Photography

Behind the Image: Autumn on Grandfather Mountain

BEHIND THE IMAGE:
Autumn on Grandfather Mountain,
Blue Ridge Mountains, NC

As we near the first official days of the fall season, it seems that winter may have come early here in Alberta. It’s already below freezing and snowing out! In the spirit of Autumn, I thought I’d share an experience from 2 years ago in the Blue Ridge Mountains…

Autumn is a fleeting time of year. One day the humid forest is thick and green, and seemingly the next day, it is chilly and blanketed in vibrant shades of red, yellow, and orange. This "peak" in color usually comes in mid-October and lasts only a day or two before the leaves turn brown or are blown off the trees by heavy winds, leaving a forest of grey skeletons. Those winds, along with a sharp drop in temperatures, signal the coming of winter. Autumn triggers a hurried response from wildlife and humans alike to prepare for the long cold months ahead.

I was buried in images from my October 2016 trip to Iceland when I realized I only had a couple days left to photograph the fall colors in the Blue Ridge. I decided to take a break and drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway and hike up the steep and craggy trail at Rough Ridge just before sunset. I knew it would be crowded with visitors even though it was a random weekday evening. I envisioned an image of the golden light of sunset blanketing the lower mountains below Rough Ridge to the east, but every possibly decent spot to set up had several selfie-taking tourists already hunkered down for what was clearly going to be an amazing sunset. I suppressed my irritation. I have no more right to be there than them, and who could blame anyone for wanting to see this spectacular Fall foliage at sunset?

 Autumn colors on Grandfather Mountain from Rough Ridge Trail, Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina. (Nikon D600, Nikkor 18-35G Lens, Gitzo Tripod, Circular Polarizer, 3-stop ND filter) © Jon Reaves Photography

Autumn colors on Grandfather Mountain from Rough Ridge Trail, Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina. (Nikon D600, Nikkor 18-35G Lens, Gitzo Tripod, Circular Polarizer, 3-stop ND filter) © Jon Reaves Photography

I abandoned my original plan and set up on the only rocky outcrop that was vacant. It pointed toward the eastern face of Grandfather Mountain- opposite of where I had planned to point my camera. The sun was about to set behind the mountain. I set up, composed, and waited for a few minutes for the sunset colors to intensify. It was a tricky scene to meter; high contrast scenes always are. I used a polarizer to help intensify the colors and darken the sky a bit and used the lightest edge of my graduated neutral density filter to balance out the sky with the dark mountain.

I usually shoot with my white balance set to "daylight", but chose to shoot this scene in "cloudy" to further intensify the warm colors in both the sky and forest (though, because I shoot in RAW format this is easily changeable in post). I bracketed several exposures to make sure my histogram was balanced and I hadn't plunged the shadows and blown the highlights. A tripod was completely necessary for stability. This shot required a narrow aperture for increased depth of field, a low ISO for decreased noise, and so a long shutter speed was the result. No hand-holding this shot! I used the camera's two-second timer to reduce the likelihood of blur. Only a slight levels and contrast adjustment was required in post to bring this image back to life the way I remembered it.

I'm glad I took that evening off and hiked up Rough Ridge for this shot during peak Autumn color. Only a few days later, the trees on Grandfather Mountain became brown and nearly bare. Soon after, the landscape was virtually colorless for 6 months until spring.

“I stand for what I stand on.” - Edward Abbey

Prague in Black & White

Prague is colorful. Red-orange rooftops contrast strongly against green forested hills that roll around the city. Spring and summer boast bold and bright flowers in the city's parks, gardens, and window-boxes. Over the last several years, building facades have been revitalized and painted pastel hues of blue, pink, and yellow. I like color photography just as much as anyone, but, if given a choice, I'll always choose black and white. Striping away the distraction of color brings an image down to its basic elements. The bare bones of subject and composition are revealed. Black and white allows the emotion to come through more clearly. For me, black and white is the best way to show the haunting gothic beauty of Prague's ancient architecture. 

Below is a collection of recent monochrome photographs from my trip to Prague earlier this spring. Thanks for reading and best of light.

 Charles Bridge and Mala strana, Prague, Czech Republic

Charles Bridge and Mala strana, Prague, Czech Republic

 View from the Old Town Bridge Tower, Prague, Czech Republic

View from the Old Town Bridge Tower, Prague, Czech Republic

 Charles Bridge and Stare Mesto (Old Town), Prague, Czech Republic

Charles Bridge and Stare Mesto (Old Town), Prague, Czech Republic

 The Spires of Old Town, Prague, Czech Republic

The Spires of Old Town, Prague, Czech Republic

 Night on the Charles Bridge, Mala Strana, Prague, Czech Republic

Night on the Charles Bridge, Mala Strana, Prague, Czech Republic

All images in this post were made using a Nikon D750 with 24-120mm f4 VR lens on or off a tripod. They were processed using Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro 2.
To find out what's in my camera bag, click here.
Images © 2018 Jon Reaves Photography. All rights reserved.

