Marking my first decade as a nature photographer with eight-day trip to the Canadian Rockies

In Equipment & Technique, Landscapes, ND Filters, Polarizing Filters, Scenes & Scenarios by Jackson EcholsLeave a Comment

I was 19 and determined to become a nature photographer as well as a studio artist. Last May, I graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts — concentrating in Photography — from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. I am now a fine arts graduate student at the University of Texas at Arlington expecting to graduate in 2014. As I have advanced in my studies, I have remained undecided on my future career path to becoming a professional nature photographer. I’ve (sadly) come to the realization that my nature photography may just fade into a hobby as I make sure to keep food on the table. A fair amount of my current income comes from working with art consultants on large-scale commissions, so I may find a way yet.

This summer completed my tenth year as a dedicated nature photographer and I decided to celebrate with my first visit to the Canadian Rockies! During these past ten years, I photographed extensively in more than a dozen states, but this trip would be a long-awaited adventure into one of the world’s most beautiful areas. All these images were captured with my Canon 5D Mark II with a 17-40mm f/4L on a tripod using a wireless cable release.

The first morning after arriving in Canmore, Alberta, I awoke to a sunrise with pastel hues on the western horizon, lit underneath by the rising sun from the east, I set up my camera on the Three Sisters Parkway, just a short walk from my hotel. In the early hours of the day, the Parkway hosts numerous elk and other animals that are somewhat acclimated to humans. Even though I had planned on shooting wildlife, the overhead display of color was too much to pass up.

For the first thirty minutes of the day, beginning around 5:30am, I angled my camera towards the sky. Instead of simply recording the glowing clouds overhead, I planned to emphasize the rapidly moving cloud cover with long exposures. I set up my camera with my thin-mount Vari-N-Duo and kept my ND Grads close at hand, knowing the exposure range of the brightly under-lit clouds over silhouetted mountains would be well beyond my sensor’s dynamic range. After setting my shutter to bulb and with a 2-second delay on my wireless timer, I dialed in 8 stops (full density) on the Vari-N-Duo and placed a 3-stop soft-edge ND Grad over the lens. Over the course of the next half hour, I captured roughly 10 usable images, but this image really stood out. It was taken when a break in the clouds lit up the otherwise silhouetted hillside and peak in the right side of the image.

This image was taken at the Kicking Horse River below the Natural Bridge Viewpoint in Yoho National Park. It was mid-afternoon under partially cloudy skies. Being rather underwhelmed with the traditional features of the viewpoint, I set off downstream to investigate. I was rewarded with numerous photo possibilities, consisting of jagged rock formations in and around the swift currents of the Kicking Horse River.

There was a two-fold exposure problem to be solved: I needed to wait for the sun to dip behind the clouds for a more evenly lit scene, and even then the exposure range was beyond the range of my camera’s sensor. I solved the first problem by just waiting; the second was a bit more complicated. I ended up using the same technique I use for wide angle reflection shots with shaded foregrounds, the ‘filter squeeze.’ In essence, the frothy river was exploding with highlights during the long exposures required by the Vari-ND. To curb this, I mounted two ND Grads, both Hard-Step, a 3-stop to render the water darker, and a 2-stop to bring the partially lit shoreline into a workable tonal range. The technique worked like a charm! I tried it with several horizontal and vertical compositions. I chose this exposure due to its minimalist aesthetic — just rock, water and trees on a typical rule-of-thirds layout. The telltale sign of this technique is the brighter portion of the river at the base of the shoreline cliffs. However, this pocket of highlights was just enough to center the image and act as a visual barrier between the silky river and the craggy backdrop.

After a day exploring the photo locations in Yoho National Park, I decided to photograph the evening hours at Emerald Lake. Upon arrival, I noticed a field of common fireweed on a distant shore, so I first set about to photograph this wildflower in its prime. After getting my fill of flowers, I began to move around the lake to search for compositions reflecting the surrounding peaks without having to include the structures of the Emerald Lake Lodge. After making my way to the shoreline to include a fallen tree as a more interesting foreground, the wind picked up so I had a choice to make. When shooting conditions are less than optimal, the landscape photographer must get more creative. I could use the Vari-N-Duo to smooth out the ripples of the water or bump up my ISO to make sure each individual ripple would be sharp, while still providing some reflection in the water. I chose the latter aapproach and selected the Singh-Ray Gold-N-Blue Polarizer to intensify the colors in the scene. As I was photographing, some nice cumulus clouds drifted overhead and I got out a Singh-Ray 2-stop Soft-Step ND Grad to balance to bright white of the clouds with the more shaded lake itself. Note: The Gold-N-Blue Polarizer generally gives me more of a filtered look than I like, leading to unnatural hues in the reflective surfaces. I adjusted the vibrance of the image in Camera Raw — particularly the HSL sliders — to get the scene back to a more natural tonality.

