Real or surreal, the choice is yours

I like how Dan approaches post production, I have the same sense, that the tech tools we have should be used to deepen the impact of the art work. I see my initial image as what it is, RAW material … that can be shaped in subtle ways in post. Like Dan, I’m not going for a final result that looks out there. The final image must always have an intimate connection to your experience of that place and time. But by doing a thoughtful enhancement of the elements, I give myself a larger orchestra to compose for, i.e., I’j just finishing the composition, evoking the underlying elements of the piece through crop, structure, light and dark, tone, light.

Dan Jurak's Alberta Landscape Photo Blog

prairie, landscape, winter, Dan Jurak, Alberta, snow, cold, sunset, poplar tree, barbed wire fence,I have spent a great portion of my life in the great outdoors. From my earliest childhood memories visiting Jasper National Park when the Icefields Parkway was a two late gravel road to having a convoy of European supercars pass me on the same highway a few years ago when I was spending a few fine autumn days in the park. BTW, it was really cool to see Ferraris, Lamborghinis, etc. zipping down the same highway that I almost know like the back of my hand.

In all of those years of camping and visiting how many spectacular sunrises or sunsets have I seen? Generously I would say one out of ten is a memorable one.

Simply put, most sunrises and sunsets are not memorable but yet I see photographers with always spectacular colours and tones in their photos.

Do they live on a different planet than I or are…

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Mullaghmore at Dusk – Ireland

Bruno’s seascape is a nicely composed long exposure shot. Taken at Mullaghmore, Sligo, Ireland.

The Photographer's Guide to Landscape Photography

Mullaghmore at dusk

Dear fellow photographers, finally we were blessed with a gorgeous sunny day here in the north west of Ireland. After weeks of rain and wind, it’s really something, and even less excuses not to take your camera out.

This week image is one of the simplest composition I can think of. There is barely a subject! This can be quite a challenge most of the times, and could put us off from even trying and get an image. Nevertheless It’s always worthy to look for the elements of a possible good composition around us. An interesting sky at dusk and few rocks swept by the waves are just the perfect training ground for any photographer with an interest in seascape.

My tip: when you lack a clear subject, pay even more attention to the basic rules of composition. The rule of thirds for example. Make a decision…

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More LA Harbor Night Studies

I’m trying to put together a gallery show and part of the show would include some long exposure night images of the LA/Long Beach Harbor unloading docks. I’ve decided on most of my faves but there were a few of the old images that are’t as powerful. So last night I was back out in the Nimitz Way section of the Long Beach docks with trusty tripod and my 5DSR.

The harbor area is  a great location for doing long exposure work. The water does nice things, the place is busy night and day — and even on Friday night, LA rush hour there was no one out there to hassle me. That’s amazing for a place that’s only a 10 minute drive.

Plus the artificial light is visually intense. A friend told me that the harbor is one of the most noticeable places on earth on images taken from space. That level of light spill is obviously a huge ecological issue. But it also makes for powerful images.

Given the lighting impact, I didn’t need to do much post work. There is no issue with a “natural” looking image when the lighting is so extreme and you’re doing long exposures. The main trick here aside from composition, is to have a good tripod and the right exposure.

So, three new images.

Hyundai Night

109mm, 15 sec, F11, ISO 100

Maersk Line in Orange and Gray

70mm, 20 sec, F11, ISO 100


147mm at 10 sec, F5, ISO 100



The mountains are great… but the prairies will always be my first love

Dan Jurak’s blog is an ongoing pleasure to read. The really good posts, and there are plenty, have him distilling his personal response to photography in a way that’s heartfelt and yet spare. And his images are equally spare and un-cliched.

They’re mostly images from his local area, the Alberta plains. These are the northern plains, not quite Iowa flat, but not marquee locations like Banff (a regular focus of his travel work). And these Alberta landscapes have immense diversity in their quiet way … plus, Dan is good at seeing that rough, northern beauty and composing the land’s shape with a spare hand.

I guess that’s why this image struck me. What a lovely image. And with his comments on shooting locally vs at the well-known travel destinations.

Having just moved down to San Pedro, I’ve been some new local exploration here. I have an ongoing night series I’m working on of LA Harbor and am spending time in and out of the tidal pools along the Palos Verdes Peninsula, doing long exposures in late afternoons.

This quote from Dan about doing local work is just where my head is right now:
“… At home we have the luxury of going out when conditions look great or staying home when they don’t. Away from home you take what you nature presents on that particular day.”
“One of the secrets of doing landscape photography really well is to get out often, as often as you can. … Being able to recognize when the light and the weather is requisite.”

And that’s the great thing I’m noticing as well, that when you living a place, you notice when the weather is about to serve up something nice or when tides are low or just an unusual quality in the light. And that motivates you to get out there.

