Thursday, January 26, 2012

Book Review: Death Valley Photographer's Guide by Dan Suzio

I don’t normally do book reviews, they remind me of book reports in school which inevitably leads me to hum “A book report on Peter Rabbit” over and over for days.  (If you’ve never seen/heard the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown you are missing out.)

So what could possibly change my mind and get me jazzed enough to hum for weeks? Why Death Valley of course!

Death Valley is the largest National Park in the lower 48 covering more than 3 million acres, just under 4,700 square miles.  It is the hottest, driest and lowest point in the United States.  With such a vast area and extreme climate it is easy for visitors to become overwhelmed and miss out on photographic opportunities.  Every person who visits Death Valley takes photos of Badwater, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and the view from Zabriskie Point but did you know there is a waterfall in Death Valley?  Do you know what time of year the endangered pupfish are most easily seen?  Do you know how to dance with a chuckwalla?

Photographer Dan Suzio does and he shares all in his new book Death Valley Photographer’s Guide published by Nolina Press.  Dan has been photographing in Death Valley for the past 35 years and he still makes new discoveries with every visit.  For those of you keeping track, yes that means many of his images were shot with… FILM!  It’s a treat to see the film images holding their own against Dan’s more recent DSLR work.

The book is divided into three sections: an overview, location listings broken out by general area and finally an easy to navigate reference chart.  It’s always tempting to quickly flip through the overview to get to the good bits of a photo guide but I recommend against that for this book.  The overview contains not only wonderfully amusing anecdotes to enjoy but also a lot of information that will help to keep you safe when you venture forth.  Whether you are relying too heavily on your GPS, running out of fuel or sticking your hand into crevices occupied by the local snakes, one mistake in the desert can cost you dearly.

At first glance this book appears to be a lightweight, easy to carry paperback but dive into the location listings and you’ll find there is nothing lightweight about the information!  Within the first paragraph of every location you immediately and clearly find out what to expect to see in the location, when the light is best for photography, what wildlife and flowers to look out for, the elevation and how to get there.  Read further for some surprising gems of knowledge that can only be gleaned by someone who has put in the time to explore.  Healthy doses of inspiring photographs grace the pages though it’s obvious from the collection that Dan’s first love is reserved for the reptiles.  Check out the beauty on page 46 and you’ll understand what I mean.

Personally I’ve been exploring Death Valley for around 8 years and I thought I was getting to know the park pretty well.  After reading Dan’s guide I realize I’ve yet to scratch the surface!  I can’t wait to get back out there armed with all of Dan’s generous knowledge.

Pick up a copy of the Death Valley Photographer’s Guide before your next trip and leave the crowds behind.  Available at: http://www.deathvalleyphotographersguide.com or on Amazon.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Everything Old is New Again

It's hard to believe that 100 years have passed since the ill fated Scott expedition to the South Pole.  In one sense 100 years doesn't seem that long - I was lucky enough to know my great-grandmother well into my college years.  She was born in 1897 making her 17 years old when Scott set out.  Knowing someone who was alive during the time period makes it seem not so long ago.  However, knowing that Herbert Ponting took 400 pounds of camera equipment on that expedition, spent 14 months in a hut at Cape Evans and came home with just over one thousand images makes it seem like ages have passed.

My camera bag weighs in around 45 pounds on an average trip but even with a few added accessories, I rarely need more than 100 pounds of luggage.  During my 5 weeks camping in Ethiopia I took more than 18,000 images and didn't need to figure out how to keep my chemicals from freezing or how to safely transport glass plates back home.  By comparison photographers today have it easy!  Equipment today is smaller, lighter, more versatile, capable of capturing greater dynamic range and of being pushed to further extremes.

And yet the techniques, tried and true, remain the same and amazing photos remain amazing no matter how long ago they were taken.

On my way to Ethiopia I stopped over in London.  I've always admired Ponting and Hurley so the opportunity to view their images of the Scott and Shackleton expeditions at the Queen's Gallery was priority one.  I was completely unprepared for the haunting beauty of the exhibition.  Seeing scans or reproductions of the photographs online or in books falls short of seeing the actual prints.  The raw emotion these two photographers captured was palpable. 

'Endurance' at night - Frank Hurley 1915
When I finally came to Hurley's 'The Long, Long Night' I was practically in tears.  The image of Endurance caught fast in the ice, lit with ghostly light which seemed to foreshadow her demise is so iconic and moving.  It struck me that if one wanted to capture a similar image today we would use the same exact technique almost 100 years later.
'The Long, Long Night' -Frank Hurley 1915

Working in the White Mountains in California I used Hurley's technique of light painting the foreground Bristlecone Pine tree.  I like the simplicity of the silhouette but in comparison, the soft light of the lamp gives the tree more of a haunted, soulful mood which speaks more deeply to me.

In Death Valley I used my head lamp to illuminate a branch which had blown onto the playa, opting to light just a portion of the image rather than utilizing filters which could have allowed for an entirely bright foreground.  For me this image is more about creating a mood than just documenting the fact of the branch.

And if you think the next image is out of the box and 'new' - think again.  Even Pablo Picasso (yup the famous painter) and Gjon Mili were creating light paintings in 1949.   'Drawing a Centaur in the Air'

So take a walk through history, see who has gone before you and savor their triumphs as you incorporate their tried and true techniques into your own work.  Techniques that produced amazing photos 100 years ago are never too old to be new again.

Images by Frank Hurley displayed with permission by the Royal Geographic Society
'The Heart of the Great Alone - Scott, Shackleton and Antarctic Photography' is on display at the Queen's Gallery in Buckingham Palace until April 15th.  I can't recommend it highly enough.

Happy Penguin Awareness Day!!

 Crazy mad for penguins?  Me too!!  I can't get enough of these adorable clowns of the sea.  
Happy Penguin Awareness Day!
Chinstrap Penguin (Pygoscelis antarcticus) Antarctic Peninsula
Rockhopper Penguin (Eudyptes chrysocome) West Point Island, Falklands

Adélie Penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae) Antarctic Peninsula

King Penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus) Volunteer Point, Falklands

Gentoo Penguin (Pygoscelis papua) Saunders Island, Falklands

Magellanic Penguin (Spheniscus magellanicus) Volunteer Point, Falklands

Little Blue Penguin (Eudyptula minor) Bass Straits, Tasmania

Yellow-eyed Penguin (Megadyptes antipodes), Otago Peninsula, New Zealand

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Winter Dreams

As the winter rains begin to fall here in San Francisco I'm dreaming of the sunny days when I can get back out on the ocean.  There's nothing quite like motoring back toward the Golden Gate after a day of being tossed around on the ocean waves.