Powered Paragliding Part III

The saga continues!

Weather continues to be an issue in getting my training done.  I booked an evening, a full day and a morning in hopes of getting my flights in.  It seems like a little thing - the sun's out, go fly right?  Wrong.

Sun is good, but wind and thermals are key factors.  You simply can't fly if the wind is howling, and you can't fly if there are up and down drafts - certainly not if you're a new pilot like I am.  Thermals are great if you're looking for them because you don't have a motor strapped to your back.  For me though, I have a throttle that lets me climb.

Anyway, Tuesday was a little blustery - I arrived early as usual and got my gear out.  My instructor arrived shortly after and we killed some time by adding an upgrade to my cage.  The pull-start rope was located just slightly below below my left shoulder near my neck - not particularly easy to reach in flight and should the motor cut out, or I shut it down myself, it would be a good thing if I could reach it easier.  Now the rope is about a foot higher giving me much better leverage.

The wind eventually eased up enough to reverse inflate.  Sadly, on 4 tries I aborted my take off - On my last one though it was just from being tired of carrying the motor for so long - the wing was fine I just didn't have anything left in the tank to go forward.  Lame.  

After a little rest, the wind died and I took off with a forward launch.  Unfortunately the sun was dipping low on the horizon so I got in a single flight somewhere around 1,100 feet and just enjoyed the view.  Something about those forward launches, they just seem to come easier for me.  Who knows what it is - I clearly need to practice reversing more.  I can do that on my own though until I nail it.  No actual getting airborne of course - just to the point of being about to lift off!

Photo by Andre Zeman, Owner of Powered Paragliding Ontario - Pre-flight smiles

Photo by Andre Zeman, Owner of Powered Paragliding Ontario - Pre-flight smiles

Unfortunately Wednesday was a complete bust.  Rain and gusty winds kept me grounded all day.  Very frustrating but safety first.  With the whole day to myself I took a little trip to the Falls again and I can say with complete confidence that any more than an hour or maybe 90 mins and I'm completely done.  I'm just not good with tourists even when I am one.

Last night was an awful sleep - bumming around my Airbnb (which was fantastic by the way), I nodded off a few times so I suppose I just didn't need sleep.  The alarm going off was sweet relief.  One 5-Hour Energy and a quick bite and it was off to the field.  We agreed that I would get there a little early to assemble the Paramotor so we'd be ready to go when he got there - no problem there.  

It was unfortunate when I arrived at 7am that the previous day's rain combined with dew from overnight left the grass sopping wet.  At 8:30am the window for flying was closing quick.  At best I'd get 2 attempts to launch successfully.  If one or both failed, the paraglider would be too wet and that would be it.  So the decision was there - Try or wait another half hour for the grass to dry under the sun.  It was very important to rack up as many flights as I could so I decided it was go-time.

We laid out the glider, hooked up, checked lines and gave it a shot.  Boom! Flawless forward take-off.  The air was a little bit bumpy but I stayed up for 10 or 15 minutes to get a taste for the air and a couple of photos.  Tuesday night I had hoped to get a couple of shots, but it's a funny thing letting go of the controls.  When you hit the bumps, not holding on to anything is a little funny on the nerves.  I'm alright with letting go on the left side because I've done it a hundred times to use the radio, but not so much on the right.  

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I'm not the prettiest guy on the planet and I could definitely use a shave, but I finally managed to snap a selfie under the wing at about a thousand feet.  While I was up there I though I should probably turn it around and get a quick shot of the area.

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Yes, I know the horizon is tilted.  Bad photographer.  BAD!! But to be honest I was just happy to get a shot.  Below is the airfield I fly from - I'd guess the whole area is about 100 acres.  At that point I was flying over the dreaded bean field I mentioned in a previous blog.  In the distance is the Queen Elizabeth Way, and way off in the distance is Lake Erie.  Behind me is Niagara Falls which is easy to see if I had been turned the other way.

After I got these shots, it was time to come down.  The point of my flying now is to get in as many take-offs and landings in as possible.  The flying part is the easy part.  Incidentally I did get a good reminder of something important from Andre, my instructor.  Never ever make a left turn at full throttle.  It's possible to twist lines  which would result in me facing the opposite direction.  Guaranteed to cause a crash.  That's a lesson I definitely won't forget, even if I have to put a label on my risers.

Now, as I mentioned, flying is the easy part, but now it was time to land.  With a chunk of altitude it took a few minutes to descend to where I could come in.  As luck would have it, the wind was coming from across the runway again.  Wonderful - I still have fresh memories of the taste of the bean field.  Lower and lower I came until it was time to kill the motor and slide out of the seat.  This time I wouldn't be short and with that a little instruction on timing the brakes, I had a solid 2 foot touchdown, a quick turn around (in the wrong direction I might add) and down came the glider.  SUCCESS! 

No time to celebrate though - time to reset and do it again.  And again.  And again.  6 flights in total.  The second and third flight I continued to land and turn around in the wrong direction.  Not a gigantic big deal, but it does mean having to correct my lines in order to fly again.  Whatever.  6 flights.  Did I mention SIX FLIGHTS?  

By the time I got to #5 I was starting to feel the beginnings of thermals.  Those moments where you're suddenly lifted 5 or 10 feet, or suddenly drop 5 or 10 feet.  It's a funny feeling - not really frightening, but surprising because they come without warning.  When it's time to land and you're only 100 feet off the ground, to suddenly lose 10 feet is a bit eye-opening because a second one could mean the difference between landing where you want, or knee deep in someone's vegetables.  Anyway, this landing was a little harder than the last - That familiar feeling of when you jump off something just a little too high and you feel it rattle in your heels.  

By the time that flight was done it was decision time - one more flight or call it a day.  ONE MORE!! It's a numbers game now.  To be qualified, you must have 30.  This flight was a very good take off.  All morning all take offs went very well.  No circling, just up, around, check the windsock and right back down.  For my final landing, the Gods were smiling and they let me have one where I could land straight down the runway.  Hallelujah!  I haven't had that since my initial training on my very first flight.  I have to say that one was nice and soft touchdown, and as if I knew what I was doing, it was right at the beginning of the runway, so no lugging my gear back to the car.  I was already there!

Today's flying was exactly what I needed.  It's nice to get a flight or two in, but things don't get etched into your brain until you repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat.  Repeating every few weeks just doesn't cut it.  Those take offs were particularly important to me today because of all the aborts on my previous outing.  Aborting for safety is very important, but as Andre said, aborting because it isn't perfect isn't the right mindset.  "Sometimes good enough is good enough."

I'm looking forward to my next return.  Each time I do go, I have to admit I miss my fellow students Art and Vince and wish I could have been in the air with both of them together and succeeding together. 

Until next time though, I'll be returning to the local school to practice reverse takeoffs with the motor strapped on.  I'll be powering up, but not taking off so I know if I'm successful or not.  Without the motor on, forward kiting just isn't good enough - finally, it's too easy.

If you've ever had a dream of flying, you're in shape (it definitely takes some strength and endurance), you really should consider giving this a try.  You can talk to Andre about a tandem to give you an idea of whether you want to do it.  It's not the cheapest extreme sport in the world, but without question, it's the cheapest and safest way into the air.

www.poweredparaglidingontario.com

Please feel free to comment below.  I'm hoping my series ends at IV, but I still have quite a few flights left, so the story will probably end at Part V.

Powered Paragliding Part II

This paragliding blog series isn't about photography at all - it's as much for me as it is for anyone who is interested in my latest insane hobby.

My last PPG blog left off with me coming home after having completed my first 5 days of training.  I got to fly twice, but those flights weren't pretty.  Correction, the first one wasn't pretty, the second one was good.  To recap, my very first flight was just not good - whether it was a gust of wind or something else, from the moment I left the ground, I was swinging side to side in a way that wasn't fun.  I've largely learned now how to fix that, but at the time, it was all I could do to get some altitude, turn, and return to a nice soft landing.  The second flight was pretty uneventful - good take off, half an hour in the sky, and a running landing.  

From here, I took some time away to practice my ground-handling skills.  I certainly wasn't good and running forward with the wing without it shifting left or right on me before becoming airborne.  In short, without a stable wing, taking off safely isn't going to be reliable.

I took the next month and practiced at a local school in the evenings and mornings kiting my wing both forward and reverse.  It wasn't always pretty for the first week or two, but after watching a Youtube video on something called 'weight shift', it clicked and now I can run forward with the wing until I can't run anymore.

Forward launch practice

Once it clicked, I continued to return to keep those skills going.  Taking wind readings and having my windsock up were very helpful if things started to go a little south.  On those occasions where the wing would just die or just spin around wildly, I could turn and look at the sock and see that the wind is swirling - when I see that, I take comfort in knowing it's not me, it's the wind.  

After a long wait for an opening in the class, I was able to return to Niagara.  The weather wasn't cooperating completely, so I was only able to get in a half day.  

I arrived early as usual and took my time unloading my car and putting together the beast.  It doesn't look like much, but it's pretty crucial that it be put together properly.  You know, the whole "it's holding my life in its hands" thing.  While I was doing this, the wind was absolutely howling.  I really wasn't sure it would be flyable weather, but if it was, I didn't want to then have to put things together.  

As folks arrived, we chatted and had a seat and waited a couple of hours before the wind calmed down enough to practice some kiting.  Sure enough, I raise the wing, stabilize and turn around, I completely botch it and the wing goes off to Tijuana.  My instructor, Andre, probably shook his head and groaned (he politely didn't though), but as I reset and raised the wing again, I kited like a champ.  No doubt he breathed a sign of relief.  

As I connected my glider to the paramotor, it became clear that the wind was dropping fast and there would be no reverse kiting - just a straight forward launch.  That's good but not good.  Good because it's the launch I have experience with.  Bad because it means landing will be at a run as much as the launch will.

Thanks to the practice, my first launch went perfectly, and aside from a little turbulence in consistently the same places, I was able to enjoy a peaceful half hour flight circling the area between the QEW highway, the hangars below and some nearby farms.  Allowing myself to climb to around a thousand feet, I was easily able to see the mist of Niagara Falls not far away and the rivers leading to it.  What a view!  Eventually though it was time to come down.  It's not about getting hours in, it's about getting flights in.

Down I came and because the wind was running across the runway, the landing area is small.  It appeared I was going to overshoot the runway so I made a quick adjustment - Sadly that was bad judgement on my part and I ended up landing just short of the runway.  Stupidly, I didn't consider my speed and tried to simply plant my feet.  Dumb.  I ended up faceplanting.  I couldn't help but laugh because I know it had to look absolutely dumb.  I pulled myself up with the 70lb paramotor still on my back and took a good ribbing for my pathetic landing.  But hey, a couple of scrapes and some dirt on the hands never killed anyone.

After a quick run back to the car to get a drink, it was on to flight #2.  Same cross-field launch, but this time I screwed up the takeoff a little.  The wind was pretty much zero and I wasn't quite getting total lift as I neared the edge of the runway.  Beyond the runway is a farm field of beans.  Fortunately they only grow about a foot or so high, but not wanting to try to run through it as I started to leave the ground, I committed completely to the take off and hopped in the seat.  

That's the one thing you don't do when you're taking off - you have to run until your feet aren't touching the ground anymore and then find your way into your seat.  Because I committed to it, I nicked my prop on the edge of the field.  While there was some damage to it, I was still able to circle the field a couple of times as planned before landing again.  And here's where I mess up again.

Not wanting to come up short, I thought I lined up perfectly for the center of the runway.  Wellll.. I didn't pull my brakes to flare so I overshot it and once again ate dirt on the other side in the bean field.  Unreal.  Sooo.. Once again I laughed, dusted myself off and settled in to get ready for flight #3.  

Fortunately, Andre had the foresight to take a look at my machine and noticed that my prop had taken a little damage in the tip.  A little split wood - probably fine, but in the interests of my own safety, I decided it best to repair it rather than risk it splitting completely.  Sooo that's where my night ended.  

I've ordered an extra propeller now so at least I have one, and I need to do a little repair on the current one.  It's a simple fix at least.  Once done, I'm back to the field again on the 6th, 7th and 8th to finish up my remaining flights.  All that remains is a couple dozen take offs and landings, successfully collapsing my wing and re-inflating and a couple other little things, and I'm free to fly.  Fingers crossed that the weather cooperates.in August! 

When training is finished, I have two GoPros - one will be in something called a Chase-Cam that follows behind as I fly, and the other will be on my chest.  Then I'll have to rig something up so I can carry my real camera.  I'm really excited for the freedom to fly whenever and wherever I like.

Steadify

If you've been following me on my website, my Instagram or Facebook pages, you know I shoot a ton of landscapes and animals, and if you've read my blogs, you know that sometimes my hikes take me into some pretty interesting places.  Sometimes those places mean climbing, going over and under obstacles or really just putting myself out there to get the shot.

To get a good shot, you need to have a very steady hand or a good solid tripod, especially in low light.  So much of my work is first thing in the morning at first light, or late in the evening. 

The thing about these little trips is, I really detest carrying any more than I need to.  If I'm lucky, I have Shaunna with me and she shoulders plenty of gear, but it gets old.  If you're on a 9k hike up and down hills, in snow and ice or a hot humid day, carrying gear is just annoying, especially a clunky tripod that takes time to set up each time, then take down, then set up again in a new place and then take down all over again.  All of this takes away from the experience of being in a beautiful place and turns photography into work, and that's just not right.  

When I look back at my trips a year or 5 years later, I don't want to have to rely on photos, I want it in my head too - so I'm always on the lookout for a better way to do things.