In practical terms, that means I can go to my current fav locations — or find a new spot, when the weather display and light will give me the most value. And that means my portfolio of good work can continue to expand. No outside photog has the level of opportunity that a local has.

Dan Jurak's Alberta Landscape Photo Blog

landscape, foggy, winter, snow, Alberta, rural, pasture, frozen, Dan Jurak,

A few days ago was my first trip to the mountains in a few months. It was like coming home visiting the rockies. It always takes my breath away. Everything is grand. Everything is spectacular.

But the best thing about going away I have always found is returning home. There is no more comforting feeling that putting my head on my pillow, having our 95 pound Weimaraner laying on my feet so that I am pinned under the blanket and listening to my wife toss and turn all night. I mean it.

I have been toying with the idea of one day moving to Canmore to be closer to the mountains and wonder how different would the photos I take be?

At home we have the luxury of going out when conditions look great or staying home when they don’t. Away from home you take what you nature presents on…

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Photographing Kauai Without a Net

The mountainous center of Kauai is a world unto itself, cliffs that drop into the mist below, endless waterfalls, pinnacles of weathered lava cloaked in green.  This hidden landscape can only be photographed from a helicopter or some modern Lewis and Clark.

… And our intrepid enthusiast was there, with knees jammed against the seat in front to give a false sense of security. 

I’ve done an occasional helicopter and small plane tour and the experience is always powerful. Human perception is trained from birth to see the world bottom up. And seeing a place from a height can evoke moments of wonder.

That said, most copter rides will disappoint the photo enthusiast artistically …  if not done right. Usually on these tours, you’re shooting through a small window. That means only a foot of latitude when it comes to pointing the camera and worse, too much window glare for a usable image.

So I hadn’t considered a helicopter on our upcoming Kauai trip until I read that  a couple of companies do “doors-off” tours on the island. Now that got me thinking.

Doors-off means no window glare, no tiny window to shoot through. Yes, you’re still totally strapped in, these tour folks are scrupulous in their safety procedures. But from a creative perspective, doors-off offers some serious benefits. No doors means your range of motion with the camera is excellent — as good as you’ll get while seated and strapped in.

I had an intuition about all this by the time we got to the Bali Hai Resort. And I asked the tour desk folks about the tours. The Wyndham folks ran down the two companies that offer “doors-off” (and yes, they also do doors on). So I booked the tour (and got the Wyndham discount) with Jack Harter Helicopters (808-245-3774), working out of Lihui.

Pre-Flight Prep

In their confirmation email, the company suggested a warm jacket, it gets cool at 5,000 feet, even on Kauai. They also said to show up ahead of time for all the pre-tour stuff you’d expect.

That afternoon, we went through all that and got our instructions. The Jack Harter offices are about a mile from the Lihue Airport, (there’s a van to carry folks to the helicopter pad). The participants included several photo enthusiasts, plus newlyweds and even a Special Forces guy stationed on Oahu and his wife. We chatted till the van got there.

As an Army brat, talking with the Special Forces guy was like catnip. My new friend had done more copter rides than he could count. He was stoked about cruising this vacation spot doors-off — and sharing the experience with his wife. Like most participants she was a first timer but being an Army wife, she was totally game.

The pre-tour overview helped but there were some jitters out there on the tarmac. I spent the time getting my gear ready and checking my settings. They only allow one camera and lens per person, no other loose items at all. … Imagine loose gear in the open cockpit of a helicopter traveling at 100 mph.

While waiting, enthusiasts had the lens discussion. With what you’re paying for your photo shoot, choosing a lens is important. There’s something to be said for having a lens with some range, 24-105mm, 24-70mm, etc. That range is perfect for the times you’re moving through the distinctive Kauai ecosystems. You can capture most vistas or lock in on a waterfall at the far end of a valley.

But on this kind of trip, a wide angle zoom rules. The shoot locations are such unique landscapes, wide valleys, huge swaths of uninhabited coast, cliffs half a mile deep. And when the copter nudges you into those expansive parts of the Lost World, a 16-35mm or 17-40mm has to be your tool of choice. Otherwise you’re leaving out important parts of the composition.

Area of High Velocity Falls, looking out. Sure, I could have gotten (most of) this shot at 24mm. But the sheer weight of that left foreground element  would have been missing and the cliff edge on the right side wouldn’t feel like it stretched out to forever.

Going wide angle zoom was my take on the perfect lens discussion. At that point the van took us down to the airport. Each of the copters was a 5-seater. So each passenger (except the one in the middle front seat) is open to the elements.

Kauia doors off tour, Jack Harter Helecopters

Our ride and Ian, our pilot

Once Ian, our pilot had everyone communicating through the headphones, the engines geared up and the copter eased up light as a dragonfly.