PhotoLife Magazine

I'm very happy to have made my Canadian publication debut in PhotoLife magazine! The current issue (August/September 2018) features an article I wrote about gritty black and white photography entitled "Embrace the Grain", as well as several images. The French version of the magazine, Photo Solution, also features my image of a white-tailed jackrabbit on the cover. So, if you live in Canada, check it out and subscribe!

  Photo Solution  magazine (French) featuring my article "Embrace the Grain" and white-tailed jackrabbit image on the cover.

Photo Solution magazine (French) featuring my article "Embrace the Grain" and white-tailed jackrabbit image on the cover.

  PhotoLife  magazine (English) featuring my article   "Embrace the Grain."

PhotoLife magazine (English) featuring my article "Embrace the Grain."

Visit photolife.com for more!

Tips for the Khutzeymateen

TIPS FOR PHOTOGRAPHING GRIZZLIES IN THE
 KHUTZEYMATEEN, BRITISH COLUMBIA

Khutzeymateen Provincial Park is one of British Columbia's premier, virtually untouched, wildlife preservation areas. Located near the B.C. - Alaska border just north of Prince Rupert, it occupies an area of 44,300 hectares at the northern most edge of what has become known as the Great Bear Rainforest. The park was established as a sanctuary for grizzlies in 1994 with the help of conservationists and none other than the Duke of Edinburgh. Accessible by float plane from Prince Rupert, only a couple hundred visitors are permitted to visit the sanctuary each year. Only two vessels are allowed to dock in the Inlet, the Ocean Light II and Sunchaser. Both take clients out into the estuaries to view bears in inflatable boats (called zodiacs). I chose the Sunchaser, captained By Dan Wakeman (and it wont be the only time). 

The Khutzeymateen Inlet is a stunningly beautiful area and a great example of conservation success. Canada would benefit greatly from more protected habitats like it. Despite the beauty and potential for awesome wildlife images, there are some things I learned on my May 2018 trip that I wish I knew beforehand. There are also some decisions I made (in gear choices, clothing, etc) in preparation for the trip that made photographing much more enjoyable and efficient. Here are my tips for photography in the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary:

PACK RAIN GEAR ("WATER RESISTANT" IS NOT SUFFICIENT)

It rains a lot in British Columbia's northern coastal forests. During my Khutzeymateen experience, it rained every day and night. When you're living on a sailboat and going out to view bears in an uncovered zodiac, you're gonna get wet even when isn't raining. Probably the most important advice I can give for visiting a climate like this is to have warm, water-proof clothing - not "water-resistant" or "water-repellent." Those aren't sufficient and tend to soak through after a few hours in the rain (and it is very difficult to dry out your stuff on a sailboat). You want solid rubber and full coverage from head to toe. Imagine the stuff that lobster fisherman wear...that bright yellow rubber rain jacket and pants...that's what you want. Several outdoor clothing companies make rain gear of this caliber; I'd recommend something from Helly Hansen or similar, or you'll be stuck with the guide's bulky rain suits, which are difficult to shoot in. Make sure your boots are waterproof as well!

 A large male grizzly swims in the estuary, Khutzeymateen Inlet, British Columbia. No matter the weather, the bears are usually active in Spring and Summer. (Nikon D750, Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6 VR, 500mm, f8, 1/1000 sec, ISO 3200)

A large male grizzly swims in the estuary, Khutzeymateen Inlet, British Columbia. No matter the weather, the bears are usually active in Spring and Summer. (Nikon D750, Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6 VR, 500mm, f8, 1/1000 sec, ISO 3200)

PROTECT YOUR CAMERA GEAR FROM THE ELEMENTS

The best investment I made in preparation for the Khutzeymateen was the cheapest purchase made for the trip. I paid $7 for a pack of two plastic rain covers with drawstrings for my cameras. They worked perfectly. Even though my clothing was damp by the second day of shooting in the rain, my camera gear was completely dry! A couple other guys in the boat had much more expensive nylon rain covers, but I noticed them constantly adjusting them, and they didn't seem to cover their lenses completely. My cheap plastic covers protected my camera and 200-500mm lens from hood to viewfinder. I only got a couple droplets on the LCD at times. One of the other photographers actually had water and condensation get inside his lens and camera body while using one of the more expensive covers. I had no issues with moisture. I also packed several absorbent microfibre cleaning cloths, but rarely used them. 

A waterproof camera backpack, or a good rain cover, is also essential to store other gear or a backup camera in. The bottom of the inflatable boat will be very damp, so a rain cover is necessary. I used a detachable cover so that I could hang it out to drip dry between outings. 