Thankfully there's a new tool called Steadify that makes life so much easier - not to mention lighter.  Visit the link for more info but here's my experience - This tool is a belt with a rotating collapsible rod which extends upward in order to support the weight of your lens.  What this means is you now have a firm anchor point for your lens to rest on!

To give you an idea of what it is

To give you an idea of what it is

I tried it yesterday and today with my two heaviest lenses with teleconverters attached so I could see first hand if they could take the load reliably, and see just how steady they would hold things.  Here's a breakdown and a couple of shots.  I would point out that because I'm using teleconverters, the images aren't razor sharp.  It's a sacrifice you make for extra reach, but for testing Steadify, it's a great help.

  • Canon 5D Mark III + Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS II with 2x teleconverter
    • The lighter of the two lenses in my comparison and most manageable, it worked absolutely amazingly.  The typical rule of thumb is that you should tend to shoot at 1/focal length as your shutter speed as your lowest speed.  So if you have a 200mm focal length, the slowest you should shoot is 1/200.  Granted, image stabilizing means you can shoot even slower, but with the steadify on, I was able to shoot 400mm at 1/60 very reliably.  In fact, it wasn't even a concern to me that I was using such a slow shutter speed.  The value of that is incalculable.
    • Because of this slow speed, I was able to put my ISO at it's lowest setting, and use a higher aperture so I could really take advantage of the lenses sharpness sweet spot.  Too many photographers will shoot at 2.8 because it's a badge of honour.  It shows off how fast their glass is.  That's wonderful and yes there's a nice background blur, but sometimes you really do want a much larger depth of field.  Steadify gave me at least another couple of stops of options, whether I wanted DOF or shutter speed. 

This shot is uncropped, 400mm (200mm x2) 1/40, ISO 100 handheld, using Steadify

Cropped to 1:1 - I'm pretty satisfied with that sharpness at 1/40 at 400mm!! 

  • Canon 5D Mark III + Sigma 150-500mm lens with 2x teleconverter
    • This one was to be the real test - not only is 

Definitely a more challenging lens to use - With a 2x teleconverter attached, autofocus is disabled.  Try shooting wildlife with manual focus only - it's not fun, trust me.

With the 150-500mm lens being so much longer, adding another few inches with the teleconverter plus the additional weight, the entire rig is incredibly front-heavy.  Setting up to shoot from a standing position is very difficult, but to focus manually is virtually not possible on a moving target.

Thankfully, Steadify was there - it took the weight of the lens for me and truly left my hand available to make fine focus adjustments and adjust my zoom where necessarily.  While this shot below isn't particularly exciting, it would have been impossible without that extra hand.

Uncropped - 1000mm (500 x2), 1/400, f13 ISO 500 using Steadify

Cropped to 1:1 at the same settings.  

If I can say one thing about photography, it's all about how many fstops you have to work with. Sometimes you have to give some up because you need more depth, other times its because you need more shutter speed.  Both of these limit your creative options and you're forced to use ISO to compensate, and that's just not going to make for nice photos.

If you think about how much you pay to have Image Stabilizing on a lens, the value that Steadify brings more than pays for it.  

So to sum it up - unless I'm shooting a multi exposure landscape requiring several second exposures, Steadify will save me packing a tripod, the time to set up, take down, set up again, take down.  If I'm travelling, that's bulk and weight I no longer have to be concerned about, and if I'm doing something rather extreme, I don't have to pause to get a few good calming deep breaths in before taking a picture.  

If you're into photography, I strongly suggest checking this out - if you're near me, come out with me and give it a try! :)

Training in Powered Paragliding

If you read my last blog, you know that the last bit of my life has been putting a lot of energy into learning what I can about powered paragliding and ultimately signing up for lessons.  

The price tag that comes with this is steep, but the rewards are rich!  The following will document the journey.  Photos will be thin in places because quite frankly, the goal is to train not take pictures :)

Day 1

Day 1 began as most things do.  Introductions.. Why are you here.. Sign away your life.  This one is quite literal.  Things can happen.  'Nuff said.

Now, to help make 'things' happen less, I'd been reading a ton, watched a ton of videos and as far as I can tell, made smart gear decisions.  It's very easy to cheap out.  I've got my wing and motor and that's great, but a good helmet.  A good radio.  A wind sock.  Relatively small dollar items that can make your day that much better.  Things like the wing and motor can be found on Kijiji, but as a new guy, how do I know what's good, what's reliable, what still has life left in it, or what's just plain broken.  It's one thing to buy a car like that, but to fly? No thanks.

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So, after the in class portion was complete, we did our exam in order to graduate to "Student Pilots".  A 50 question multiple choice exam that covered what we discussed in class.  Pretty basic.  Not so basic that I got 100%, but I'm satisfied with my 96.

Once finished, it was down to the gym to learn a few basics and set up our paramotors - mine was done when I bought it, but it was good to do it again anyway.  After this, it was out to an air field where we started to learn how to lay out our paraglider wing, how go get into our harness and ultimately get it off the ground and flying over our heads.  With a good breeze and lots of practice, you can fly it like a kite.  Practice.  Yes, more practice.  

All in all, it was a good introduction and nice to see my nice fresh new wing flying over my head, even if it was very briefly before it would come crashing down repeatedly.  Oh yes, practice.

Day 2

Day 2 was much the same as the second half of day 1.  Practicing getting into the harness, hooking up and getting the glider in the air.  I should mention that in this practice, it is done backwards - facing the wing.  In doing this, things are opposite.  Pull the right brake and the left wing tucks down.  Pull the right brake and the right wing ducks down.  I didn't make a great deal of progress until the second half of the day when I learned just how mobile you need to be - at least as a new guy.  It's not just pulling the brakes, but keeping your body under the wing if it starts to drift off left or right.  By the end of the day, I was catching on and doing fairly ok.  

The day ended with a test - with the wing on the ground behind me, I would run forward and see if I could get it over my head, and if so, how far could I run with it under control.  Clearly beginner's luck, because I ran the entire 100ish yard field before coming to the end and bringing it down.  That felt like a really good accomplishment and I was very happy.  Definitely felt confident in the days to come.  

Day 3

With the "glory" of how the previous day ended, I was excited about my progress.  I certainly wasn't the best of the group.  There were 3 of us and one was definitely a lot more of a natural than me.  In truth, I was probably 3rd.  Maybe I moved up to second briefly in Day 3, I'm not sure, but there was one thing I did know, I wouldn't be flying today, but Vince would.  He already had his motor on his back and was kiting the wing just fine.  I'm not sure he knew it, but he did look like he was ready to go.

Day 3 was all about lifting the wing up, turning around to face forward, and kiting the wing forward as if launching.  I had a couple of these where I was in complete control, but the rest were pretty disastrous.  I had a fake throttle in my hand to get used to having it while kiting forward, but I really didn't need it.  The times I kited successfully, it was probably more due to luck than skill - or maybe the wind was just very smooth.  The wing would typically fly for maybe 15 or 20 steps and then come crashing down - always on my right.  I would get advice to help compensate for the wing moving, but the corrections I made didn't last and again it would crash down.  Very demoralizing.  How could I go from a 100 yard effortless kite to just utter fails.  By late afternoon, I was tired, sweaty and very little progress of speak of.  I had clearly slipped back to 3rd as Art just completely dominated his wing.  Very effortless - he was a lot of fun to watch because he just looked like he belonged under his wing.  

Sometime during my trials and fails, Vince had his first flight.  You could see he was nervous about it but to be honest, his launch looked pretty effortless.  Keep in mind that flying these things means strapping a motor on your back, exceptionally difficult to run with, yanking a paraglider over your head, steadying it, then giving the motor gas which pushes you forward thanks to the propeller.  Fun sport huh?  If all goes well, the wing generates more and more lift until you lift off the ground and eventually pull yourself into your seat.  If it goes badly.. well.. Chances are you go screaming into a field at 30km/h and eat a face full of dirt with a motor on top of you and hopefully the wing settling down somewhere away from you.

Vince's first flight.  Very smooth!

Anyway, fired up the motor he did, and up he went (why am I talking like Yoda?)!  It was quite a sight to see.  As the first of us to fly, I was ready with my camera and a long lens and got a few hundred photos.  Coming down, his landing was effortless.  A gentle landing on his feet - what more could anyone ask - I hoped mine would go as well.  He admitted later that it was scary to fly around - I can only imagine.  Way to go Vince!

Day 4

Day 4 was much like day 3, except no throttle to hang on to.  With virtually no progress on Day 3, I had to take a number of things back to basics.  In the process, I had Andre, our instructor, pretty much to myself and it helped a lot.  He taught me several things including straightening out the wing on the ground without having to go up to it and extend it out by hand.  He also taught me how to fly it backwards.  This way, rather than running to the end of the field then carrying the wing back, that you can actually fly backwards.  I suppose I knew it could be done, but I certainly didn't know how.  I'm seeing now how helpful it is to learn to get better at ground handling.  

Progress in the morning - he gave me a lot to process and by the time our break came and the wind was getting sketchy, I had a few hours to think about what he had talked about back at my room.  I had hoped to get some sleep because the night before was just sweltering inside - but that was not to be.  Good thing for "5-Hour Energy" shots.  I don't like taking those things but you just can't do some things if you're not on your game.

During the afternoon session, I took turns with Andre and it did gave me a confidence boost to see him having difficulty with the wind conditions.  It was swirling and gusty and just difficult to work with, but that helped me.  It gave me other things to work with and as the afternoon turned into evening, things got better.  Definitely not where Vince and Art were, but flying felt like a real possibility on Day 5 - if it didn't rain.  Fingers crossed.

Day 5 - Sketchy Success!

Day 5 was interesting.  Knowing in my gut that this was the day to fly, I didn't sleep very well.  I had a lot running through my mind.  It's one thing to fly a kite, it's another thing to fly a 30 foot kite.  It's another thing again to fly it with no eyes.  It's another thing again to strap a 60 or 70 pound backpack on your back with a spinning propeller and do all of this at a run.

Art cruising around during his first flight

Well, after a couple of trial runs without too much difficulty, my turn came, I was in line to fly.  Ahead of me was Vince for his 7th or 8th and then Art who would have his first as well.  Watching Art take off was a lot of fun.  Winds seemed to cooperate and he was up and flying very smoothly and was able to get on the radio and talk occasionally.  When he came down, he had clearly enjoyed himself so that was great to see.  But now, my turn!

After getting set up, the wind was still pretty decent - a little bit off-and-on, but decent.  Game on!  As I got off the ground, from what I could tell, I was maybe 5 or 10 feet off the ground when I felt myself hit a gust of wind that pushed me side to side.  Under a paraglider, you're basically a pendulum.  You might rock forward and back a little, or you may go side to side. For me, there was quite a sideways swing.  I half expected that because I am new, but I figured it would ease up.  I had to make continual adjustments for some pretty heavy swinging.  The gusts were surprising.  I made a pretty hard turn to the right and things settled down a little while heading downwind and up until that point, Andre, our instructor was pretty quiet on the radio, and I'm happy for that.  There's little he could have said that would have helped - I just had to do it and adjust as needed.  I wasn't in the air for very long when he announced the wind was too sketchy to fly in and to bring it around and set up to land.  

Turning back into the wind, there was still some gusty pushes but not too bad - probably due to the trees below providing some protection; I don't know.  After 15 or 20 seconds, I was nearly over the treeline to our field when he instructed me to cut the motor and glide in.  With the wind in my face, there wasn't a lot of forward speed over the ground but as I came lower, the ride smoothed out a little and before long, I landed on my feet and my first successful flight was officially under my belt.  Total flight time, maybe 10 minutes.  Max altitude, maybe 150 feet.  I was definitely hoping for more, but for a first flight, something smoother would be much more fun.

Once I was free of the machine and some happy high fives and a photo-op done, we were done for the morning.  Too much sketchy wind for a beginner like me, and that's fine.

While some of those swings felt a little hairy, I can honestly say there was probably only one where I felt it might go bad, but I refocused and adjusted to get altitude and try to nullify the wind pushes as best as I could.  Was I scared? Not really - when I took a moment to think about how I felt, it wasn't fear.  It was definitely exciting to be where so few people can go, and even less still from something resembling a dining room chair.

Unfortunately the weather didn't cooperate enough to fly in the evening.

Day 6

Unfortunately the weather didn't cooperate enough to fly at all, so it was a day off.  Frustrating as it basically kept me stuck in my room for the day.

Day 6.1

After a long day of waiting, bumming around Niagara Falls and basically watching tv, the weather looked much better the following day and because of this, flight #2 was a success.

After 2 unsuccessful launches, the third one was sketchy, but a success.  As a new pilot, it's very helpful to have an instructor tell you when to add power, add power, add power.  I can feel the wing above me if it starts to shift from one side to another, but I can't tell yet when it is centered and stable above me.  

On this third attempt, it clearly wasn't steadily above me when I committed to take off.  As well, while the wing was getting lift, it wasn't quite up to speed yet so I leaned back to the seat prematurely and it almost botched the take off.  Since I didn't back off on the throttle, I got off the ground, but it was a good lesson to keep running until there is no longer any ground below to step on.  Point taken.

With the sketchy take off and some small bumps, I was swinging a little when the time came to get in the seat.  It's a funny thing to climb so quickly to a couple hundred feet and then back off on the throttle.  Then it's time to let go of the control toggles to pull yourself into the seat.  Until that point you're just hanging by the straps so you need to get into the seat.  On flight #2 it took a little bit of a deep breath to let go of the controls to get into the seat.  Picture riding your bike for the first time and then going NO HANDS!!  

