Taking the Tetons From “cool” to “Wow!”

In Equipment & Technique, ND Filters, Polarizing Filters by Alec Johnson6 Comments

June 2019 Honoring Our Veterans Jackson WY photography workshop

This past June I was asked to assist in teaching a photography workshop to 5 combat-wounded veterans, most of whom had no previous experience with a digital SLR camera. This workshop was part of a series of programs for combat-wounded veterans run by Honoring Our Veterans (https://www.honorvets.org/), based out of Jackson, WY. The goal of HOV is to improve the quality of life for combat-wounded veterans by offering them activities that strengthen their physical, cognitive, emotional and social functioning.

“It gives me something to think about that is not related to my pain or injuries. It gives me motivation and inspiration…Despite the challenges, photography has broadened my creativity and given me more reasons to explore and enjoy life.” —Lance Corporal Dustin Arledge

My co-teacher, Cathy Aronson of Daydream Imagery LLC (https://www.daydream.com), is the primary leader and organizer of the photography workshops put on by HOV.  Additionally, she is a night sky photography expert and, as a local, knows exactly where to go to provide a wonderful experience with landscape and night-sky milky way locations.  We hit all the iconic spots, including the Moulton barns, Schwabacher Landing, and String and Jenny Lakes.  We photographed some less-known locations and even photographed the local rodeo. 

            Jackson Hole and Teton National Park are jaw-dropping beautiful, making the area a perfect backdrop to inspire those new to photography.  We started with lectures on the exposure triangle and got the participants going in aperture priority mode. Some even quickly migrated to manual mode.  We then talked about basic rules of composition.  Once we had some experience in the field learning how to operate the donated camera equipment, we began introducing a few of them to a graduated neutral density filter.  These are in my camera bag at all times, so it was easy to find one for the occasion and hold it in front of a participant’s lens. 

I prefer to get my exposure correct in camera, minimize photo editing and maximize file quality for big prints.  Singh-Ray graduated ND’s are essential for this; in the Teton’s a go-to set of filters would include a circular polarizer and some 2, 3 or 4 – stop graduated soft edge ND filters.  The graduated soft edge ND’s are perfect for shooting over the mountain range and a circular polarizer is great for managing glare on the many water features of the area.

This image was made using the 4-stop graduated ND

One memorable shoot was with First Sergeant Tina Matthews, a 30 year veteran of the Army. She had a great experience with chasing the light – as we photogs like to say.  The group had arrived on location at a historic dude ranch in the national park and Tina was really drawn to the old car and barn.  The sun was still high in the sky, but we discussed what might happen with a sunburst if the sun made it to the mountain peaks without being blocked by clouds.  That idea made her very excited, but we pressed on, photographing other subject matter and just getting a feel for composition and rapidly changing light conditions.  Then a few passing clouds moved in front of the sun, which was nearly set behind the mountain peaks.  The next moment crepuscular light rays began to appear.  Not much at first, but we shot with them.  Then they showed signs of getting stronger and Tina wanted to go back and shoot them with the car.  Now the fun began. 

“Transitioning to civilian life was very devastating for me. Having been on four deployments, I could not relate to anyone and had become a recluse. But watching my images come to life in print made me feel like a butterfly coming from a cocoon – transforming into an amazing creature.” 

            We hustled quickly into position and Tina began shooting the first workable composition out of fear the rays would go away.  But they didn’t. They continued to build, and she continued to adjust composition. We then had about another 20 minutes to just enjoy watching and photographing them.  For Tina this was a “heavenly” experience and “cool” photography moment.  She was chasing the light – her first experience doing so.  Now that we were settled in and enjoying the show, I pulled out the 4-stop graduated ND with soft edge and hung it on Tina’s lens.  Looking through the viewfinder, her audible excitement went from “cool” to “Wow!” with the filter’s ability to bring sky and foreground into a more balanced exposure.

“I get to leave the stress of everyday life and go to a gorgeous area, relax and focus on what I’m seeing and how to get a nice shot, not what I need to fix for dinner or that I need to mow the lawn.  Photography has helped me to slow down and appreciate everyday.”Technical Sergeant Janna Cronk

On a visit to String Lake, Command Sergeant Major Mike Waller (the experienced participant in the group) pulled out his Bryan Hansel Waterfall Polarizer to gain the polarization and to extend the shutter speed just enough to soften a light, wind-driven ripple on the lake.  I thought this was a clever application of the filter. 

Earlier in the day the donated camera being used by Sergeant First Class Frank Wiley broke.  We gave him a backup and he was back to work.  In this nearly even light condition, a filter was not absolutely necessary.  The bison were lazily grazing quite a way off the road.  Bison can be quite deadly, so everyone was well-advised to keep a very safe distance from them, but with the zoom lenses we had we were close enough to work the bison into a variety of compositions.  Frank lined up this great image of 3 bison relaxing out in front of the Tetons. Warrant Officer Michael Phillips was also able to put together a great capture of a bison and the mountains. 

“It’s amazing to see the change in a veteran when he is learning something new…” Sergeant Calvin Patterson

Near the end of the workshop I shot more formal portraits of the participants, this time using my 2-stop graduated ND filter with a hard edge to lower the overall exposure and then use a Paul C. Buff Alien Bees strobe light to fill in the subject.  I was shooting at f/2.8 and 70mm focal length – so using a hard edge ND gave me all the coverage I needed at 70mm and was essential to manage shutter speed to below 1/160th sec – the sync speed of my strobe.

For the light modifier I used a 42” Alien Bees octobox. I used my Sony a7r3 with eye focus to zero in for eye sharpness and the strobe was used as a gentle fill to allow the subject to pop off the under-exposed background (thanks to the Singh-Ray filter on the camera).

During this workshop I was reminded of the power of photography to transport us to a more calm, serene and safe place.  It also brings us out of the past and future, and in doing so contains the power to heal.  Photography can slow us down enough to appreciate, respect and experience all the beauty that humanity has to offer.  Those experiences are paid for, in part, by the women and men who serve our country.  If you have camera gear (bodies, lenses, tripods, bags, cards etc.) to donate to this great cause, please contact Cathy Aronson at cja@daydream.com.

Technical Sergeant Janna Cronk – Milky Way Panoramic
Sergeant First Class Frank Wiley – Tee Pee on Private Property

Warrant Officer 4 Michael Phillips – String Lake
First Sergeant Tina Matthews – Schwabacher Landing
Command Sergeant Major Mike Waller – Schwabacher Landing



Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing this wonderful experience. And photos! To
    our veterans, Thank you for your service.

  2. These photos are spectacular! Thank you for taking the time and effort to do this for our veterans! My brother Frank Wiley had a wonderful and memorable time.

  3. Such a gift you have shared with these veterans! Thank you! Their photographs captured the magnificent beauty and help my urgency to make a trip out west soon. I’m grateful to them for their service and to those making this trip so special for these Americans!

  4. This was the most amazing experience of my life, I laughed I shed tears, I was frustrated but I was also overwhelmed with joy to finally see Mother Nature’s finest beauty in the eyes of a camera that I was able to capture!! I will cherish this experience for a lifetime. Thank you Sandy Sandberg, Cathy Aronson(CJ), and Alex Johnson you guys are amazing!! I will not leave out Ray Dodd and his beautiful wife for supplying transportation food runs and any support you could ask for and also Honoring our Veterans for supporting us.

  5. Fantastic! Thank you for working with these folks, it did them good and it appears that they learned a lot !

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