Thursday, February 26, 2015

Celebrate International Polar Bear Day

I had the incredible opportunity to travel to a remote location in the Canadian Arctic last year to photograph polar bears during the annual migration to the sea ice in Hudson Bay. Getting there required two days of travel from Los Angeles. The last leg was a one-hour flight on a bush plane under low cloud cover, landing on a 400-foot makeshift dirt strip on the tundra. 

Accompanied by other photographers and Inuit guides, we were 100 miles from the nearest settlement. To the west lay the flat, stark emptiness of the Arctic tundra; to the east, iceless Hudson Bay stretched out to the horizon. Within an hour of landing, we saw our first polar bear. Over the course of the following week, we would see male and female bears, cubs, and the occasional Arctic fox. One day greeted us with bitter cold, gale-force winds; an all-day snowstorm toward the end of the week threatened our ability to fly back out. 

As photographers, we create art, record memories or document events. Sometimes what we witness can change us as well. I had the opportunity to learn from our Inuit guides, talk to the expedition leader and stand face-to-face with polar bears. There's no question among those who live in the Arctic that the world is changing. The sea ice comes much later now and disappears sooner.  

When I returned from Nunavut, I further researched the world of the Hudson Bay polar bears. The Western Hudson Bay sub-population that I walked among has declined by a third over the past 30 years. Scientists have measured the bears now being smaller as a result of a shorter hunting season. These bears are the most southerly in the world and will be the first to become extinct.

There are only an estimated 25,000 polar bears in the wild globally, and 60% of those are in Canada. The Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the planet. In just two or three generations of polar bears - 36 to 45 years - the total population may decline by two thirds. 

There is still time to save the polar bears. I hope that showcasing my images will encourage others to enjoy and protect what we have.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

How Color Creates Emotion

sleeping polar bear on snow
Polar Bear, Sleeping
Every feature film, many television dramas and most high-end commercials take a trip through a colorist before release. Hollywood discovered how to use color long before color film became available. As early as the 1910s, some film stocks were tinted red, blue, yellow or other shades, and toning became popular as well.

As co-owner of a Los Angeles production company and award-winning video editor for 10 years, I developed an understanding of the power and use of color in still and motion photography. Colors have been found to relate to and convey emotions. Blues can be seen as cold, or they can be peaceful and calming as they remind us of nighttime. Earth tones of browns and greens remind us of nature, and convey tranquility and harmony. Reds and oranges are exciting and energetic. Even black, white and shades of gray can be associated with certain feelings.

Most of my images will have a dominant color or tone, and that is deliberate. It often starts with the shot I select, enhanced in post-production, or a creative treatment or undertone that I’ll apply in post. The color choices are deliberate. They help unify the image, hopefully convey the emotion I want to convey, and enhance the subject of the photograph.

The effect is best kept subtle. Pushing the vibrance or saturation sliders to the max is not my idea of color grading or color finishing, as it is called in motion image editing. When more overt manipulation is done, it should be done for a reason.

Some Examples
Here are a few examples of my color work. The sleeping polar bear, photographed during a snowstorm in the Canadian Arctic, saw very little post-production. I wanted white to dominate, a color that represents purity and innocence. I adjusted the color temperature, did some dodging and burning, and neutralized the white tones. The result is a near-monotone image of peacefulness, stillness and wilderness.

Horses and cowboy running in morning light
Morning Exercise 

I wanted to achieve the opposite effect with the image of the horses being run ("Morning Exercise"). This was shot in the golden morning light, so I already had a warm glow to start with. The effect was aided by deliberate backlighting and the dust being kicked up in the corral. The orange color conveys the energy and excitement of the workout, and I emphasized that with color temperature adjustments and an added color undertone.
Wooden bridge over snow-covered, frozen river
Ice Bridge 

The wooden bridge over the frozen river ("Ice Bridge") seemed to ask for a more extreme treatment. Under a cold, cloudy sky, the bridge did not stand out. In post-production, I created two layers. For the background, I desaturated that layer and then added a blue-violet tint. The bridge was masked out to show through the original color layer, which was then enhanced with warm tone adjustments. I wanted to create a contrast between the cold ice and sky and the warm, natural tones of the wooden bridge. The effect brings out the bridge and yet is subtle overall.

