Assignment: Survival Portrait

In February we got a call from Canoe & Kayak editor Jeff Moag to discuss ideas for a portrait shoot in AK. The assignment was to photograph Stuart Nelson, an avid solo paddler and veteran of several very long river trips in Alaska and Northern Canada who in August 2010 endured a two-week ordeal after loosing his boat, equipment and supplies on the Little Wind River in the Northwest Territories. Nelson was left with only what he had in his modified PFD hundreds of miles from the nearest road. His tale and our portrait would lead the magazines’ feature on survival stories in the current (May 2011) issue.

Nelson is not the easiest guy to get in front of a camera. When he’s not getting away from it all on remote North Country rivers, his home is Eagle, Alaska; a tough to get to village on the Yukon River. Nelson is also the chief vet for the Iditarod sled dog race and would be in Anchorage end of February. Great! Except for the little fact that our waterways are still in deep freeze. But as they say, the show must go on…

What we came up with was to get Nelson geared up just how he was left on the Little Wind. A smokey single fire was key to his survival strategy, so we would use that as part of our setup. After a quick scout mission, we decided to do the shoot on a frozen bend of Eagle River accessed north of Anchorage. Nelson kept us completely enthralled with his story during the three-mile hike to our ‘spot’. He talked about coming to terms with the high probability that there would be no rescue. He was preparing himself to die out there.

Once out on the river, Agnes got the lighting gear put together and I dialed in what we wanted for an exposure. Nelson quickly got the smokey fire going (yes, with the survival items from his vest). We used a single soft box in conjunction with a white reflector to separate Nelson from the background. It was a super cloudy day and his olive drab outfit was perfect camo with the winter spruce forest. We worked different positions for a couple hours and were thankful for the continuous fire (thanks Stuart!).

Check out the spread and collection of outrageous tales of survival in the current issue of Canoe & Kayak.

Photography: Practical use of HDR

After testing some situations that could benefit from high dynamic range (HDR) photography, we decided that the technique warranted consideration for use on a few of our travel assignments this winter. Simply put, HDR is a digital post process that combines several images to increase the amount of detail in a final produced photograph. The process is also used to create a hyper-real look that can exaggerate colors, tones and detail in an image. Taken to the extreme, this kind of imagery can look cartoonish, gaudy and more artistic than ‘real’. But we found that the process also has a practical application for use on work that calls for a more realistic representation of  your subject.

The above photograph was made from five exposures while shooting on a bright, sunny day at Hatcher Pass in the Talkeetna Mountains just north of Palmer, Alaska. We had wrapped the nordic ski portion of our day and wanted to do some work in the classic ‘A’ frame lodge. The huge south facing windows flooded the main room with hard afternoon light that brought the contrast of the scene off the charts.

Here is a single shot of the scene with the best exposure to balance highlights, midtones and shadows. Yeah, not so much, but pretty much what I saw with my own eyes. To create an HDR image, you need to bring back multiple exposures from the scene. You can run the process on a single image, but ideally you want to have at least three exposures; one best for midtones, one best for shadows and one best for the highlights. We shoot for a total of five exposures; metered, +1, +2, -1, -2. Adding in a +/- 1.5 doesn’t hurt.

Another factor when compositing multiple exposures in post is that the subject(s) don’t move in between frames. This kind of photography is well suited for landscapes or architecture shot while using a sturdy tripod. But we’ve found that by using a camera with a fast frame rate and taking a few extra measures to steady yourself, the five exposures can be made hand-held with little to no movement between frames. Back at the desk, we currently use Photomatix Pro to process for HDR. The interface includes options for correcting the slightest offset of the composite frames and ghosting. It’s easy to go on a power kick when using this kind of software. You can easily process your work into a Crayola nightmare. But after you get that out of your system, think about what you really want from this tool. For us it’s to be able to bring back high quality photography from those situations that would have been deemed ‘lame’. For this image, we wanted to see into the coal buckets and enjoy the color of the wood ceiling. The processing stopped once we reached that level and we’re happy with the results. If this has piqued your interested, a couple good places to start are Trey Ratcliff’s site ‘Stuck in Customs’ , this article by photographer Alexandre Buisse and lessons by John Paul Caponigro.

Travel: Namche Bazaar

There is a stiff 1,000 meter ascent to reach the Sherpa capital of Namche Bazaar, gateway to Nepal’s world-famous Khumbu Himal. We planned our arrival on a Friday afternoon when the village prepares for its well-known Saturday market. Groups of porters pass us on the steep trail, smoking cigarettes while talking on their cell phones. Yaks laden with goods crowd us off the bridges. Water buffalo are herded towards the slaughter-house. In the morning, it’s a struggle just to walk through crowded streets as locals shop for everything from rice to shoes to buffalo cut into one kilo chunks.