 A grizzly looks across the rainy inlet in the direction of the Sunchaser, Khutzeymateen Provincial Park, British Columbia. 

A grizzly looks across the rainy inlet in the direction of the Sunchaser, Khutzeymateen Provincial Park, British Columbia. 

CHOOSE THE RIGHT CAMERA GEAR

You may be tempted to bring a 500mm f4 or 400mm f2.8 or some other gargantuan piece of glass to the Khutzeymateen. You don't need it. You'll be close enough to photograph bears with a 70-200mm for the most part. I used my Nikon 200-500mm VR 90% of the time. In fact, each of the four of us used lenses in that range. One guy had a Tamron 150-600, another used a Canon 100-400 IS, and both me and the other photographer were using the Nikon 200-500mm. We all got great images.

These lenses are not only light and easy to pack and hand-hold, they provide lots of versatility in focal length. This allows for creating a variety of compositions instead of being bound to just 400 or 500mm. The boat can't always shift around to give photographers a better view (the bears well-being and safety come first), so versatility is essential. You also can't use a tripod in the zodiac, and even use of a monopod makes shooting awkward (and is annoying for others in the boat). So, use of heavy prime telephotos is not recommended. Make sure your lens has vibration reduction (or equivalent). The zodiac is moving a bit even when the engine isn't running, which makes getting sharp shots a bit of a challenge. 

 The guide is required to keep the boat a minimum distance from the bears. Some bears are more tolerant of human presence than others. This particular bear didn't mind us hanging out for a while at the minimum distance, Khutzeymateen Inlet, British Columbia. (Nikon D750, Nikon 200-500mm f5.6 VR, 500mm, f6.3, 1/800 sec, ISO 4000)

The guide is required to keep the boat a minimum distance from the bears. Some bears are more tolerant of human presence than others. This particular bear didn't mind us hanging out for a while at the minimum distance, Khutzeymateen Inlet, British Columbia. (Nikon D750, Nikon 200-500mm f5.6 VR, 500mm, f6.3, 1/800 sec, ISO 4000)

CHOOSE THE "RIGHT" EXPOSURE SETTINGS

The biggest challenge in photographing wild grizzlies was getting sharp and well-exposed images. As earlier mentioned, the boat is constantly moving, but so are the bears. Proper hand-holding technique with longer lenses is crucial and vibration reduction helps as well, but a fast shutter-speed is also needed to freeze the bears. They're not moving fast, usually just lumbering around eating sedges. Combine their constant movement with the constant movement/vibration of the boat, and the fact that it'll probably be dark overcast, and you've got the perfect recipe for blurry images. The faster the shutter-speed, the sharper the image. Of course that comes at a cost. High ISOs (which degrade image quality especially with crop-sensor cameras) are needed to get shutter-speeds fast enough to freeze motion. 

I shot in Manual mode with auto-ISO turned on while using a full-frame DSLR (allowing ISO to fluctuate between 400 - 4000 depending on the shutter-speed and aperture I selected manually). Full-frame cameras do a much better job at producing clean (less-noisy) images at high ISOs compared to crop-sensor models. Most of my images from the Khutzeymateen were shot between ISO 1250 and ISO 3200. Many of my favorite shots were captured at ISO 2500. This allowed me to get shutter-speeds of at least 1/500th of a second. My ideal shutter-speed was 1/1000th or faster, but that was not always possible. To help achieve the fast shutter-speeds necessary and not boost my ISO even higher, I shot at relatively wide apertures in the f5.6 - f7.1 range (my Nikon 200-500 VR is f5.6 at its widest). 

 A young grizzly rests on the banks of the Khutzeymateen Inlet at low tide, British Columbia. (Nikon D750, Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6 VR, 500mm, f.6.3, 1/800 sec, ISO 2500)

A young grizzly rests on the banks of the Khutzeymateen Inlet at low tide, British Columbia.
(Nikon D750, Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6 VR, 500mm, f.6.3, 1/800 sec, ISO 2500)

HAVE RESPECT FOR THE ENVIRONMENT, OTHER GUESTS, AND THE GUIDES

I am happy with my first experience in the Khutzeymateen, as well as with Sunchaser Grizzly Tours. The other three photographers on the trip, who I had never met previously, were great to shoot with. We cooperated with each other in the small zodiac to make sure we all had clear views of the bears. There were no big egos. We had a great time and came away with great images despite the tricky conditions. Captain Dan and his assistant made sure that we had a 5-star bear viewing experience while respecting the environment and coming away with a better understanding of grizzlies and their habitat. I'd recommend this trip to any nature photographer. Thanks for reading and safe travels.

For my full travel/nature photography packing list, click here.