The range of techniques in color finishing is tremendous. I use these to enhance my images and convey not just what I captured in camera, but what I felt as I snapped the shutter.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Back to the Future: The Film Project

Canon A-1, 50mm lens, Kodak Ektar 100 film
Last week we posted an update to our film project, rediscovering my old 1980 Canon A-1. In addition to the A-1, I also picked up a Holga 120N toy camera and shot a roll of Fujifilm Neopan 100. I like to experiment, and I've been intrigued by the low-fi images produced by the Holga and Lomography cameras and the original Diana camera that inspired them. In fact, there's a great exhibit that I recently viewed at the PhoPa Gallery in Portland, Maine by Tonee Harbert, all shot on an original 1960s Diana. 

Sony a7R, 35mm f/2.8 Sonnar lens
But, back to my experiment. On a recent trip up the California Coast, I had two digital cameras and the two film cameras with me. Stopping at the iconic Bixby Bridge in Big Sur, I shot the bridge with the Canon A-1, the Holga and a Sony a7R. 

Clearly, these are three different interpretations of the same scene. Readers on my Facebook page seemed to prefer the color film version shot by the A-1, but everyone's response is going to be different. I used Kodak Ektar 100 for that, and it was shot with the original Canon FD 50mm f/1.8 lens. The detail is present and the colors are neutral without over-saturation. 

Holga 120N, Fujifilm Neopan 100
The black and white Holga image is naturally softer, with greater contrast and some vignetting. The 36 megapixel capture from the Sony a7R, equipped with a Sony Sonnar 35mm f/2.8 lens, reveals a highly detailed, vibrant photograph.

As I mentioned in my previous post, retraining myself to shoot film was interesting. The muscle memory returned and the experience was rewarding. I'll be looking to use both of these film cameras in future projects where they can lend a distinct perspective. 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Update on the Film Project

Historic Pierce Point Ranch: soft tones and subtle colors
handled well by the Kodak Ektar 100 film.

A couple of months ago, I posted a piece on rediscovering my vintage 1980 Canon A-1 film camera. I knew that it worked, or at least that the film advance worked, the shutter released and the meter was responsive. That's about all I knew after not using the camera for 20 or so years.

I did a little cleanup inside and out, bought a new 6-volt battery and a roll of Kodak Ektar 100 color negative film, and went shooting. It took me at least two months to complete the 36 exposures on this one roll of film, which would be zipped off in a few minutes of shooting wildlife with a digital SLR. One doesn't snap away so quickly when each frame costs money - and when there's no motor drive. 

Midday Southern California light
brings saturated skies and warm
tones of the official bellringer at
Mission San Juan Capistrano.
So, I just got back the negatives and a set of scans that the lab provided. Technically, everything worked. The meter was obviously still accurate and the camera and attached Canon 50mm lens were in sync. 

I have not shot film in close to 15 years. I had to retrain myself to shoot with film, as it really is a different process. You know that you are setting up one shot, and that there's no way you can check it until it comes back from the lab. It requires a more deliberate, thoughtful approach. Focus is manual, and you need to understand how the light meter is reading the scene. You can't bump the ISO to shoot a low-light image, so you work with what you have in camera. And I didn't want to be doing a lot of post-processing as that would defeat the value of film in capturing the moment as it truly was.

I have to say that I was pleased with my results. Apparently, the muscle memory was still intact and I mostly managed to properly frame, focus and expose the film. There's also a pleasing visceral sensation in handling the smaller, lighter and purely mechancial machine.

High contrast subjects were more challenging for the color film.
I was pleased with what the Ektar 100 delivered: saturated colors, soft tones and crisp details. High-contrast scenes were more troublesome, and I felt that with a histogram and the ability to run off some test shots, my DSLR would have better handled those scenes. But that could also be an issue of relearning my film technique. 

It was a fun experiment, and now that I know the camera is functional, I'll try some different films and subjects and see what develops (pun intended). Meanwhile, here's some images from roll #1. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Returned from the Arctic

So, we've been missing in action from the blog and Google+ the past few weeks. Apologies for the absences. I'll get a note from my mother. What's my excuse?

Well, first of all, I was away in a place with no connection to the outside world. I spent an amazing week in the Arctic photographing polar bears along Hudson Bay, at a remote location in Nunavut, 100 km from the nearest Inuit settlement. More on that in a future post, but the image above will give you a taste of what we encountered. 

Since returning, I've been busy processing the images from the far north, and at the same time redesigning and relaunching my website. It has a new look, with expanded content. Take a look at and let me know what you think. 

I'm also getting ready for a bit of a break over the Thanksgiving holiday and planning for 2015. Stay tuned!