Some locations are just fantastically easy to photograph. Lake Louise in Banff National Park is one of these locations. I was particularly surprised when I arrived prior to sunrise and noticed the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise lies about 50 yards from the edge of the lake. On this fair morning, I donned fingerless gloves, a beanie and my summer jacket, even though I saw hotel guests outside photographing in shorts and teeshirts. Regardless, this location does require a bit of ingenuity and luck to get an interesting photograph. Start with a simple composition, add some foreground elements for scale, wait for the light to get just right, hope for clouds, then use your Singh­‐Ray ND Grads to balance the bright sun on the mountains with the shaded lake below. Just minutes after taking this shot, I was on my way, hoping to move on to more creative images in more remote locations. Sharing a viewing platform with dozens of other photographers doesn’t really spark my creative vision, however, sometimes I just settle for the the postcard shot!

Often it is difficult to produce interesting images in locations with difficult lighting, near-impossible accessibility, and dozens of tourists standing around. This image is my proud example of overcoming such odds. When touring the Icefields Parkway from Banff to Jasper, I came upon Mistaya Canyon looking to photograph the rapids at the entrance to the canyon. Naturally, the light was extremely high key, with deep shadows in the canyon, bright highlights on the rushing water and no easy way to merge an HDR image with the constantly varying water patterns and light levels. After making several unsuccessful attempts with a telephoto lens to isolate the dramatic waters deep inside the canyon, I began to walk back across the bridge to the parking area. As I spoke to another photographer on the bridge, a cloud moved across the sun and all of the sudden the canyon was bathed in soft light! I moved quickly, leaning my tripod up against the bridge railing and adjusted my ballhead to photograph straight down from the bridge. With a quick twist on my Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer and a mindful crop of the scene, I had a composition ready for exposure. I wanted detail from the foreground outcropping all the way down to the canyon bottom, so I set my aperture to f/16. To show the rush of the water, I used a moderately slow shutter speed of 1/10 of a second, quick enough to render some detail but also slow enough to show the movement of the water as it made its path through the canyon. Shots like this make me believe in serendipity. Patience and luck are just as much allies to a nature photographer as any amount of equipment.

Scouting locations prior to the golden light is a must-do for this landscape photographer. I had scouted this location at Rampart Ponds, Icefields Parkway, about 12km north of The Crossing Resort Equipment late in the prior afternoon, capturing several worthwhile shots, but I knew from the landscape features and the layout of the valley that sunrise would be a much better bet. The next morning I drove 12km from my hotel to a series of three unmarked pulloffs on the western side of the Icefields Parkway. When I arrived, the whole North Saskatchewan River Valley was shrouded in mist, which made creating ghostly images easy. This held even more promise for that approaching moment when the sun would burn off the clouds overhead.

After creating several special mist shots, I began moving toward the most promising vantage points (that I had found the previous evening) for the upcoming spectacle. For this shot, I chose a shallow pond on the edge of the North Saskatchewan River sheltered by trees on either side. As soon as the fog began to lift, the dappled light of a cloudy sunrise lit the mountains and I knew the time was right. To overcome the high contrast of the sunlight peaks and the shaded pool, I used a Singh-Ray 3-Stop Soft-Step ND Grad. To saturate the scene and remove some unwanted reflections, I also used my LB Warming Polarizer. I could have featured 30 separate images from this sunrise spectacle, however this image took the crown with its perfect balance of foreground, mid-ground and background detail, the glorious reflecting pool, the evergreens framing the right edge and the sheer subtlety of the cloud formations breaking off while the fog still hung over the river. Few images in my collection can match this image for having all the right elements working together so perfectly.

The final image to mention is the one at the very top of this story. Johnston Canyon in Banff National Park is an area with seemingly endless photographic possibility. On my 8-day trip to the area, I spent two evenings in this canyon, especially meaningful considering I could be doing sunset shoots out on any number of lakes! It is a 2.7 km hike to the upper falls and must be done in either overcast light or very early or late in the day when the canyon is fully cast in shadow to be able to record the maximum saturation and detail in your shots. This photo pushed my wide-zoom to its wide extreme, as I wanted to include the canyon walls on either side of the bow in the river, the waterfall, and a decent foreground. If I hadn’t used a thin-mount Vari-N-Duo, I fear the vignetting would have made this shot impossible. Speaking of that very versatile filter, I actually didn’t use the Duo’s polarizing function in this image, as it would have taken away all of the wonderful golden reflections of the upper canyon walls bathed in the golden light of sunset. However, I did dial in some extra ND to extend the exposure time so that both the waterfall and the streambed below would render as a silky blur, which juxtaposes quite nicely against all the dense rock and forest around.

After these first ten years as a photographer,” adds Jackson, “perhaps I’m ready to get some experience teaching in a college, doing workshops during the summer, printing on the side and just generally pursuing my enthusiasm for nature photography. It is my one true love, but I’m keeping in mind that it’s also a business. It’s hard to know what the future will hold for the nature photography business, but it’s exciting to see the possibilities.

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