Archive for the ‘smoke’ Tag

Smoky Photography at Grand Canyon   5 comments

A smoky view of the western part of Grand Canyon from the North Rim.

A smoky view of the western part of Grand Canyon from the North Rim.

 

This is a follow-up to a two posts on photography under smoky skies, one from Crater Lake and one from the North Cascades.  On my recent trip through the American West, I was as close as I’ve ever been to Grand Canyon’s North Rim.  Having never been there, I just had to make the side-trip up there.  I had heard that they were doing some prescribed burning in this part of the park.  Prescribed fires are very common in the West these days, as land managers try to reduce the amount of fuel in forests in order to discourage large damaging wildfires in future.

This fire, on the north rim of the Grand Canyon is one of several "prescribed burns" that took place in Fall 2012.

This fire, on the north rim of the Grand Canyon is one of several “prescribed burns” that took place in Fall 2012.

Because of the fires, I almost skipped the North Rim (again).  I was hoping to do some star photography, and very clear air is necessary for that.  I’m very happy I swallowed my misgivings and headed up there.  By the way, for some detailed travel-related tips on the North Rim, check my previous post.

Grand Canyon's majesty is on display as viewed from the north rim at Bright Angel Point.

Grand Canyon’s majesty is on display as viewed from the north rim at Bright Angel Point.

The image above was one of my first views of the canyon.  When you approach on the longish highway that traverses a flat, forested plateau, your first view of the canyon is always a stunner.  You know it is there, but the majesty and scale is always surprising.  In the late afternoon the skies were quite smoky, but this view towards the west is actually pretty clear.  The fires were to the west of my location here, which meant the light was ruddy red, yet I was not enveloped in smoke (where good photos are extremely difficult to get).

The sunset was pretty darn incredible.  I pointed my camera towards the west, where smoke was thicker.  Because of this, I did not even need to use a graduated neutral density filter to darken the sky.  This is quite remarkable; pretty much any other sunset photo like this would require this filter.  And no need to add saturation during post-processing, though you do need to add some clarity and contrast to cut through the haze.

Cape Royal on the Grand Canyon's north rim sees a colorful sunset under smoky skies.

Cape Royal on the Grand Canyon’s north rim sees a colorful sunset under smoky skies.

After sunset, the air cooled appreciably and the smoke steadily decreased.  You can see this in the starry image of the rising full moon below.  There is some haze around the moon, but the sky above is bright with stars.  It looked like I might get the best of both worlds!  As it turned out, photographing towards the west was still impacted negatively by the haze, but only for the stars.  The landscape part, the lower part of the image at bottom, turned out fine.  I processed the sky separately, and then merged the two in Photoshop.

The full moon rises on the North Rim of Grand Canyon, as Orion, Jupiter and company shine above.

The full moon rises on the North Rim of Grand Canyon, as Orion, Jupiter and company shine above.

Photographing during smoky conditions allows you to do at least two things: (A) While staying away from the worst of the smoke, try pointing the camera away from the sun, with your subject  bathed in light filtered through the smoke.  (B) As the sun gets very low, and depending on how hazy your foreground and mid-ground is, try photos towards the setting sun with a sky fully or partially shrouded in orange smoke.

I had a fine time up on the North Rim, despite (or maybe because of) the smoky conditions.  Thanks for reading.

A full moon lights this view from the North Rim westward down the length of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

A full moon lights this view from the North Rim westward down the length of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

 

Smoke and Photography   Leave a comment

I want to pass on what I’ve found about photographing with smoke – in the skies and otherwise.  Landscape photography in general is better in clear air.  I don’t mean clear skies – clouds are good!  I mean clear air, the kind you get on a cold morning in autumn or winter.  But that clear air will mean a blue bias to the color.  Of course you can color correct if you don’t like that, but that is easily overdone.  Some of the most popular landscape photos on the web were shot in very clear air at golden hour (early or late in the day).  You’re best off with that plan if you want a lot of detail in your shots.

Crater Lake in Oregon is calm as the sun rises.

But those sorts of shots can get old.  So we search for fog, mist, even rain sometimes.  Anything to give the shot some atmosphere.  We rarely go out when skies are smoky from forest fires.  That’s just an ugly look, we think.  But depending on how much smoke is in the air, this can result in some interesting, even great pictures.  The picture above was taken at Crater Lake National Park in Oregon last month while the smoke was drifting in from fires in northern California.  Now there wasn’t that much smoke, and I had the advantage of being at a relatively high elevation.

At the time I was taking this picture, in the early morning, smoke was obvious and not all that great looking.  As you can see, however, it has some nice color and a somewhat unique look.  Whenever you have a warm-looking color tone at sunrise it’s worth going with that – it always looks a bit different than sunset.   This strategy can yield some nice shots, but it’s hard to tell at the time of capture.  You can’t go by what things look like when you’re there.  It’s just too hazy and low contrast to think photos will turn out nicely.

Here are some things that will help:

  • Being far enough away from the fire that the smoke is thin and/or layered across the landscape.
  • Getting to the highest elevation you can, in order to be looking across the top of the ground-hugging smoke.
  • Shooting in the very early morning.  The late afternoon golden hour will likely see the smoke thicker and more obvious, though the winds and progress of the fire will be the major factor.
  • Definitely expose a bit to the right (slightly overexpose).  You want to avoid noise at all costs, since the mixture of the “grain” in the shot from the smoke and noise will not look good.
  • In post-processing you’ll generally want to increase contrast and clarity unless the smoke is providing a lot of atmosphere, and depending on the composition.  It’s a balance, but you generally will be able to use a heavier hand than with other landscape pictures.

Mount Hood and Hood River Valley are shrouded in smoke from a late-season fire.

The smoke in the shot above was heavier (I was closer to the fire), but not too heavy.  Also, I was taking it from a lower spot, more inside the smoke layer than the Crater Lake example.  So the blurry orange typical of smokey sky is much more dominant, effecting the colors of the landscape much more.  The two shots are very different: the first one is better for sure, but the dominating smoke of the second in no way ruins the shot.  It turned out much better than I thought, and gave me hope that a different composition and subject might take better advantage of the smoke.  I even tried that night (image below) from a spot that I love in the spring for its flowers; it’s a short hike, illuminated by a half-moon on this night.

Mount Hood is illuminated by a half-moon with the summer stars above.

Of course taking pictures of people in smoky conditions normally means they are smoking.  These can obviously be very atmospheric shots, and though I can’t stand the smell of cigarette smoke, I will accept it in order to bring a real personality to my subject.  Women normally don’t look good smoking in my opinion.  The shot below was not nearly as disagreeable to me as it would be if he was smoking a cigarette.  Though I don’t smoke it anymore, I still love the smell of ganja.  He was quite a willing subject, a Malawian on the shores of that beautiful lake in Africa, Lake Malawi.  It’s easy to believe you’re in Jamaica.

A hard-working woodcarver in Malawi relaxes with his drum, and partakes of his reward.

So when that smoke appears to intrude on your pictures, do what you should always do when you have a camera: go with the flow.  Use the smoke to give your shots an interesting look.

Posted September 8, 2012 by MJF Images in Photography

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