUCH. I’M STAYING HOME.

Certainly this is a choice you can make, but with a little extra planning and preparation, you can deal with this new way of traveling with your gear. With a bit of advance thought and planning, your gear properly insured and carefully packed in a hard case, you should be safe. If you’re reading this far, you are passionate about photography and travel, so don’t let the electronics ban get in the way.

We will stay on top of any changes to the rules and regulations, and update this post as needed. Got questions? We’re available to help, contact us anytime by email or phone.

Yellowstone, Our First National Park

What’s the first thing you think of when you consider Yellowstone? Old Faithful, of course! What's amazing is that there is so much more to Yellowstone. I recently spent 7 days in the park and never even saw Old Faithful. After all, there are over 3,400 square miles of subalpine wilderness with the largest high-elevation lake in North America as well as herds of bison, elk, pronghorn, and rocky mountain sheep, making it the largest, most natural ecosystem in the northern temperate zone. 

 Bison, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Established March 1, 1872 as the world's first, Yellowstone National Park has become an example of what can be done to preserve a wild location in perpetuity through the National Park system. This may sound like a lofty ambition, but thus far it’s working. Whether or not the land will be preserved forever is something we’ll never know, but in the meantime we are fortunate enough to have lived in a time when this valuable resource is cherished.

It’s been 18 years since I was last in the park and I was excited this past month to rekindle my fondness of the place. I was very pleased to see that many aspects, landscapes, and visuals were just as I had remembered. In fact, I found the exact location and the very same rime covered trees where I had captured one of my favorite winter wildlife images 18 years ago on film. Back then the park was teaming with snowmobiles, snow coaches, and some other privately run tours. I recall hundreds of snowmobiles at times filling up the road with untrained drivers, and very loud engines that echoed off the canyon walls in many areas. While the privately guided snowmobile tours can still, at times, become congested, we were mostly by ourselves while on our private snow coach, cruising though the winter wonderland. Now the snowmobiles are controlled and special quiet engines are used to keep the noise level down. This, in conjunction with more strict guiding rules makes for a better environment for the visitors as well as the wildlife. We were constantly mesmerized by the ancient looking beasts, we now call bison. Their large heads and necks are used to brush away the deep snow, up to one meter deep. This year was a bit special for us photographers, since there was more snow on the ground than Yellowstone has seen in the past 10 years. This made it magical for landscapes and wildlife scenes, but a bit frustrating for the snow coach drivers who were getting stuck left and right. Fortunately, we had veteran driver Doug Hilborn, who has worked us for over 10 years. Doug knew where and where not to drive the coach, preventing us from ending up in a deep snow bank like many we passed. 

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The wildlife was distributed slightly differently than recent times, as the deep snow made it difficult for many of the animals to feed. There are vast regions of the park where little wildlife is spotted in the winter because there is no geothermal heat to melt the snow and provide adequate warmth to keep the food growing throughout the winter. This year, even certain normal feeding locations were covered in snow, making the wildlife scarce in some regions. The payoff was encountering more unusual sightings that were quite photogenic, such as this red fox sleeping in the middle of a snowfield. 

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What sets Yellowstone apart from many of the other National Parks is its large size, which can sustain greater numbers of wildlife and in a temperate climate where most thrive. The vast meadows near Hayden Valley are said to sustain one of the larger populations of brown bears in the lower 48 states. This combined with the alien looking geothermal features breaking up an already beautiful landscape make the park lands unique. In fact, there is no greater concentration of geothermal activity on the planet. The ongoing volcanism maintains these features and constantly updates the landscape with visible changes. Earthquakes change the plumbing of the geyser basins, forcing hot water and steam to change course. 

 Black Pond, West Thumb Geyeser Basin, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

While walking around the Fountain Paint Pot trail we were shocked to see that something was very different. Throughout the year, day in and day out, Clepsydra geyser erupts with very few interruptions. On the day we visited, Clepsydra geyser was not erupting. It was not much of a photo op, but fascinating to witness. 

 Clepsydra geyser, not errupting, Yellowstone NP Wyoming

I’ve been to Africa many times in pursuit of wildlife and landscapes and each time am amazed by the variety of both. What I have recently learned is that the same flourishing variety is right here in my home country, and with many years of struggling stewardship behind us, the odds are ever greater that this ecosystem will last. 

Life is short, create pictures!

Marc Muench

The Mighty 70-200 f/4

We photographers are constantly moving, not just to various locations but different countries in different climates and conditions. When we travel so much it’s much better to become familiar with a particular camera system and the focal lengths. For example I am now able to pick out with my minds eye a composition and know about what focal length I need. This comes after years of working with certain lenses and formats. The one lens with a useful variety of focal lengths I really enjoy is the 70-200 range. I always want it in my bag at all times. This means I need to carry this lens everywhere I go. And for that reason I don’t want it to be heavy. My choice for this focal length is the f/4 version rather than the f/2.8 which weighs in at 30 to 40% more. I do not utilize the shallow depth of field nor faster focusing potential in low light so the slightly slower ( 1 full stop ) aperture works just fine. The sharpness is no longer an issue as I have found the Canon, Nikon and Sony f/4 versions are all extremely sharp and just as sharp as the f/2.8 versions. 

Here’s a great way to use these lenses in the landscape. Find a distant view in the right light and zoom in to obtain more compression in the scene. This creates 3 or more paned shots that you can merge together in Lightroom or Photoshop. This gives you the amazing focal length at whatever field of view you choose. 

The majority of the time I’m composing subjects or elements of a subject that falls into the same plane of focus, infinity. This allows me to utilize the best part of the f/4 characteristics. I’m not looking for shallow depth of field nor bokeh when using the lens in this way, but rather using shape color and atmospheric haze to create the interest. 

Another great use of the 70-200 f/4 is to do a stitched panorama. After you've shot with your wide angle lens, think about a high-res panorama. Without foreground elements you can easily shoot without any special gear. Just get the base of your tripod (the part under your ballhead) as level as you can. Mount the 70-200 and zoom in and compose. Orient the camera in portrait orientation, to get more resolution top to bottom. Expose manually for the brightest part of the scene, and leave the exposure alone. Go ahead and autofocus once, and then switch to manual focus so the focus doesn't change when you move the camera and lens. Shoot a single row, left to right, overlapping each shot by 30-50%. A bonus is to do a double-row! point your camera up a bit for the first row, and then down a bit for the second, overlapping each image top and bottom by 30-50%. Putting them together in Lightroom is super easy, and something we teach and demonstrate on our workshops! Here's an example from the Dolomites in Italy, it's approximately 700 megapixels, 20 Sony a7rII shots in two rows.

Enjoy (70-200 f/4) photography!

- Marc & Andy