I was a bit queasy by now. Seeing the ground disappear, feeling how freeform a copter navigates through space, it all made me wonder if I’d be making a deposit into the little brown bag. But as we rose, that sense of fearful height became an abstraction, like it is on an airline. And by the time the views expanded, the creative juices kicked in. Showtime.

Kauia doors off tour, Jack Harter Helecopters

Heading west from the airport — Using the helicopter’s step as foreground element and the Huali’i river as leading line.

Composition as a Vertical

On this trip I had to adjust how I see landscape. Most landscape shots are in flat landscape mode (duh). But in the copter, your frame of reference has to include the fact that your vertical axis is in constant flux.

Kauia doors off tour, Jack Harter Helecopters

Waipo’o Falls

You also notice that with no door, you’re open to the world. The pilot banks and you find yourself staring straight down. And if you move the camera out into that space, you feel the 100 mph winds blasting. So use the camera strap.

It’s an invigorating feeling. But if there’s any moisture in the air (and you are in the clouds); your gear may need drying. This became an issue when we headed into the highlands. In that mist, poking the camera into position was enough to dampen the lens.

Shooting through the clouds around Waialeale Crater

Compositional as Visual Improv

At these speeds, composition moves fast. Landscape photographers tend to revel in a new shoot location; we like to breathe the place in, notice the foreground elements and such. That’s the magic of shooting a sacred spot.

But when you’re getting swung through these vast canyons, there’s zero time to breathe in a location. The pilot banks and you’re looking 2,000 feet down and holding on for the ride. Composition has to be instantaneous: see it, shoot it, see the next shot location. Because the angle you liked so much is gone in 3… 2…

On top of that, the copter is never level for long. So you either make an instant adjustment to level the image or all your shots will be tilting. (Tip: It helps to not frame the composition as tightly as usual — that way you’ve got a bit of leeway for leveling the image in post.)

Kauia doors off tour, Jack Harter Helecopters

Pohakuau ( along the Napali, near red hill) looking in to Kalalau valley. This one was in classic landscape mode, but part of the magic of this shot “location” is that the eye knows we’re half a mile up.

This is camera improv for the landscape enthusiast and if you didn’t get 300 shots at bare minimum, you must’ve been too sick to look through the viewfinder. A copter shoot is the ultimate photo improv, real time — at 100 mph.

Plus you’re only able to shoot from your seat in the copter. That meant there were shots that the photog to my left got served up and a different set that came my way.

Kauia doors off tour, Jack Harter Helecopters

You see the other guy’s shot but …  Waialae looking toward Waimea canyon

One challenge with these tours is that pilots aren’t allowed to just hover there next to one of those 2000 foot cliffs. FAA rules have been clearly defined for Kauai’s unique challenges, how high you can go under various flight conditions, how close you can get to a cliff face, etc.

As photographers, we want (and need) a level of control. Our image will be better if we can tell a pilot: “OK, little to the left … now let’s try the same shot from 300 feet higher.” When you’re hiking or doing a four-wheel photo tour, you control how you engage the environment. So this tour is a roller coaster that can’t stop on the tracks.

The Itinerary

This video game world has a specific plot structure: airport to back country to Waimea. Then over to NaPali and up the misty mountains and the return along the lowlands.

Waialae looking up stream

NaPali Coast looking east

Honopuu arch, NaPali Coast

So imagine a Richard Avadon style photographer, shooting image after image, capturing one amazing sight after another. But the feeling comes with the clear realization that you’ve missed as much as you got.


The typical landscape photog will often look for a foreground object to play off of the rest of the vista. But unless you’re using the copter itself as a foreground element (and that gets boring), you find that the whole scene is out there in the middle and far distance. However, a cliff face that’s only a hundred yards away can become a powerful foreground choice if it lines up just right. Plus wide angle lenses have a wonderful way of exaggerating the scale of whatever’s closest.

Kauia doors off tour, Jack Harter Helecopters

Honopuu valley, Along NaPali Coast

Kauia doors off tour, Jack Harter Helecopters

Entering Kalalau Valley along the West side from NaPali. Here the shot is anchored by the base of the pinnacle and the eye follows that up till it becomes a razorback.

Once you get further back from the NaPali Coast, you’re in landscapes that seem created for giants. The ancient volcanic cores of Kauai have been scooped into near-vertical cliffs. And since the copter covers this section from above, that becomes how the eye sees the image, cliff top to valley.

Kauia doors off tour, Jack Harter Helecopters

Nualolo Aina

Kauia doors off tour, Jack Harter Helecopters

Hanakoa Falls, Classic Rule of Thirds, Leading Lines

Tech Talk

Shutter speed. I didn’t want to hassle with shutter speed or the other settings while we were up there. But being in a moving helicopter means you want shutter speed to be a bit higher than usual for a wide angle. In addition, a tour like this will have moments of bright sun, overcast and even some deep misty conditions. So I shot in Aperture mode and didn’t ride the shutter speed at all. Instead I set ISO and f-stop so as to give myself the most leeway.