Once in though, I enjoyed probably 30 minutes in the air circling the field, playing with some zig zags, climbing, descending.. I learned a lot during this flight, not the least of which is that you can swing forward and back as well as side to side, and when you hit a thermal, you can feel yourself being lifted quite quickly in the air just as quickly as when you come out, you can drop just as fast.  It's a little disconcerting, but pretty fun!  I can only imagine what those guys flying off mountains feel!  

I didn't put much gas in the tank - the rig is a little heavy so after a couple of botched take offs, it's getting a little irritating to carry around.  After that half hour it really was time to come down.  The landing was at a much higher speed than the last time.  On my first flight, there was enough wind to simply float to the ground - in this case when I touched down it was several steps of running before coming to a stop.  Quite an experience to go from 0 to full run with that kind of weight on your back having just been a couple hundred feet up moments ago.  I'll need to process that one for a bit, but in the end, I still nailed the landing. 

Unfortunately that was to be my last flight for the time being.  During the evening session, I wasn't feeling particularly energetic and after 3 botched launches, I had a bad feeling about trying for #4 so I called it a day and practiced kiting instead.  Now I kind of regret it, but I've had plenty of occasions where I didn't listen to that voice and got hurt so... Whatever.  I'll finish my flights as soon as I can - In the meantime, I can practice kiting in the local field.  If we ever get any decent wind that is! 

 

Photo Printing Advice

I thought I'd do a little writing about printing.  Up until now, everything I've shared has been about the shoot or about processing, but maybe a little something about what you hang on your wall.

I've struggled a little over the past couple of years with printing.  Do you push canvas or do you push prints.  Typically I suggest people purchase a canvas to hang on their wall because when all is said and done, they look great and the final cost to hang on the wall can be far less than a print on paper.  Specifically, buying a frame off the shelf of your local retailer will cost you at minimum, the same as it cost to buy your print.  More likely, it will probably be like 2-5 times that cost.

If you choose to get a print custom-framed with mat (or double mat), you can quickly find yourself spending hundreds of dollars, particularly if you're buying non-reflective, shatter-proof glass.  The results are stunning, and they really look phenomenal on the wall, but it is ironic to me that the frame would cost many, many times the cost of the actual piece you are framing.

To help with that cost, I have been looking into different printing options.  I have tried the big-box stores, I've tried the small local shops and I've tried the true professional fine art printer (who I currently use today) and I'm in the midst of trying a high-volume professional printer.  Here is what I've learned so far.

  • You get what you pay for - and sometimes that's perfectly fine.  Not everyone needs or wants a print done on paper that will last 100 years.  Sometimes cheap and quick is exactly right.
  • Looking at a fancy storefront doesn't necessarily mean you're getting something that's ideal to sell to showcase your work.
  • Quality really doesn't have to cost a lot more but the quality is immeasurably far apart.

Having had my work printed at half a dozen places so far, with one more to go, I've found that prints really do look their best with a professional printer.  The storefronts that offer 1-hour prints are probably using the exact same paper and equipment that Walmart does and again, that can be just fine if that's what you want, but you're probably paying more for nothing.  Just don't be deceived into thinking the fancy looking store is giving you anything different.

My criteria today is that a photo should not be glossy.  At all.  If it's going to look it's best on paper, in a nice frame on a wall, it should be in a place that is lit well, and on the right type of paper.  A reflective photo will bounce white (or yellow) light back and you'll struggle to find the right angle to view it at to avoid the glare.  

I will continue using a professional fine art printer because the few extra dollars are more than worth what you get and with this particular store, it's a matte finished, heavy paper, giclee print that will live looking it's best far longer than I will.

Obviously I'd love to sell you my work, but if you want advice on whether a certain store is going to give you the best results, by all means feel free to email me with a link to the store and I'll let you know what to look for or give you my opinion and hopefully save you the leg work I've done.  You can reach me at gm@maxxamoriginals.com

 

 

 

Infrared

A few years ago when I followed a Canon forum, I learned of Infrared Photography.  The surreal photographs that come out are just other-worldly.  There are a couple of ways to accomplish it - you can buy a special filter for your lens, or you can modify your camera.

Last year, while attending Kevin (K1) Pepper's loon retreat, Kevin produced his own modified Nikon to take an infrared shot.  We talked about it, and his process of having a camera modified and from there, I knew I wanted to do it.  

I researched a company called Life Pixel who perform these conversions.  From their California office, they will take most any DSLR (and others as well) and will remove the IR blocker that is in every camera, and will fit a filter of your choice in it's place.  In a matter of a few weeks (and many hundreds of dollars), my camera was back and ready to shoot!

(After publishing these shots below, I've had about half a dozen emails asking about infrared, so this post will cover those questions, and maybe a couple more)

 

Infrared photography isn't without it's own learning curve and challenges though.  "Out of the box", your photos will be mostly red.  This is because before you shoot, you must set a custom white balance to shift your colours away from full red to something more real.  

Once you learn this, you may discover another challenge - some lenses simply don't work with infrared photography and the result is what you see above - a bright circle in the middle of the image.  It took me 4 lenses to discover one which did not suffer from this problem.  

Island Lake, Orangeville

One thing I am liking about infrared is that it opens the door for editing that I would never otherwise do.  Straight out of the camera, the images inspire another creative side.  One thing that is important though is sunlight and clouds.  On a pure cloudy day, skies are dull and boring.  Blue skies are just as dull though - if there is no contrast from sky to cloud, the sky is a missing link.  

Rockwood Conservation Area

A typical way to edit these shots is to switch the reds with the blues which will return the sky to a blue colour and make the trees more of a reddish colour.  Sometimes though I think I prefer this effect straight out of the camera.  The winter trees look truer and everything else has a more sepia look.  It still retains that infrared surreal look that I like, but once spring comes and the leaves appear, I'll see how things look.

Island Lake, Orangeville

And with that, here is a shot with the reds and blue colours swapped and adjusted.  Left alone, the shot was very eerie - almost post-apocalyptic to me.  I'll post the original shot below.

Original Out of Camera

I'm honestly not sure which way I prefer the shot, but that's the joy of shooting digital rather than film.  The options are endless.

If you found this interesting, or you know others that may be interested in Infrared photography, please share this blog and I'd be happy to answer any questions.

Snowy Owls

Well, hello again! My previous blog contained a shot of a snowy owl, but since I have had countless people ask me about them, I feel it's a good subject to get into with a bit more detail.

First though, some background, and bear in mind I know nothing compared to a million other photographers and nature-lovers.

Snowy Owls are typically found in the arctic regions.  Think of northern Canada, Alaska, Eurasia.  Males are mostly white while females can be differentiated by their blackish-brownish spots. During the winter, they will travel south, literally hundreds of miles and have been spotted near where I live for years, but it wasn't until this year that I started to get some information on general locations.  That information is very well guarded, and I suppose I understand why, even if I don't agree with it.

My search this year began in the fall, talking with a fellow photographer I'd met on a trail in Algonquin Provincial Park. Together we walked and were lucky enough to find a moose after hiking a loop of one of the campground trails.  We talked about other wildlife we'd shot and the topic of snowy owls came up and a general area where they might be found.  We exchanged information and ultimately went on our way.

I followed his work with interest (Darrell Richards) and he was good enough to pass on some advice on areas where he had been having success.  For a couple of weeks, when I had a spare day off I would head up and try my luck, but it was not to be.  Birdwatcher websites were of little help.  Giving the name of a town isn't a lot of use, but it is a start at least.

Finally, it was a tour with Georgian Bay Wildlife, operated by Andrew Major, that led me to my first shot.

A snowy owl blends in perfectly with it's surroundings

I have no idea how, while driving 70km/h he managed to spot this one which was easily a few hundred yards into a farmer's field, partially obscured by a small swell of snow, but he did.  I guess that's what experience and patience does for you.  For anyone who is interested in wildlife, I can't recommend his tours more.  He is extremely personable, friendly, outgoing and very knowledgeable.  He passed on many tips along our drive in regards to what to look for and typical places they might be found.  Putting all that aside, there is no beating the price for value.  Ever.

In this case, the shot isn't stunning as she was still probably 150-200 yards away, but it does illustrate that they can hide very well and to get all artsy, it speaks to me.

In the weeks that passed, I returned to the area at least another 7 or 8 times in order to try my luck.  It seems that while they are arctic owls, they don't seem to enjoy hard, pounding snow which is the only way to describe a few of those trips.  The sun may shine at home, but you sure don't have to go all that far north to see the weather change into something less desirable.  During the drive up, there are a few signs equipped with flashers warning that the road ahead is closed due to winter conditions.  Lovely.

During this dry spell, I decided to try someone else's advice and took a drive out to Kincardine, Ontario.  Beautiful area by the way.  In talking to another couple in Algonquin, they showed me photos of numerous Snowy's they said were there, including a road (which doesn't exist) to look on.  Yup, don't trust anyone who sees you're interested in something they have!  Well, it was a beautiful drive anyway, even if it was hours of driving 40km/h scanning fields endlessly.

Finally, just last weekend, my girlfriend and I got up early and made the trip back up north to the Collingwood area.  Here we began another search.  Following Andrew's advice, the path simply took us through areas with open fields.  We didn't have a particular direction, other than to generally head east.  Field after field, turn after turn, eventually I decided I would start to make our way towards the general area where we found the last one.  

Continuing to drive very slow, I happened to notice movement in the sky maybe 50 feet off the ground and there it was.  The unmistakable wings of a snowy owl headed right towards us.  Stopping the car, I grumbled that the camera wasn't ready - my own fault.  Together we wondered where it had disappeared to.  Turning the car, blocking the road (empty farm road, it's okay), we scanned the fields, finding nothing, and then there, at the top of a hydro pole, there was this little thing of beauty.

A quick snap..

Not wanting to waste any time, I grabbed some quick snaps of it way up high in case it didn't enjoy our presence.  I did NOT want to go home empty-handed.  Fortunately, it had only a mild interest in us.  I had plenty of time to shoot and then chance to a much longer lens and shoot some more.  Incidentally, did you know the label on that pole by the owl's claw indicates it is made by NGK, the spark plug maker? Who knew! 

It wasn't long before the road was filled with other cars including photographers.  They mentioned that down the road there were three more; two in one field and one in another.  Unreal, a snowy owl bonanza!  Well, of course we went down the road and sure enough, there they were! 

I'm not overly keen on trespassing on people's land, but.. well.. with the use of a 2 person hovercraft with attached helicopter blades, we soared, just inches off the ground across the field, not touching anyone's property whatsoever, pausing occasionally to shoot a few shots in case it spooked and flew off.  As our hovercrafticopter slowly got nearer though, that's exactly what happened.  As luck would have it though, it flew right towards us.

Snowy owl in flight

It's true what they say, you might see them, but you'll never hear them.  

After it passed by, we returned our Helihoversnowcat.. oh fine, we trespassed.  We hiked into the field, I admit it!  We hiked back to the car and then eyeballed the owl across the road.  Unfortunately I do have some morals, and seeing that it was relatively close to a house, I wasn't going to be that disrespectful as to hike right past it into their field.  I know, one isn't any better than the other, I get it.

The day goes on and we ultimately discover a home base where the Snowy's seem to be fed by eager photographers and we take some time to shoot a beautiful female up on another pole.  As luck would have it, Darrell pulled in behind our car and we chatted some more where we exchanged experiences and shared some useful photography tips back and forth. 

In the end, I finally have this partially scratched off my bucket list.  I still need the perfect shot, but for now, these will do for a good start.

Finally, one last shot of this beautiful female.  What's not to love.

Is it me or does it look like she has a moustache?

 

 

What's Going On?

It has been a LONG time since I wrote.  

If anyone used my website alone, they would probably assume I'm either dead or took up a new interest.  Fortunately for me, that's far from the truth.  I have discovered another way of sharing my work through Instagram and you can find my work there as well at http://www.instagram.com/maxxam_originals - Please follow me!  I'm needy and I promise I won't be clingy or desperate.  Much.

The fact is, if I want to get a new shot I'm proud of up and get it noticed, there's no better place.  I don't know if I have any subscribers here, though I do share the link from time to time.  At the moment, this is more of a place to write than sharing.  Regardless, I'll try and do better.

Did I mention you should follow me on Instagram?  Alright, enough of that.

  • What's been going on

I have found that over the course of the past year I have set little assignments for myself to shoot and perfect before moving on.  My last blog was about my experience shooting loons.  I took many, many photos of loons and it was a great experience.

Continuing with that, I entered a contest in the spring to capture a shot at Golden Hour.  Having been paddling at the local lake many times, I knew there was a loon mother protecting her eggs and if I could get access to the park early, I could be there for a shot at first light.  What it meant though was getting permission, paying a healthy fee, and paddling out there in the dark.  Boy, what an experience that was, and it was worth every dime.  The shot I submitted wasn't worthy of the contest as the light just wasn't "golden hour" thanks to lingering fog followed by the sun being blocked by the treeline.  I'm still happy with the shot though...

Mother loon leaves her eggs for a short swim and a light breakfast.

In a vastly different direction, I managed to get in quite a bit of telescope time as well during the nice weather.  Unfortunately, I have found the learning curve to be quite steep.  Moreso than I expected, but I have gotten better over time.  I was finally able to put my cooled CCD camera to work when I managed to get my scope set up on a clear night and capture this shot of the Whirlpool Galaxy which is only 23 million light years away.  What does this mean? The light from this galaxy has traveled 23 million years to reach my telescope.  Mind-blowing.