Namche was the starting point of our two-week trek traverse of this section of the Himalaya, a giant circle that took us out near Makalu to the foot of Everest to the base of Cho Oyu and finishing back in Namche. We also knew a Sherpa family in this village, Tsering Gyaltsen and his wife Angie, who put us up in their hotel (room with a shower!) and fed us constantly. On our return we found out that flights out of Lukla were backed up due to persistent cloud cover down the way. It was easy to cool our heels for a week in Namche.

During our two-week absence, the village’s central potato fields began to transform into a refugee camp as Tibetan traders began to arrive over high passes from China. Yak trains arrived hourly laden with factory sealed packaged goods that were dumped in fields before being set out to pasture (how do 500 yaks just disappear???). The traders set-up camp next to their piles and for weeks turned Namche into a bazaar that made the Saturday market look like a convenience store. Daily we would jump into the frenzy of barter and trade, working our haggle skills for  a bag of oranges. Good fun was had trying to find a pair of faux The North Face shoes for friend Dean Soderberg, who wears a size 12. Well, guess you can find almost anything in Namche’s Bazaar.

Assignment: Dragonslayers of Aniak

Last fall (2010) we traveled out to the village of Aniak, a small Yup’ik community of 500 on the Kuskokwim River, to shoot an assignment for Scholastic publications. The core of Aniak’s volunteer fire department is a lively gang of teenagers that have been trained to put out fires, respond to ATV accidents and generally save people’s lives. And these kids keep busy! Once we met up with the current Dragonslayers team, they all chimed in with stories that would be appreciated by harden veterans.

We were there to photograph this unique VFD crew in a fun and engaging way to accompany their story in upcoming Scholastic magazines. Our location was a dark and unappealing three-bay garage where they house the ambulance and two fire engines. The crew consisted of five enthusiastic teenage girls, one not psyched boy and a handful of curious locals. After positioning the big engine outside, we got to work setting up some fun portraits before moving to the teams emergency drills. The teens volunteered one of their own for a backboard demonstration (aka tickle torture). The three-hour session was wrapped up with hosing down the dusty village road.

With the teens’ attention span spent, we cruised around the village letting people feed us (can’t refuse), drinking tea and playing cards until catching our couple hour flight back to Anchorage.

Adventure: Three weeks with Mt Everest

Our first views of Mt Everest were just minutes after take off from Kathmandu. The twin-engine Dornier Yak crawled up into the Himalaya enroute to Lukla and we spotted the distinct black pyramid of the Big E over our pilot’s shoulder. Since we have both been steeped in the legendary mountaineering stories, actually seeing the worlds highest peak was pretty damn cool.

Over the next three weeks, we embarked on a mega-traverse of the Khumbu region, right across the foot of the Everest Massif. Himalayan giants dominated the skyline the entire time and around every bend, on the crest of each la, every time you turned your head Mt Everest was there. Hardly a day passed that we didn’t work the big mountain into at least one photograph. We were there to do photography work for a few of our outdoor equipment clients and Everest was too good of a background to resist. Five of our favorite compositions culled from thousands. There are a few more posted on our Facebook page for you Himalayan diehards.

We’d be curious to know your favorites. Leave a comment and let us know what you think.

Travel: Off the Beaten Path in Nepal

In between our Himalaya backpacking projects, we took time to explore a bit of Nepal. We’d heard about a small village perched high on a ridge called Bandipur, in between Kathmandu and Pokhara. A short 10-K ride on the outside of a jeep carried us a thousand meters above the valley to this small Newari village. We were a spectacle for the locals right from the start. Lodging was found at a local guest house (which had the largest spiders we’ve ever seen indoors).

Bandipur was a living museum with winding streets and the community seeming to live a thousand years in the past. Trails extended into the steep country side, most ending at a temple or holy site. We even ended up getting a personal tour of one families livestock, where Agnes was shown the proper way to hold a baby goat (demonstrated below). As the sun set, the massive Himalaya appeared from the clouds far across the valley. Then darkness. The only lights in town were our headlamps and dozens of candles faintly illuminating each home.

Adventure: Yaks of Nepal’s Khumbu Himalaya

As you’d probably think, the trails of Nepal’s Khumbu Himalaya is chock full of yaks. Well as we found out it’s not that simple. Yaks (གཡག) have a very specific habitation zone and don’t do well below 3,000 meters. Down low most of the ‘yaks’ you see are actually dzopkyos, yak-cow hybrids that cope with warmer temps. Then there are the dzums, langs, khirkoos, dris and naks (female pure breeds). Yak cheese actually comes from Naks.

Regardless what you call them, most of the traffic jams in the Khumbu involve a yak or two. They are the 18 wheelers of the Himalaya, heavily laden and slow moving. Staring an oncoming yak train in the face is much the same as an unstoppable Freightliner. It quickly becomes clear that it is up to you to get clear of the beast’s trail-spanning horns. One of our friends has a harrowing tale of getting caught half-way across a suspension bridge by a yak train. He climbed to the outside of the bridge and hung on while they rushed by. Good move, as we watched many trekking parties get caught on single-lane spans and not fare so well.