ISO. I set ISO higher than usual, 800 and up to 1200 in spots with thick mist. That wasn’t an issue since I had a full frame.

F-stop. With my lens choice, the Canon 16-35mm, and with foregrounds fairly far away, I could shoot as low as f4-f5.6 and still get everything in focus.

Hindsight. There were a few spots where my shutter speed went as low as 1/20 sec. and those images are OK but not crystal sharp. And in retrospect, I could have upped my ISO. But my biggest takeaway was wishing I had taken a towel or worn something to clear up the moisture on the lens. That was really my biggest issue.

My choice of gear was tand my (full frame) Canon 5Dsr. If I’d brought a second lens, it would have been a 24-105mm. Obviously adjust your lens choice for a crop camera. So if I had chosen my Fuji X-T2 (with a 1.5 crop), I would have gone with their 10-24mm.

Composition. There are plenty of ways to work composition for this kind of a situation.

Foreground/background compositions can work but in a helicopter that usually translates as mid-ground/background. The only true foreground is what’s in the helicopter.

Leading lines are everywhere (waterfalls, cliff ridges). Rule of 3rds, juxtaposition, etc.

Even when moving this fast you want the eye to make sense of these mythic shapes. It’s easy to just shoot nonstop for a hour without seeing the composition, like the 1,000 monkeys typing Shakespeare. And that’s a waste of good silicon. So see what compositional ideas come and work fast.

And most of all, just have fun. I found that the hour I spent up in the clouds challenged me in all kinds of ways. I wished I could have afforded a private tour or gone back the next day and sat on the other side of the copter. Because there are amazing opportunities on a doors-off tour and a range of challenges we rarely face.

And don’t get bothered if you didn’t get as many keepers as usual. These nosebleed inducing images are unique, as abstract as sculptures by Henry Moore but vastly larger. If you get 5 good ones out of the mix, you’re better than most. And each image has a story behind it.


Inside the Waialeale crater looking out (north)





Shooting LA Harbor

Now that we live in San Pedro, I’ve been wandering down to LA Harbor for the occasional photo shoot. It’s one of the busiest ports for container ships in the world and just over the Vincent Thomas Bridge.

The scale of the place is amazing. And since they seem to work 24×7, the place is always lit up. So it’s great fun to work on night photography — once you figure out how to get around the warren of roads and detours.

A small section of the harbor facility:

Port of LA from Gaffey Street

And from Harbor Blvd. in San Pedro:

Vincent Thomas Bridge from Harbor Blvd.

Harbor Facility and Vincent Thomas Bridge

It’s impossible to get close to any of the harbor areas. But that offers creative opportunities.

Crane, Seaside Road

Crane, Seaside Road

The fact of night and a lit up environment gives the most everyday machinery a kind of mythic quality.

Train Engine, Nimitz Road

Crane, Nimitz Road

These loading facilities are all securely guarded and fenced off. They don’t let anyone use the bathroom  if you have a camera. But the main roads are public property. A few images from a pull-off on Navy Way.

Shot from Navy Way, 23 sec exposure

Loading a Ship, Sunset

Shot from Navy Way, 40 sec exposure

Cranes and Container Ship, shot from Navy Way




Living off of the low hanging fruit? It’s not any sweeter.

Some good insights on photo gear from Dan Jurak. There’s way too much pressure to buy the latest — as if a $3000 gear purchase somehow improves a person’a artistry. That fence post shot he did with that old camera is proof that it’s the photographer and not the camera. (On the other hand, look at the EXIF data on the file, the resolution level for the fence post file is tiny.) Regardless, someone’s who’s learning is better off using a camera body that’s several generations back and upgrading when enhanced features make the upgrade a step forward.

Dan Jurak's Alberta Landscape Photo Blog

landscape, prairie, winter, dan jurak, alberta, snow, cold, fencepost, farm, rural, fence post,

The days have become shorter up here. Today a cloudy grey sky and a predicted high of -7 Celsius is forecast. It’s gloomy outside and some people find weather like this depressing. Call me weird but I find peace and tranquility when the skies are heavy. The landscape is easier on the eye. Shadows are soft or non-existent today.

Lately I have been going back over some very old photos from when I picked up landscapes again. Today is from 2007 and was taken with a now ancient Canon Rebel XTi.

I have attached a screen of the IPTC data just to show that although it is nice to have a high end camera and lens it really isn’t necessary. A Facebook group that I belong to has almost every day a post asking about what is the best camera, lens, tripod, etc. to buy and almost always someone pipes…

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