The Whirlpool Galaxy - m51a and it's companion m51b

My next goal is to shoot the Orion Nebula as soon as the temperatures start to rise.  Unfortunately it is a relatively short window before it disappears from view until very late fall, so I'll have to make sure I do it right as I won't get many tries.

I'm probably jumping a little in the timeline, but with the nice weather comes a desire to do a little macro photography.  There's a complex definition of it, but what it means is shooting small things extremely close up.  In this case, bees.  

With the sunflowers in full bloom, there was no shortage of bees collecting pollen.  The sound of buzzing was hard to miss and it is fairly unnerving, but fortunately with the camera in front of my face, I tried not to think about how many inches separated me from my models.  The result was several beautiful shots.

A bee is covered in pollen as it works busily at a sunflower.

In the end, it satisfied an itch I'd been meaning to scratch, and I walked away with no pain or swelling.  I call that a win.

Moving forward, I also managed to get some shooting time in at the Canadian Raptor Conservancy.  Here, many species of raptor are unveiled for photographers to shoot as they pose and fly.  Whether it was eagles, hawks, owls or something else, it was nothing but a treat to participate in.  And It was also a challenge.  Some birds are far faster than others, making them extremely difficult to shoot in mid air.  I couldn't be happier with this one though.

Coming in for a landing on top of a post, wings are spread wide in order to stop in time.

Because I love bald eagles, I can't help but share one more.  The fierceness in their eyes is unmatched in any other animal I've come face to face with.

Wings fully extended as it comes in to land.

I truly wish I knew where to find these in the wild locally because I could shoot them all day long.

Let's see now, what else.  Something else unique must have happened.  Well, there was the purchase of a DJI Phantom 4 drone (more properly known as a quadcopter).  This little baby has opened up a whole new world of photography for me.  No longer am I restricted to what I can see with my boots on the ground.  The camera on board is no high-level DSLR camera, but I'm still quite happy with it's quality.

Here is a capture from 300 feet above Algonquin Provincial Park as the leaves were in the process of turning.  For my eyes, this is breathtaking and with just this one shot alone, nevermind the video, it was worth every dime it cost (and continues to cost).

Algonquin Provincial Park from high above the trees in the autumn.

There is also a truckload of video I shot.  I'll only share one here though.  I need to get my hands on some decent editing software, but as of this point, it appears I'll be on the hook for about $500.  That's pretty prohibitive in my world.

I titled this one "Search and Destroy" as I flew quickly just above the treetops as if searching for my prey below.  Hope you like the music, and for those who notice, yes that's me at the end piloting.

Along with a couple of portrait shoots, there was also a trip to New York City with my girlfriend who too often takes on the task of carrying at least some of my gear.  Usually the heavy stuff.  Boy do I know how to pick 'em! 

New York is an absolute goldmine of photographic opportunities.  Whether it's a city skyline from the water, a look at Manhattan from above, or street photography anywhere, there are endless opportunities to shoot something eye-catching.  For me, my favourite shot is probably this one.

Manhattan as seen from the top of the Rockafeller building.

I was only going to share one photo here at the risk of this becoming too long, but you can hardly mention shooting from the water and not include one.  I seem to be favoring monochromatic shots here.

The single Freedom Tower stands alone while it's twin awaits it's turn to be built.

While I never got to see the original World Trade Center, I find this shot to be moving while one building awaits the return of it's twin.

As winter moved in, I began to re-adjust to a new mission.  I'd heard of Gray Jays being put forward as a candidate for Canada's national bird, but I had never seen one myself.  Challenge accepted, and it was back to Algonquin once again.

No trip to the Park would be complete though without a ridiculously early alarm though.  Winter being what it is though, there's no need to be up before 6:00am as the sun won't be up until around 7.  I have also had it in my head that I would like to shoot a fox and another pine marten as well.  Yes, I always have a shot list.

After a stop in my usual location which I know to be full of blue jays, there were no grays around.  From here, it was off to another beautiful path to try there.  It wasn't long before the blue jays there were joined by a gray, and then another.  With a bag of peanuts in hand, we kept the blues busy while the grays watched on.  Being far more timid, they weren't nearly as open to flying in close for food, but instead, they did a great job posing for photos, and I am grateful for it.

A gray jay watching thoughtfully.

The rest of the trip wasn't kind enough to produce a marten or a fox, but we were graced by a moose immediately upon entering the park.  A humbling experience, but as I have several moose shots in the past, I will wait to post another until I have one with a full rack.

Did I mention foxes? Well, it wasn't to be on our first trip, but returning solo a few days later, I was extremely lucky to pass one first thing in the morning.  The previous night had snowed heavily and I had just checked out of my motel and got on the road and into the park when this little fellow came running the opposite direction along the highway.  

Having zero interest in shooting animals on the road, I turned my car around and watched as it left the road and disappeared over the rocks.  I was extremely fortunate that there was a driveway nearby that I was able to pull into and walk for a short while.

I could hear him barking away, I presume in hopes of finding a mate, so I knew it was still quite close.  I could hear it getting further and further away though, so I knew my only hope was to bark back and hope curiosity got the better of him.  It seems I can pass for a female fox as it did return and came very close to me.  It was very skittish, darting away before coming back for a closer look several times.

When I took this shot, it was at 70mm and very close to me - to the point where it became clear that it lost it's fear of humans.  Not good.

This red fox was kind enough to answer my call.

Absolutely beautiful creatures, and the fact that it came so close felt like a real moment.  I won't tell you how many shots I got, but it's triple-digits, and I still managed to put the camera down and just enjoy the time it spent with me.

My final shot to share comes care of an obsession I've had for a long time.  Snowy Owls.  Because their natural habitat is in the arctic circle, they can only be found this far south for a short time during the winter before they return home.  They are exceedingly difficult to find, particularly if they are on the ground in the snow.  While they aren't particularly scared of humans, they won't let you get very close unless they are high above.

This one stared at us for a long time before we left her to see if there truly were others in the area.

A snowy owl quietly looks for food somewhere out in the snow.

Knowing she has flown hundreds of miles for such a short time makes this an absolutely magical experience.

  • What's next?

Having recently graduated from the New York Institute of Photography, I find myself missing having specific assignments.  

I frequently ask people where their interests lie in hopes of bringing them a photo they would like for their own, but moving forward, I am looking for further certification.  To accomplish this, I have joined Professional Photographers of Canada as an observer and will be working towards full membership through accreditation in several different areas.  The challenge this provides will go a long way towards helping me take my work to the next level.

  • What's new?

As well, I have recently ordered an elaborate triggering system that will allow me to shoot some eye-catching studio shots that I'm very excited about.  Stay tuned for more on that.

As well, I have been saving desperately in hopes of a new lens for wildlife in low light.  Unfortunately things like trips and overnight excursions don't come cheap and I find myself dipping into that savings too often.  I may have to put it away on a 5 year lay-away plan.

In the meantime, if you have enjoyed reading this, please follow me on Instagram to follow my work as it evolves and I will try and provide more frequent updates here as well.

Until then, if you'd be kind enough to share my work with others, I would truly appreciate it.
Geoff

 

 

North of 49

It had been about 5 months since I received an email from a friend at work who had discovered a workshop taking place a couple of hours from where I live.  North of 49 Photography offers different levels of photography adventures based on their location, the nature of the subject being shot and the risks which may be involved.  

At first glance, the price tag on the Kawartha Loon Workshop seemed a little high for what I was expecting.  Looking back, it probably seemed that way because I didn't really digest what it had to offer.  Regardless, by the end, I was very happy.  

If you have followed my progress over the years, you probably noticed I spend a pretty good amount of time shooting landscapes, wildlife and basically things that weren't created by mankind.  Of course, I do that with the latest and greatest gear I can afford, but let's let that bit of irony slide, okay?  Reading this description ticked all the right boxes for me.  Immersed in nature, beautiful "north" country, wildlife, quiet, on a boat. That's a lot of boxes ticked - I'm in!

The trip there from my house is pretty much beautiful from start to finish - there is a pretty definitive line you cross when you go north that tells you that you are truly "away".  For me, that happens just a little north of Barrie, Ontario where one highway splits into two and suddenly you find yourself surrounded by lake after lake, cottage roads, log cabins and truly friendly people.

Before I made this trip, I had been told by another friend that there were very large nests resting on top of hydro poles in the area, and as luck would have it, I was going to pass right by.  Unfortunately my timing for being here wasn't stellar - mid day sun doesn't really lend itself to beautiful photos, but I did get this shot of a beautiful osprey.  I will have to go back again for early morning and do better.

Using a tripod wouldn't hurt either, but anyway, back to the loons!

I apologize in advance, this may read much like a Tripadvisor review but I know there are several photographers who read this so I'd like to illustrate the value of this little adventure.

Arriving in the area of the cottage which we were to be staying as home base, Kevin (aka K1) met me nearby and guided me in the rest of the way over a very scenic and fun gravel road.  This road cannot be understated, it was a FUN drive!  Lots of twists and turns, hills and valleys, all while passing forested ponds, swamps and of course, other cottages.

On arriving, Kevin and my friend Chris showed me in, both helping me with my gear and stated firmly, "this is your house".  It doesn't get much more welcoming than that.  We chatted for a bit and before long, our third, Lori, arrived and chat continued.  We all chatted for a while about what the plan would be over the next couple of days, gear, what the goals were and what to expect shooting from a boat and before long, we were out on the water in a wide-body aluminum boat with Kevin at the prop.  

It was a little cool out and his advice about bringing hats and gloves was much appreciated.  In fact, he was in regular communication in advance so we would be prepared when we got there.  We were lucky enough to find some loons on beautiful Salerno Lake and he explained their patterns such as how they will swim and dive - sometimes staying under for minutes at a time searching for food.  Other times, he would notice mannerisms that tell him it is about to rear up, flapping excitedly for a few seconds.  This evening didn't bring me much in the way of "keepers" with the rough light of day, but there is nothing to be disappointed with being on an empty lake in a boat enjoying cottage country.  The view is spectacular and good for your soul.

Time came eventually to return to shore and think about something to eat and discuss photography, editing, what we enjoy shooting, our experiences, etc.  It was a great way to spend a few hours, not to mention with the wine and Caesar's flowing.  If you're a Caesar drinker and you do this workshop, you have to let Kevin know.  Not only is he an excellent photographer, but he knows how to be one heck of a host.  He's ready for anything.  

I couldn't help but  notice that the night sky was quite clear which gave me an excellent excuse to go back down to the dock, listen to the water, the crickets and of course, the loon song and take some photos.  

The thin crescent moon (though it looks full here) was just what I wanted to give me a nice silhouette.  I shot happily for about an hour as I watched the moon slowly descent closer to the trees and eventually into my shot.  Thank you nature!

After a great first night, it was time to retreat to bed - for me, it was to be in "the cave", a very dimly-lit bedroom downstairs.  Perfect!

The alarm went off shortly before 5:30 - the sun was coming!  Time to get upstairs, get geared up and get ready to go - a bagel and a coffee later (yes, I had coffee!), it was time to go.  We loaded up in the boat and we were off.  For anyone who isn't accustomed to doing this sort of thing for photos, the first 0-2.. maybe 3 hours are the very best light of the day.  It goes from "blue hour" to "golden hour" very quickly - What makes golden hour special? Long shadows, beautiful warm light from the sun - so low on the horizon, and contrasty photos where the sun lights your subject while the sky and background are very subdued.  There is a price to be paid for such beautiful light, and it means getting up before everyone else.  

One thing I didn't expect to see though was a beaver.  Kevin pointed out that these are nocturnal creatures so it is common to see them returning home to sleep when you get out so early in the morning.  It doesn't look very dark in this shot, but there was a healthy dose of magic used to make this shot.  I'd love to spend more time shooting these, especially if it were gnawing on a tree, but that whole nocturnal thing makes that a pretty tall order.  Oh well, back to loons...

Being up so early also means beautiful fog on the water before the sun has a chance to burn it off.  The challenge now is to actually find loons.  This doesn't mean screaming around the lake at full speed, leaving a tsunami-sized wake.  It is all about maintaining the tranquility of the water and not making enemies of our feathered friends - not to mention other cottage owners.  It wasn't long before we discovered this trio in the mist - a pair joined by what I assume is another male.  They mingled together for a while before they split up and the one left the pair alone.

This shot above is just shortly before the sun cleared the trees or found an opening in them.  Kevin expertly got us closer with a combination of a steady hand on the motor and predicting where they would come up.  It was a bit of a game, each of us calling nine o'clock if it was directly to the left (port), three o'clock (starboard), 12 o'clock (straight ahead) or anywhere else on the clock dial.  

There were times where these fellas would just swim merrily on their way, or just stop, enjoying the peace.  Pro tip: They are much more relaxed first thing in the morning.

The sun is pushing through the trees, almost in the clear lighting up this loon as he rears up, flapping for 3-4 seconds before settling back down.  Again, Kevin calls out that "he's going up!", triggering us to fire off a burst of 10 or 12 shots.

As the sun eventually came up, Kevin made great efforts in keeping the birds lit by the sun for best results, occasionally shooting as well with his drool-worthy 400mm 2.8 prime lens.  This example above is what you can get first thing in the morning when the light is just right.  Soft light, beautiful reflections, gentle - almost glass-like water.

After following for a while, we left these two alone and went off to look for the single.  We found him up the lake and he was very curious about us.  We shot him for a while and then tried luring him in closer playing loon calls via recording.  As soon as the call was played, he instantly turned and swam towards us.  It afforded numerous opportunities to shoot, as well as watch him go up.

This went on for a good half hour before he seemed to tire of being lured in, and eventually sought other opportunties further up the lake.  

I didn't know this, but a loon isn't quite the amazing flier that other birds are.  They certainly do fly, and when they're up in the air, they are like a dart, but it takes quite an effort for them to become airborne - maybe 50-75 yards.  This gives a photographer a great chance to shoot them running on water.

I wish I had been lucky enough to get a shot with him parallel to the boat, but I'll take this and be quite happy.

After docking, there was plenty of time to back up photos and enjoy the results, talk about where improvement could be made, the challenges of the morning light, editing and so on.  On my new laptop, I was less than thrilled with my work.  ISO was being a tricky challenge and some quick editing was telling me I had work ahead of me to make my shots look the way they should.  (Fortunately when I loaded the photos on my desktop, they looked far better.  There is something to be said about a calibrated monitor and a good video card vs a laptop, but I digress.  It was a relief!)

Anyway, edit we did - Kevin watching over for the true keepers.. The one that is razor sharp, well lit, good background and maybe just a little personality of our subject showing through.

While I've written this as if it were one day, this was the scenario for 2 full days and they were a lot of fun.  If you haven't done something like this before, let me just say outright what the challenges are to overcome.

  • light - dim light, constantly changing light, soft light and hard light (not quite so much of this one)
    • You have to be able to overcome this quickly, be it through quick changes to ISO, dropping shutter speed or adjusting aperture.  I began with fixed ISO, then changed to auto ISO, then as consistency developed, I left ISO fixed, shutter speed basically fixed, and simply adjusted aperture when I needed more or less light.  It is a very easy thing to adjust on a Canon.
  • Movement - Loons are constantly moving, so you need to have a reliable shutter speed of around 1/800-1000.  The boat is moving as well, but with this type of shutter speed, not an issue.

I began my weekend shooting with my Sigma 150-500 lens, but with an aperture of f5.6-6.3, it is a very slow lens.  One rule I live by is, it's no good getting a close-up if the conditions won't allow for it to be this closed.  The next day I switched to my 70-200 f2.8 and added a 2x Teleconverter but that put me at a fixed f5.6.  This didn't give me quite the same reach as the other lens, but my aperture was a little more open.  In the end, I took off the teleconverter and simply shot the bare 200mm at f2.8.  It did the trick nicely and makes my heart ache for that 400mm f2.8.  Maybe some day down the road if I can save enough nickels.

If anyone is considering a photography trip, based on this trip, Kevin (K1), his incredible hospitality, I wouldn't hesitate in the slightest to recommend him and North of 49 Photography.  I am already contemplating my next trip.  Who knows, maybe one day I can join his team.

If you like what you've read, I would appreciate it if you would share my website with your friends.  It's the only way I can get my name and work out there.  Until next time..

 

Iceland Adventures

Be sure to click on photos to view a little larger....

Since my trip to Alaska in 2014, I've been pretty enthralled by remote areas, mountains and northern lights in particular.  These have led me to and through the mountains of Alberta and most recently to Iceland.  Sure, I've sought northern lights in places like Algonquin Provincial Park, Manitoulin Island and Torrance Barrens Dark Sky Preserve, but none have a genuinely high probability of seeing it - certainly not at it's full intensity when it does appear simply because they appear most often at much higher latitudes.

Websites like Soft Serve News offer information on Northern Lights (I'll just call it the Aurora from here) as well as a real-time forecast of the probability of seeing it.  Of particular use is the ovation map which, in the simplest terms, is a view of the globe and where the aurora is presently viewable.  The hope is to see a fat green or preferably green and red band exactly where you are on it's map.  The greener (or better, redder) that band is, the better your chances of seeing the aurora.  

Having watched this for months, it becomes clear that the aurora is most visible in northern Ontario (ie the northernmost end - not what us southerners think "northern Ontario" means) at it's southern end, and a little north of Hudson's Bay at it's northern end.  

Here is the Ovation Map right now as I write.  As you can see by the green band, there is a thick piece of green at the 4 o'clock area, but it is not nearly as wide as it could be.  A good, strong ovation has a much longer fat, green belt.  Regardless, as you can see, the southernmost tip of Greenland, and to a lesser extent, Iceland have a chance of seeing the aurora right at this moment, but otherwise, unless you're over the ocean in that thick green area, chances of seeing it are very thin.

Ovation Map as of January 26, 2016 8:28pm

What causes the aurora? That's a question people who know I follow this ask me all the time.  DIscharges from the sun which happen constantly impacting and interacting with Earth's magnetic field.  The ovation you see above in the norther hemisphere is also happening in the southern hemisphere where the other end of the magnetic field is.  

Occasionally you've probably heard of an ejection from the sun coming towards the Earth which could jeopardize satellites, the International Space Station and electronics here on the ground.  These little beauties, while risky, mean that if they do hit our magnetic field, can create the strongest auroras.  They would appear on the map above with a thick red band, and are the things that get people like me to drive as far north as reasonable in hopes of seeing and photographing.

Because we're in a time of diminishing solar activity though, studying this map and others work literally put Iceland on the map for me because I could see the ovation hit Iceland consistently, so it would just be a matter of the strength of it and weather.

Day 1

The first day in Iceland was a challenge - it began the day before back at home just outside Toronto with the flight taking off at roughly 8:00pm.  With it being a 5.5 hour flight and a 5 hour time difference, it meant landing in Keflavik, Iceland at about 6:30am where the day would begin and a 90 minute drive to the hotel in Reykjavik.  It was basically Scotland all over again - up all night and then up all day.  Oh well, I'm tough! 

With nothing booked on Day 1, the only real plan was to get the rental car, check in, find some food for the fridge and explore.  For anyone considering Iceland, know this: They drive on the proper side of the road (a jab at you UK people!) , therefore the driver seat is on the correct side of the car and signage is in km/h.  Wonderful! Oh, but they do like their roundabouts/traffic circles.  They weren't a big deal though - two lanes at most and drivers seemed courteous for the most part.  One other curious thing was their traffic light system.  Instead of Green-Yellow-Red-Green, it's Green-Yellow-Red-Yellow-Green.  Interesting.

Anyway, in an effort to make use of the day, exploring was top of the list, but where to? Daylight is in very short supply, and I'd read a lot about how the weather can turn on a dime.  The only fun option seemed to be to get in the car and just go and see where the road leads.  

It took about 20 minutes to get out of the city of Reykjavik and on to more open roads surrounded by mountains like I haven't seen.  To my eye, they were steep walls ending abruptly with a relatively flat top, maybe 3-500 feet high.  Because they were capped with snow, I really didn't know if they were mountains or perhaps construction was taking place on top to flatten them.  Odd to say the least, but still eye-catching.  The drive continued on for some time before the howling wind and blowing snow made the idea of driving too far out seem like a bad one, so it was time to head back.  Grouchiness was setting in as well and that was taking a toll.  Not much in the way of photos, certainly nothing worth sharing.

Back at the hotel, a nap was next on the agenda, but first, a look out the window revealed this beauty just a few hundred yards away.  It is a restaurant named Perlan.  Unfortunately the shot was through the hotel window so it isn't the best, but inside is a highly regarded fine-dining restaurant.  Definitely out of my price range, but the photo was free.

The Perlan Restaurant in Reykjavik, Iceland

A nice 2 or 3 hour nap later, I checked Soft Serve News to discover that there should be a good chance of seeing the aurora.  With that, a quick gathering of gear, an extra couple of layers and it was off to find a place away from city lights.  I can't give an address so here's a link to it via Google Maps if anyone is interested. 

The lights were visible before even getting here so I didn't waste much time with setting up before snapping away.  In fact, I hurried, truth be told.  Unfortunately hurrying is one of my problems because I have missed important details thanks to it.  Details such as setting your camera back to your usual settings for astrophotography, rather than for things like hockey games.

The last time I had my camera out was to shoot a local hockey game.  I dialed back the quality of images in order to get more shots during bursts.  Unfortunately I did forget to return the quality setting back to it's maximum, therefore any aurora shots I got that night won't be their absolute best.  What a kick in the butt.  Oh well, here's a few anyway...

Aurora warming up...

 

Aurora picking up with more activity

Aurora beginning to fade off

The funny thing about the aurora is as quickly as it comes, it can go just as fast.. But they can reappear.  With the ovation sometimes spanning a thousand miles, it takes a long time for the belt to pass over a particular place.  It is for that reason that if you're serious about shooting, you should have one person on watch while you sleep, and take turns because if they do come back, it could be much stronger and go on for much longer.  No such luck - it was a long long day and after about 90 minutes when they faded, it was time for bed.

Day 2

Day 2 arrived and I was pretty much on Iceland time now.  Thanks to shift work, I often don't take too long to switch from one time zone to another, but when I do, it's a nightmare.  I got lucky this time and all was good and the plan was a bus tour of the Golden Circle with Reykjavik Excursions.

This tour was an 8 hour adventure with convenient hotel pickup and drop-off and began with a trip to the Geysir Geothermal Area.  This is not a place for hot-springs bathing though - temperatures are well over the boiling point.  Here, after a short walk along the path, partially ice covered was the Strokkur geyser which would erupt faithfully every 5 to 10 minutes and shoot water nearly 100 feet in the air without any sign it was about to happen.

The Strokkur geyser eruption

The geyser itself was a thing of beauty, but I have to admit, I was very surprised at how close you can get to it.  Water was pouring down just a foot or two away and I'm quite sure it would have been very hot.  Yikes! 

There was plenty of time to walk around, watch several eruptions, enjoy the sunrise (even though it was probably noon by now and the sun was as high as it was going to get now, which is to say, a perpetual sunrise and sunset.  

The time did eventually come to return to the bus and head on to the next destination of Gullfoss which is a breathtaking two-tiered waterfall.

Gullfoss Waterfall

This is one of those waterfalls that makes you glad you're alive and seeing it for yourself.  I have seen pictures while researching Iceland of this waterfall in summer, and it is spectacular, but the winter adds a whole other dimension.

The final step on the tour was to the Þingvellir National Park.  This is the place that splits Iceland in half.  On the west side is the American tectonic plate, and to the east is the European plate.  There is a gap in between of about 2 or 3 kilometres which you can either drive or hike across and it is something that makes you realize what it's like to stand in the place where the earth opens up during an earthquake.

While here, I did make it a mission to find a small piece of rock on the American wall and bring it home. After all, it's a piece of home, thousands of miles away.  Unfortunately, no such luck - that wall was solid.

The hazard of bus tours - tourists are impossible to get away from

Here, the American plate is on the right with an ordinary rock wall to the left.  The European plate is a few kilometers away.  This is just a short path leading up to an area known as The Law Rock - a gathering place in the 900's where for 2 weeks each year, the laws of the land were recited, speeches made etc.  An interesting historical place. 

Essentially, this was the end of the tour and it was time for the long drive back.  

Because sunset takes so long from start to finish, there was just enough time to load up the car and make the quick drive up to another of Reykjavik's landmarks, Hallgrimskirkja - one of the most beautiful churches I've seen.  I'm not a particularly religious person, but you have to admire the architecture and originality of this building.

My goal here was to shoot it during "blue hour" and unfortunately, I rushed and messed up the shot by not nailing focus - just about the worst mistake you can make.  Thankfully Photoshop rescued it enough to show it at least, but as far as hanging it on the wall? No.

Hallgrimskirkja

While the night was not particularly cold, the sky crystal clear, monitoring Soft Serve News over the next few hours didn't offer any good news at all.  No aurora tonight.  What a shame.

Day 3

Day 3 was essentially the last day in Iceland and it was time for another tour with Reykjavik Excursions called The South Shore Adventure tour.  As you probably guessed, it is a drive along the southern shore of the country, past numerous volcanoes, lava fields, mountains and wide open nothingness.  Perfect.

First stop was the Seljalandsfoss waterfall.  One of the beautiful options this place has is the ability to walk behind it during summer months.  In the winter though? Far far far too icy.  It's probably a beautiful sight in those summer months - during winter though, it's fun to visit but not particularly photogenic.

Along the tour were several stories of eruptions of the active volcanoes - one of which recently shut down air travel to and through Europe.  It was quite interesting to hear about these eruptions and how they affected the people living here and the boom to tourism they created.  I said it before, I'll say it again - Several people indicated one of the volcanoes is overdue for an eruption and when it does, I'll be buying my plane ticket and bringing my mountain bike to get some once-in-a-lifetime photos.

The next stop on the agenda was to the Myrdalsjokull glacier.  As with all of them (or so it seems), it too is receding as the planet warms. Nonetheless it was still a beautiful sight to see.  This is one of those places where you can understand how valleys truly are carved out by the ice.

Myrdalsjokull Glacier

There was just enough time to hike from the bus to the glacier, take it in for a few minutes before it was time to head back.  This tour had places to go and things to see and time wasn't on our side.  After loading up, it was on to Vik, the easternmost destination of the tour.

Black and white may not be the best way to highlight the black sand beach, but at this time of year with the sun so low in the sky, the orange cast the light gives to it doesn't really show the colour properly.  This show conveys the mood better for me.

Reynisfjara is home to black sand beaches

The rocky pyramids in the water are particularly eye-catching.  I have to admit, I did bring back a pretty good sized sample of the black sand.  Hopefully that doesn't have some diabolical effect on our ecosystem.

For the sake of this blog, the final stop on the tour was one last waterfall known as Skogafoss.

Skogafoss waterfall

This is another of those waterfalls that looks spectacular during the summer months, but at this time of year, the sun coming off the water and ice is just other-worldly.  You can walk right up to it if you choose, but as you can imagine, the ice on the ground is extremely slippery and brittle.  I came up to about 30 feet, felt the spray and retreated back for a few more shots.

On returning from the tour and relaxing for a bit in the hotel, it was back to Soft Serve News to see how things were looking.  Right on cue, things looked pretty good.  Unfortunately though, our guide warned us that the night was shaping up to be cloudy so the aurora would probably be a loss.  It was worth taking a shot though, so back to the same place...

Aurora Borealis under cloud

Unfortunately our guide was right - clouds rolled in quickly and by the time the aurora was gaining real strength, they were beginning to get washed out.  I was particularly happy with the amount of reflection in the water.

Aurora over a lighthouse

As quickly as they appeared, they were snuffed out by the clouds which didn't blow over.  Aurora Borealis in Iceland was over for me, but it was worth the trip.

Day 4

Time to go home.  Fortunately, the flight was not until 5pm so there was still some time left to explore.  After checking out, it was back to the rental car and a quick decision guided it back to  Þingvellir.  

On the previous tour, I had seen several places which held lots of potential for photos.  I still hadn't really got the shot I wanted of the beauty of winter here so this was the last chance.  The first stop found this place.

This shot is one that says "Iceland" to me but wait, there's more.

This 6-shot panorama was the one.  The sun at it's full height over a lake just outside of the park was what I had been looking for and I got it and it will be the next one to go on the wall.

For me, it was the perfect way to end the trip.  A few mistakes along the way, but ultimately the trip was a thrill and if I do return, I'll know of plenty of places to re-visit during summer months, if I'm not there first to shoot an eruption.

If you enjoyed any or all of these photos, please share the page with others.  

Thanks!

 

 

 

 

Break is Over

I'm happy to say that the drought with the camera has come to an end.

After the past several months of cleaning, purging, storing, renovating, packing and moving, I am out of the old house and into the new and a few nights ago I had an opportunity to take a trip north to get back under the stars.

Following a day at work, I had been loosely watching the weather report for the evening, and all signs were good that it would be a clear night.  Taking a little vacation time, I pulled the plug abut mid-way through the shift and headed home to gather up the essentials:

  • Camera - check
  • Lenses - check
  • Tripod - check
  • Remote - check
  • Batteries - check

But this was to be no normal night.  For the past year I had been doing a lot of research on telescopes, mounts and astrophotography.  After several months of waiting, all of the parts arrived and were unpacked and read to go.

The new rig consists of a Sky Watcher EQ6 motorized mount and an Orion 10-inch Newtonian Reflector.  The goal with it is to use it's on-board computer to teach it where it is pointing and then from there, it can track objects seamlessly as they slowly move across the sky with my camera attached.  

With this type of setup, you can photograph the planets and very, VERY distant celestial bodies that you couldn't hope to see with the naked eye.  It is a test of patience, endurance and knowledge.

The new scope under the stars

Sadly, I appear to be lacking on all three fronts.  

Patience: I already know I am a pretty impatient person and because I was so far north, the bugs were bad.  Very bad.  The kind of bad that drive me to the edge of sanity.  It caused me to retreat to my car several times during the setup, ultimately to wait them out until it became dark enough for them to go away.

Endurance: I have a lot of endurance but when it comes to the mosquitoes that followed after the big flies went to bed, I didn't last long.  Back in the car.  Outside I applied generous amounts of bug spray and tried another fancy gizmo which ultimately proved useless.  Back inside I went and I waited them out, fully expecting to have to retreat with my tail between my legs and accomplishing nothing.  Fortunately, the mosquitoes too went to sleep and left me alone eventually.

Knowledge: What I thought I knew simply wasn't enough.  First, I left one piece at home, which meant I was not able to balance the telescope.  It must be balanced because otherwise it will simply fall over in one direction or another if there isn't sufficient counter-weight.  Strike 1.  Strike 2 came when I couldn't figure out how to attach my camera to the scope.  Thank you Google for solving that from the middle of nowhere, Ontario.  Strike 3 came when I simply couldn't get the telescope pointed at anything worthwhile.  It's fairly easy when you're looking through an eyepiece, but not so easy when its through a camera.

Because of this, I gave up on the scope and simply took pictures of it and the sky as I always have.  

Contemplating life under the stars. My preferred Selfie

A funny thing about looking up at the stars at night - You don't see some things by looking straight on.  It's the peripheral where you see.  While trying to find one thing in particular, I noticed a dark spot in the sky.  It wasn't dark because of cloud, because I could still clearly see stars.  But there was an absence of light.  There was a very defined line where the light began and the darkness ended though.  

It took a moment, but I realized instantly what it was.  A quick search of www.softservenews.com confirmed what I suspected.  The Northern Lights were coming to life!  

In the past, I had driven up here in hopes of seeing them, but consistently left disappointed.  While this is still much too far south to get the spectacular views that are possible, there was just enough of a glimmer to recognize it.  

Northern Lights made themselves known, but very subdued

While it wasn't the thrilling show I'd seen in the past, I was happy to at least see it.  It's possible if I had stayed longer they may become more intense (they typically peak around 2 or 3am), but at this point I was closing in on 22 hours of being awake and I knew I had a long drive home so I decided to call it a night - but not before taking one last shot.

The new house has one large, tall wall that is desperately crying out for a shot.  Flipping my camera on it's side, I got this one which I think will do very nicely.  If you look carefully you'll see the Big Dipper, and a little more carefully, you'll see it's companion Little Dipper as well.  

It will be very expensive to print this one, but I'm looking forward to it.

Until next time..

Before and After

A good friend who is also a photographer asked me if I would take a shot for her because I have a little more experience with lighting.  At our work, we have items known as Challenge Coins which are small tokens of recognition for work accomplished.  Her plan was to shoot the coin and blow it up to a large size for a wall.

With that in mind, I asked her if she would pick up a piece of black felt for me and I'd be happy to do it.  I have a macro lens that would allow me to get very close to get all the detail and with the use of a couple of speedlights by remote, I would be able to light it with my camera so close.  

Setup was simple - on the floor went the felt, on it, the coin and I would set my tripod to it's lowest height with the lens facing down, a remote trigger set up and 2 speedlights (flashes) on either side pointing at the ceiling to bounce light back down.  Shooting was done in a matter of a half a dozen shots and then it was off to lightroom.

With the shots loaded into the catalog, I viewed the coin and was rather surprised at how it turned out.

Before - Click for larger size

In camera, the shot looked fine - a little light near the word Duty, but that would be easily fixable, however when I looked at the shot in Lightroom, I wasn't prepared for the imperfections.  If you click the shot above, you'll see it in all it's glory, complete with scratches, dings, dents and paint flaws from the manufacturing process.  This one was going to be a challenge.  A couple of tiny changes with the Lightroom sliders and it was time to move it over to Photoshop.

Now it wasn't overly long into the job when the question crossed my mind - just how flawless does it need to be? Should there still be a few scratches? What about the background? Does felt really look how it should? Should it look like a photo of a coin or should it look like a picture.  That last question was the one that drove me.  It had to look like a photograph, not an artists computer-generated image.  Once that was decided, that's how I would go forward.

But where to start? Thankfully, Photoshop has several tools in it's arsenal, and I bet there's probably a quicker way, but my best friend was the clone stamp tool.  Taking a piece of the image that I liked and duplicating it - sort of like Copy/Paste.  That would work for things like the scratches in the paint.  Other bits could be fixed with the Spot Healing brush.  This brush is a godsend - paint an area with a flaw, and Photoshop will change it into what it thinks you want.  This was perfect for small scratches in the metal.  

Eventually though, I found that I didn't like the reflections that were cast by the flash.  It really accented flaws.  I did my best with the clone tool to keep textures as much as possible but there were a great many times where the black just simply had to be black, so the paintbrush came out.

After - Click for larger size

All tolled, after several breaks I found it took about 8 hours to get the coin to where I liked it.  Paint flaws were fixed, dings were removed, scratches gone, blobs of paint were corrected and the felt background? It had to go.  In the end, I left much of the reflection from the flash and did my best to make sure it still looked like a photo by leaving a few imperfections.  At the end of the day, I'm very happy with how it turned out :)


In other news, thanks to three beautiful models helping me out, I have completed another photography assignment with my course at New York Institute of Photography and graduate to the 5th of 6 Units.  I'm very excited about this one.  It puts the basics behind you and puts you more into the real photographers shoes by requiring assignments for publications.  Wish me luck!

 

Comet Lovejoy

Some of my earliest blogs have been focused on shooting the heavens.  I'm hoping this one might illustrate the journey to a great shot and the difference between seeing conditions.  Of course there is a risk that my best image might have already been captured already, so here's hoping that isn't the case.  (Unfortunately I don't own a telescope, so "great" is a very relative term.  Without a telescope, it will never be clear and crisp)

I first heard of Comet Lovejoy a while back and although I would have loved to have got a shot earlier, was far too faint for me to hope to catch it.  As days moved on though, it moved closer and closer.  In fact, in a day or two, it will have reached its closest point to our lovely blue planet but there are still another couple of weeks before it makes its closest approach to the sun, so it's tail should hopefully become more pronounced.

Shooting the night sky is a big interest of mine because it holds many challenges.  A) finding a good location, B) actually finding what I want to shoot and C) catching a day with good conditions, and; D) getting a shot that's a keeper.  Those are 4 pretty tough tumblers to line up.  Locations aren't easy to find, finding a dot in the sky that you can't see with your own eye is obviously an interesting one, good conditions have their own obvious issues, and then getting a good shot out of it isn't as easy as I'd like, but all add up to the size of the reward when it all goes right.

To keep this short, I'll focus only on the last 2 attempts and then add later if I have more.  My first attempt, I finished work and a friend and fellow sky-watcher noted to me that the sky was quite clear.  That was enough to prompt me to give it a shot.  I headed home, gathered my gear, and tried to find a good dark location close to home.  Sadly this took longer than I had hoped, and eventually I settled on a park here in the city.  There were no visible streetlights nearby, however the city is of course situated under a shroud of light.

Once parked (and having frightened off a car nearby), I set up my tripod, long lens and camera and began searching the sky.  A tiny barely visible greenish dot was the target.  Unfortunately my eyes weren't up to the task so using a star chart, I began pointing in the general area I knew it to be and began taking test shots and viewing the resulting image on the screen.  After 11 or 12 tests, I managed to find my target.  Unfortunately though, around shot 10, I noticed clouds forming and headed my way at a very high speed.  Such a speed that by the time I had found my comet, I didn't have time to get my focus dialed in before it was completely hidden.  And with that, the night was over.

Fortunately, my fellow sky-watcher texted me again last night to tell me about the sky being clear again.  Perhaps I should check the weather myself now and then.. hmm..

Armed with this news, I headed back to the same park and once again, 11 or 12 shots later, I found my target.  Incidentally, if you have binoculars, you can see it tonight if you find the constellation Orion, follow the line of his belt to the west and you should find it.

Dialing in focus took a little work as usual.  Getting into the ballpark is easy - set your focus at infinity, and you'll be able to see fairly well.  Getting it as sharp as possible means adjustments that are such a tiny amount of pressure on the focus ring.  Unfortunately it was extremely cold and a rather gusty wind.  The combination of these two things made it difficult to nail focus, and quite frankly, after a while, the cold was enough to make me lose my desire in the interests of not losing my fingers to frostbite.  A little dramatic, but not far from the truth.  It was clear that there would be no seeing the trail of the comet from this location, so my small victory would have to be simply finding and shooting it.  

With a bit of luck, I will have a follow-up to this blog if I shoot it from a darker location on a better night.  Stay tuned!

 

Where does the time go?

After spending the last few minutes watching the Fro, I thought I'd take a moment and look over my site and see just how fresh it is.  

I see now that a freshening up of shots might be in order, but be that as it may, one thing that has fallen behind is the blog.  My last one was a recap of a difficult summer and the shots I took throughout that time.

Since I've been home, I have explored the world of Portrait photography.  For now, I won't be including any shots but just a few words to tell of the experience.

After much reading, research and time spent on Youtube (you really can learn most anything online now), I invited a couple of models to join me in my home for my first real experience of shooting portraits under controlled lighting.

Using strobes with a soft box and umbrella along with a speedlight and umbrella, I spent about 90 minutes taking turns with them in different lighting to get something worthwhile.  I'm happy to say that time spent in research was well rewarded thanks to my models' ability to do not only what I asked, but also what came natural to them.  They had no qualms about trying something new, something out of the ordinary and really, spend a lot of time in bright lights!

The time will come in the not-too-distant future where I do share those shots once I have a few more people come and help me out.  In the meantime, the camera lies waiting for another opportunity - perhaps for a crisp, clear night sky.

Until then...

Blogging

It has been a long time since I did some writing, so here's a look at my spring, summer and fall so far.

Since returning from my beautiful trip to Alberta, I'm saddened to announce that my mother has passed away.  Even in her last days, she illustrated her pride in my photography by asking for some of my work to be displayed on the living room wall where she lay.  It will always mean the world to me.

While I was spending time there, I had plenty of opportunity to use my camera.  A lot of those times were created by a very real need to get out of the house and simply be alone.  I began a search for the best sunset I could find and my search for dragonflies and monarch butterflies continued.  A need to be with nature was crucial.

Barn Swallows of Point Pelee, Ontario

Barn Swallows of Point Pelee, Ontario

Thanks to my visit to Alberta and my purchase of a Parks Canada pass, I visited Point Pelee National Park numerous times.  I saw this family of swallows on several occasions during my visits here from day to day as I walked around the marsh boardwalk.  Here, I was lucky enough to catch feeding time.

Dragonfly on a water lily

Dragonfly on a water lily

Walking around this marsh, there are many times where dragonflies present themselves.  While I managed to capture many shots, none of them had much appeal to me.  They were sharp, they were clear, but it wasn't until the day that water lilies appeared that I finally found what I was looking for.  This day was rather windy so the challenge was to freeze him without a flash.  Mission accomplished.

A break in the clouds

A break in the clouds

The western beach at Point Pelee is much more active than the east side.  As the wind typically comes in from the west, the water is always breaking on the shore.  On one visit with my sister, we went for a swim in the water.  We were both amazed at the colours and patterns on the rocks in the lake.  If I were so inclined, I would be very tempted to bring some home to polish.  It doesn't matter whether they were small or large, they were all quite amazing.  Coming in from the water was a bit of a challenge.  The water goes out fairly hard and the climb from the water is a little steep.  Walking on the rocks below justifies for me why life preservers are a good idea here.

Something in the air

Something in the air

There were many opportunities to spend some time outside on the back porch and on one such occasion, we were greeted by a small family of skunks.  Whether it was 2 or 3 I don't remember, but they seemed quite friendly.  My sister was far braver than I, and got a lot closer than I dared with her point-and-shoot.

Instead, I opted for a long lens and caught this fuzzy little guy nosing around the garden.  I don't know much about skunks, but he or she had no odour at all so I'm guessing babies are fairly safe to approach.

Calm waters

Calm waters

Word on the street is that the Point Pelee National Park has a Facebook page where visitors may share their own shots from this location with the goal being to enable visitors to see changes to the area over time.  

My black and white shot may not help them a lot, but I do hope someone gets some enjoyment from the effect.  It was an absolutely beautiful day and the clouds above just couldn't be appreciated in anything but shades of gray.

A Coywolf of Algonquin Park

A Coywolf of Algonquin Park

Following my return home, I immediately sought more photo opportunities.  One of my favourite places to get away to is Algonquin Park as I wrote about last year.  I have been seeking bear shots in the wild along with moose and wolf.  One morning, following an early alarm while it was still dark, I was lucky enough to capture this shot of a coywolf on the edge of the woods.  He had been chewing something a moment ago.  While he did look at me for a few long moments, he didn't show much more than curiosity before trotting back into the safety of the trees.

Monarch butterfly 

Monarch butterfly 

Did I mention monarchs? They have been extremely elusive to me for the past year.  As a kid, I used to notice them fairly frequently but now that I have wanted to shoot one? Easier said than done.  

On a trip out to visit family, I took the long route home and stopped in a conservation area to explore and hike the trails.  I was greeted by muskrats both in and out of the water, egrets, heron and yes, monarchs.  

Once again the wind was a challenge to deal with, but I had several opportunities to knock another subject off my list.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Now that I think of it, I had another goal.  My parents have told me since they moved that there are bald eagles in the area.  While I enjoyed kidding them that they must be ready for a "special" home, it was only logical that they may in fact be right.

It was on a visit to my mom's grave that I spotted this young eagle fly overhead and land high above on a branch, keeping careful watch.  It gave an interesting feelign of closure to see finally see him.  Later, I believe I saw two more far off in the distance.

Lightning at Port Credit

Lightning at Port Credit

This appears to be a year for achieving goals.  I have made several attempts during bad weather to capture a lightning shot.  By the way, one of my peeves has been presenting itself repeatedly, so I'm going to nitpick it.  The word is lightning, not lightening.  Lightening is a verb.  'Nuff said.

As I was saying, on the forecast of violent weather, on several occasions I gathered my gear (after pre-scouting some locations), drove several miles and waited after setting up.  

For anyone who wants to capture lightning, I have this advice.  Catching it is easy.  Finding a location that will enable you to catch it is the difficult part.  Above all, you need to be safe and dry.  For me, this meant locating a gazebo.  I tried several times to point at Toronto's CN tower, however it became problematic.  It is a quite a run from the car with the gear. 

This shot was taken in Port Credit a couple of weeks ago, and besides the young girls with their bong enjoying the light show, my only real problem was them sitting where I wanted to be.  It was after I left, disappointed, that I discovered that I had managed to capture this shot, and I am quite thrilled about it.

I suppose that is all for now.  I have taken several thousand shots, but my goal is to keep people interested and maybe read how these shots came about.  Too much can be too much.

Until next time.

How to Take a Good Photo by Geoff

My basic DSLR guide for beginners to taking a good shot.

What you Need:

  • A DSLR camera (plus memory card, plus battery, plus appropriate lens)
  • A tripod
  • A remote shutter release
  • A subject
  • An interesting background
  • An interesting foreground
  • Nothing distracting from your subject
  • Image Editing Software - I suggest Adobe Lightroom and/or Photoshop Elements
  • Switch your camera`s settings to save your shots in RAW format.  You can also save as a JPEG is you choose, but RAW is very important.

The first three items are obvious and the last is probably pretty obvious as well.  The guts in the middle are a large part of what makes a shot "good".  Choosing your subject is easy - it could be a person, an animal, a sunset, a rocket on a launchpad or a million other things.  But once you have decided what you want to shoot, making it stand above a hundred photos of the same thing depends greatly on what else is in the shot.

Actually, I'll touch on the tripod and shutter release quickly.  A shot will never be good if it isn't sharp.  A tripod will always be far steadier than the steadiest of hands.  A shutter release is just as helpful because when the photographer presses the button, it is easy to shake the camera slightly with that small amount of pressure.  The remote will press the button for you without your touching the camera.

Background

A number of photographers will say that a good shot is built from the background forward.  That is probably very good advice and I certainly wouldn't argue it.  Unfortunately there are many occasions where you cannot control it entirely.  What you can often control though is the angle in which you shoot your subject.  This means either walking or driving around and seeing which direction gives you your best background.  Ideally it should have no distractions or things that might make the viewer question what the subject truly is.

Foreground

While you're doing your walk-around, it is important to be aware of what would be in your foreground.  At times, you need to weigh which is more important, or which is more interesting.  Just remember, you can control much of these two things by your choice of equipment and choice of settings.  

Light

You've chosen your background and foreground, and that's fantastic.  But one other thing to consider: How is the light? Would it be better if you had been there at sunrise? Early morning? Late afternoon? After dark? Are there clouds in the sky? Do you have shadows? You want a good shot remember, not just a shot.  Be prepared to return to this place another time.  You may even return several times.

Settings

Now that you've chosen your subject, your background, your foreground and hopefully the light, you have no doubt noticed there are probably several buttons and maybe a few wheels on your camera.  What are they? What do they do?

Focusing on Canon because that's what I know, I'm going to get into the modes that I use because for me, they make the most sense to commonly use.

TV

You would like to think this is a video mode, but it isn't.  This setting is one of the somewhat Auto modes that gives you some control of the type of action you are shooting.  If you use this setting, chances are either you are moving, or your subject is.  Therefore, what you are truly controlling is your shutter speed.  If you or your subject are moving quickly or erratically, you will want to use a shutter speed that is higher.  Maybe 1/400th of a second, maybe 1/1000th, possibly higher.  If you want to freeze the wings of a hummingbird, you will want to shoot at very high shutter speed.  

When you choose your shutter speed, your camera will adjust the other settings all by itself to give you what it believes is a good exposure.

AV

AV is a setting which controls the Aperture of your lens.  It is also another somewhat Auto mode.  Aperture's function is how much of your shot (from what is nearest your focus point to the farthest item away from it) is in focus.  

Let that sink in for a moment.  If you choose a low number like f. 2.8 (a wide open aperture), less of your shot will be in focus.  If you shoot something at a very close distance to you with a background that is a significant distance away, all of that "stuff" behind it will be blurred to some degree, or even totally.  The "stuff" in front of it will as well.  This is an excellent way to ensure that your subject is defined clearly and there is no mistaking what your subject is.  With this setting, you can take a cluttery background, and either make it blurry and irrelevent, or possibly even make it an interesting, but non-distracting pattern.

Conversely, if you choose a larger aperture number (like f. 22), a lot more will be in clearer focus.  This is an important thing when shooting a beautiful landscape.

M

M is the scary, forboding, intimidating MANUAL mode.  Yes, I wrote that in caps.  It's very scary to use Manual mode because you have to make all of the decisions yourself.  

Truth be told, I shoot manual mode nearly all the time.  Not because I'm amazing, but because it is the only mode that truly lets you decide how the shot will look.  Lets get a bit deeper.

I've talked about the benefits of controlling your shutter speed and why choosing your aperture can be beneficial.  Well, with Manual mode, you can have your cake and eat it too.  That is to say, you can control both.

Suppose you want to shoot a cyclist riding past, but you don't want the "stuff" behind him or her to be cluttering your shot.  Well, it's actually quite easy.  Set your shutter speed to a number you would expect would be reasonable for a moving target, and an aperture that would blur your background.  I would likely go with 1/1000th shutter speed or perhaps higher, and an aperture of around 5.6.  If you have left your ISO setting on Automatic, it will evaluate your settings and set an ISO number automatically that will give you what it thinks is an appropriate exposure.  Now your cyclist has been frozen, is sharp and you have a background which is blurred, making your cyclist the obvious subject.

ISO

What is ISO you might ask? ISO is the third part of the Exposure Triangle (1: Shutter Speed, 2: Aperture, 3: ISO).  It can be described as how sensitive your camera's sensor is to light.  With high sensitivity (a high ISO number), you are telling your camera that it is probably very dark out, and it needs to suck in as much light as it can when you push the button.  With low sensitivity (a low ISO number), you tell your camera that it is generally very bright outside and it won't need to work hard to get enough light for the shot.  

When you leave your camera on Automatic ISO, before you even press the button, your camera evaluates for itself how bright your scene is and how sensitive your sensor needs to be based on the settings you have programmed in for your next shot.  Quite ingenious really.

I`ll note here that it is not cheating to let your camera decide your ISO, but there are most definitely times where you need to set it yourself.

Caveat

This is the important part.  For you to truly take a good quality photo based on the settings you have programmed, it can be crucial that you use as low of an ISO value as possible.  With high ISO numbers comes image noise.  This might not be as crucial depending on what you are shooting, but if you have a minimalistic type of scene, any image noise will seriously detract from your shot.  

Note: If the scene you are shooting is something completely still, remember that you can have a slower shutter speed to increase how much light is reaching your sensor.  By doing this, you can have a lower ISO value and achieve much less image noise.  

Software

After talking about image noise, this is where software comes in.  Sometimes you simply cannot avoid noise because you might be shooting an action scene in low light.  

After you have imported your shots from your camera to your computer, load up Lightroom or Photoshop Elements and now you can play with your noise reduction options.  

At the onset of this guide, I made a mention of shooting in the RAW format.  Without getting into great detail, the reason you would do this is because it will save your shot in the highest quality, with no automatic modifications, and no compression.  Compression degrades both the quality of the shot along with your ability to edit it later.  Always shoot RAW.

When you edit a RAW file, both Lightroom and Photoshop Elements allow you to easily adjust the most important parts of a photo that could be better.  You can make the darks darker and the brights brighter.  You can make the darks brighter and the brights darker.  Sound confusing? It won't after you play with the sliders.  

You can also adjust things like the saturation of your colours, the overall tint, the warmness of your shot, or even some settings to make your image "pop".  Finish up with a little sharpening if it is needed.  

If you're happy with it, crop it if necessary, then save it.  

Remember though, there is such a thing as too much editing.  Try not to overdo your editing, especially your sharpening and saturating of colours.

Conclusion

With practice, all of these things should take you out of the novice category and make you much more confident in what you are able to do with your DSLR camera.  

This guide is by no means a definitive, all-encompasing writeup, but the basics of getting you going.  If you are interesting in learning more, check your area to see what seminars and courses are available.  They are worth every penny.

If you have any comments, I'd love to hear them.  Feel free to post below or contact me by email.  I would be happy to answer any questions.  

Alberta - Canmore, Banff and Jasper; Part II

Continuing on with my story, I need to add a note that I missed earlier.

Along the drive up the Icefields Parkway, there is no big rig traffic allowed.  This means the largest vehicles you will see are motorhomes or pickups towing a trailer.  When I began my trip up, I made one stop in a scenic spot and was amazed that with the lack of car traffic, it was silent.  Absolutely silent.  No road noise, no activity in the distance, no birds singing, no water, no wind.  Nothing.  I don't know if it was a moment of paradise or a lead in to insanity.  It was hard for my senses to process.  It was one of those moments where you are forced to think about what life might have been like before industrialization.

Moving on (quite literally), I had just returned to my car at the Icefield and got on my way when the few cars on the road ahead of me immediately slowed.  Out here, this can mean only one thing.  Animal spotted.

Two bighorn sheep lazily wander the side of the road, deciding how to spend their morning.

Two bighorn sheep lazily wander the side of the road, deciding how to spend their morning.

In this case, two bighorn sheep were wandering on the road without a care in the world.  They held no interest in the cars which slowed and in many cases, stopped to look or take photos.  

I don't know why, but I didn't stop.  I quickly flipped to a higher shutter speed, slowed and reached out with my camera to shoot these guys out my passenger window.  I am very lucky to have managed to get a couple of great shots of them as I slowly moved past.  

Over the next several days, I explored many more trails, many of which have a lot of elevation change.  These changes can really change the view ahead, but it can be challenging when carrying a bulky camera and a lens or two.  The good thing about it though is it forced me to slow down and take in what I was seeing, rather than plowing through to just 'get there' as I often do.  

An overhang of trees catches my eye during a hike in a gorge.

An overhang of trees catches my eye during a hike in a gorge.

As I tend to move quickly from start to finish, this slowing down and actually taking in what's around me seems to have its rewards.  I suppose not everything in life is meant to be done quickly and on to the next thing.  This shot above is taken in a gorge where the beginning of the trail is at the highest elevation and continues down to the rocky water bed below a couple of kilometers away.  At this time of year, there is very little movement of water and the water has turned to ice.  Evidently (and probably now), the water moves at a roar as the spring turns to summer and the rest of the snow melts away.

Other trail locations however are in quiet (yet still somewhat hilly) terrains.  Valley of the Five Lakes offers the hiker the ability to meander between five small lakes over a 9 kilometer trail.  I have to say though, I deviated off the trail (as I sometimes do) and found this little nook.

A push through thick brush rewarded me with a beautiful view of one of the 5 lakes.

A push through thick brush rewarded me with a beautiful view of one of the 5 lakes.

It took some effort to push through the brush (complete with thorny vines) but once past, the view was spectacular.  I made a mental note in my head to come back first thing in the morning for the glassy water reflection, but I never did.  Another time, my friend.

The town of Jasper is quite a busy place.  A lot of hard-working people busily working on the railway or spring maintenance in town.  This didn't deter the elk from visiting fairly deep into town as they grazed on the dead grass and whatever else.  The town became my home base for a few days as I explored ever deeper into the surrounding mountains.  Over those days, I saw plenty of wildlife, tons of breathtaking mountains and a lot of snow.  I also followed more footprints than I could mention (from the safety of my car) as they meandered along rivers, creeks and streams.

One one of my days, I decided I would explore to the north and east as the mountains gave way to rolling hills with the city of Edmonton, Alberta in the distance.

A small stream offers beautiful reflection of the mountains, trees and sky.

A small stream offers beautiful reflection of the mountains, trees and sky.

Along the 2 lane highway was a river on one side and numerous small lakes and ponds on the other.  Mountains surround on both sides and once again, the views were stunning.  One of the larger challenges of driving solo in a place like this is making frequent decisions of, "do I stop here?"

It sounds easily, but there are so many places that might offer a beautiful shot that it can often mean being in and out of the car a hundred times.  These decisions need to happen when there are minimal cars behind as well.  For this reason, I would often slow and pull off the road as cars approach from behind.  This gave me plenty of buffer for those split-second decisions.

Above is a shot that resulted from one of those decisions.  In this case, I did not stop, but did make a mental note of where it was by using mile markers, then on the way back I pulled over.  The view here was beautiful and while the ground was still chilly, I had no problem with doing my thing and relaxing in the long grass for a bit and enjoying the sights and sounds.  

Now, as you probably know from my trip to Alaska, I am also very interested in the Northern Lights.  As I lay in bed one early evening, relaxing after a long day of hiking, I signed up for an email service which would send an alert if the northern lights are expected to happen in Jasper.  It wasn't more than a few hours later that I received an alert!  

While I was in Alberta, there were not many clear, blue sky days.  By that, I mean none.  Sure there were pockets of clear sky but that's it.  I immediately checked my weather app which announced a cloudy evening and overnight.  Still, I decided that it was worth taking a shot.

Northern Lights over the town of Jasper, Alberta.

Northern Lights over the town of Jasper, Alberta.

Having been in town for several days, I knew I needed to find a place with higher elevation, otherwise I would only see mountains with a hint of colour.  Earlier in the day, I visited a camera shop in town and an employee mentioned some nice shots could be taken from the base of the Jasper SkyTram.  Of course, he was referring to daytime scenery, but I thought it was worth a try.  Up, up, up the winding road I went.  At about 3000 feet is the base of the tram and this is where I set up my camera.  I admit I was a bit nervous though as I frequently set off their motion-activated floodlight on those occasions where I went back to my car to warm up.

The lights didn't disappoint though.  For about three hours I watched them dance back and forth across the sky as thin clouds lazily made their way by.  I was also mildly entertained by RCMP pulling over car after car on the highway below.  Good job folks!

By now, it was time to start thinking about heading back down.  I could have stayed here forever, but I had to make sure I didn't get snowed in and cut off from my route back to Calgary for my conference.  

I took my time on the drive back down and enjoyed the views in every direction and made several videos for myself for later.  Photos are fantastic, but video helps to give more perspective as the scenery flows past.

Once back in Banff, I took another trip down the Bow Valley Parkway in hopes of spotting my grizzly friend.  He stayed hidden from me though.

"Hole in the Wall" in Mount Cory.

"Hole in the Wall" in Mount Cory.

During my drive down, I recognized a trail area called Muleshoe.  As I drew nearer, I noticed a cave near the top of Mount Cory.  A few Google searches quickly revealed it to be known as "Hole in the Wall".  This cave is at about 3000 feet and is a scramble" to reach.  Not something I am prepared to do by any means without any gear.  This shot is taken from the ground, mabe 1 mile away.  I am actually impressed that it turned out as well as it did at 1000mm.  My Sigma 150-500mm lens doesn't produce razor sharp images at the best of times, and adding my 2x teleconverter doesn't help either, but in this case, I will take it quite happily.

The final shot I will leave you with was taken on my second last day in town.  The wind was down, the clouds cooperated, the sun was in the right place and the light wasn't too harsh.

The reflection of a mountain in Vermillion Lakes was a thrilling shot for me.

The reflection of a mountain in Vermillion Lakes was a thrilling shot for me.

I had seen plenty of photographs from other photographers who captured stunning images of mountains reflected in ponds and lakes but I hadn't had the greatest luck myself.  Snow, ice or wind had sabotaged me so often.  Finally though I took one of my many drives past Vermillion Lakes and was rewarded with this shot.  Without a doubt it will be on my wall along with several of the others I have shown above.  

I have taken thousands of shots since I began but there are those rare occasions where you know that you have found something that will always be a special shot for you, and those moments really need to be appreciated because they don't happen often enough.

I hope you enjoyed the words and the shots.  I welcome all comments!  

 

Alberta - Canmore, Banff and Jasper; Part I

First of all I want to say that if it weren't for my job, this trip and post would not have happened.  I am lucky to work where I do and I appreciate it very much.

A few weeks ago I flew out to Calgary, Alberta for a conference.  I am lucky enough in my work that there is quite a bit of flexibility in when I take my vacation time.  Because of this, I took off my set of night shifts in advance of the conference and was able to enjoy 9 days surrounded by nature before I had to return to town for work.

I don't remember if I've said it before or not, but I have a funny way of being lucky and this trip continued the trend.  Right at the Toronto Airport (which is actually in Mississauga!), upon boarding the plane, I was told that there was an entire row open and I was free to use it, rather than sit in a full row.  Don't mind if I do!

Landing in Calgary, I quickly found myself a rental car and began the trek out to the Rocky Mountains on the western side of Alberta.  You can easily see them from the city so it was a fairly short drive.

On arrival in a town called Canmore, I quickly did an internet search for cheap hotel to put me up for the night.  No need for fancy, no need for frills, just a roof and a bed.  The Econolodge did the job quite nicely.  More than nicely actually.

Over the next few days, I revisited old memories of driving down the Trans Canada Highway with my parents when I was just a kid as we explored everything interesting along the way between Toronto and Vancouver.  One of my best memories really.

A deer bounds effortlessly up the side of a mountain as I accidentally get his attention with the sound of the click of my shutter.

A deer bounds effortlessly up the side of a mountain as I accidentally get his attention with the sound of the click of my shutter.

The town of Canmore is well known for hosting the nordic events of the 1988 Olympics.  There is plenty of evidence of that today - This is an incredible recreational mecca for outdoor activity.  Along with the obvious skiing possibilities, there is a fantastic bike/foot path that runs from Canmore into the town of Banff.  Round trip is roughly 50km I believe and at points, will run up to and on the Trans Canada Highway.

If there's one thing I've learned about photography, the "good" light is early in the morning and later in the day.  Along with that, there are typically more animals out first thing.  Because of that, I made sure to be awake, up and out as early as possible.  

A grizzly bear shows some interest in me as I follow him along the tracks.

A grizzly bear shows some interest in me as I follow him along the tracks.

I had good feelings about the Bow Valley Parkway - a road which runs from the town of Canmore to the village of Lake Louise.  Unfortunately there are travel restrictions from 8:00 p.m. until 8:00 a.m. for the protection of the animals within Banff National Park.  That in mind, I headed to an area nearby and took in the sights and sounds of the Bow River before crossing the bridge and it was at this point that I was lucky enough to see a pair of elk and a moose.  Only, it wasn't a moose.  When I fitted my long lens on my camera, I realized that what I was seeing was in fact a bear a ways down the railroad tracks.  I retrieved my teleconverter to double the strength of my lens and cautiously followed the big fella down the tracks.  As I learned later, this big male (known as Bear #122) shuffles along the tracks, eating fallen grain which has spilled out of passing trains. 

As I followed, I captured lots of shots of his back end.  While it was a thrill to see a bear in the wild though, photos of his tail weren't exactly what I had in mind.  

With a quick calculation of the distance from me to the bear in mind, along with the distance of me to my trusty rental car in mind, I decided to ready my camera and kick some of the gravel on the tracks.  It only took a few before he turned and looked at me for several long seconds.  It was quite a moment.  After several shots, he lost interest in me though and continued on his way; and so did I.  It wasn't until the time of writing this that I learned that #122 has quite a bit of fame to his name.  He can be found easily on Google for some of his exploits.

The village of Lake Louise is a scenic drive north and is arguably one of the most beautiful places on the planet.  I saw it years before in late summer and I was going to see it again.

Lake Louise in the early weeks of spring is still frozen over, allowing visitors to walk across what would normally be open water.

Lake Louise in the early weeks of spring is still frozen over, allowing visitors to walk across what would normally be open water.

It is unfortunate timing that there was still snow and ice around as the crystal blue water of the lake was hidden below a thick layer of ice.  The silver lining though is this allows tourists to cross the lake on paths blazed early in the winter.  Views of the mountains from the middle of the lake are breathtaking and simply can't be captured in a realistic scale by a camera.  Still though I'm quite happy with the shots I was able to get and share here.

Now, along the Bow River is a railroad track which follows the Trans Canada Highway.  Trains pass along it quite frequently, and many are exceptionally long.

I've always had a mild fascination with trains, and while I this is the first one I've shot, the day will come where I hunt them down and create a collection in some form or another.

A freight trains makes its way east along the Trans Canada Highway

A freight trains makes its way east along the Trans Canada Highway

While I was in the mountains, I took plenty of opportunities to explore trails and more touristy spots.  Cave and Basin National Historic Site seemed like an interesting name so I drove in.  
As I found out, this place is a sulfur spring which runs out of the mountain, to a pool and then further down the mountain into the valley below.  As you can guess, the smell of rotten eggs is in the air as sulfur steam rose from the water.  Quite a pretty spot though with lush green plants growing in and near the stream all the way down the mountain.The cave though was quite a sight.

A pool of water deep within a cave.  This desperately high ISO shot was captured in the relative darkness, lit only from the hole in the rock ceiling above.

A pool of water deep within a cave.  This desperately high ISO shot was captured in the relative darkness, lit only from the hole in the rock ceiling above.

While the cave smelled strongly of sulfur, the rewarding view at the end was well worth it.  There is no taking a dip allowed here.  The water is protected as the area is habitat for some sort of endangered snail.  

From here, I visited the lower part of the mountain and met one of the workers.  She was kind enough to look at my previous photos and identify the bear above as a grizzly bear for me, and knew him to be Bear #122.  Cool!

As the days went on, I decided day-by-day that I would leave Canmore and move up to the town of Jasper.  I had been warned by a couple of fellow photographers I talked to that the drive up can be quite nasty.  Snow tires are mandatory and care should be taken because the mountain passes can whip up some high winds and drifting snow.  Still, I decided I would give it a shot.  I'm Canadian after all.  I've seen snow once or twice.

The drive up the Icefields Parkway was beautiful.  The first several kilometers were a test of my resolve to continue.  The clear road turned slushy and then snowy as the sky changed from blue to gray to fog.  Wind picked up with the amount of snow coming down and after about 15 or 20 clicks, I had slowed down to match the conditions as my Malibu made its way solidly.  Then, as quickly as it started, the fog turned to gray and the gray turned to blue skies as the road cleared.  

The Columbia Icefields are a fantastic break in the drive from Banff to Jasper and well worth the long hike from the road along the ice.

The Columbia Icefields are a fantastic break in the drive from Banff to Jasper and well worth the long hike from the road along the ice.

Not far along the road is the Columbia Icefields.  This is a well-known glacier, which has unfortunately been receding for many years.  It is a very popular tourist stop along the highway and as I visited, I was fortunate enough to have a clear day and an interesting cloud formation above.  While I do enjoy my blue sky days, they don't add anything to a photo so I count myself lucky here.

I think I will mark this as Part I and continue the story in a second entry.  Thank you for reading and I hope you enjoyed my shots so far.