VERN BARTLEY IMAGE CREATOR
IMAGE OF THE MONTH
" An Image ......
11 years in the making "
Last January, almost one year ago to the day that you are reading this, I found myself deep in the bowels of Lower Antelope Canyon just outside Page Arizona.
I first visited Antelope Canyon in 2003 while traveling through the area with two other photographers and it quickly became one of my favorite sites in the Southwest. We almost didn't stop that time because of how famous it had become. It seemed, even then, that everyone and their immediate and extended families had done Antelope Canyon ....... and I thought, "So many have shot this site so what can I do that's going to be different?"
I had just started shooting with a Fuji S-2 DSLR camera and I reasoned that if I could apply my Zone System workflow to manage the broad range of light values, from deepest shadow to brightest highlight in a given scene, that I might be able to bracket several exposures to ensure that I could capture the spread of detail throughout the entire image. *( After all I had done that for years while shooting with my old 4x5 sheet film view camera. Why couldn't I do the same (or almost the same) with my new digital camera?)
There was one small difference ........... The Zone System only worked if you married the adjusted capture of the image on the film with a tried and true compensated development work flow, and there wasn't a way to compensate the development of a digital capture.
I reasoned that I could stack several images on top of each other and with the fairly new Photoshop Layer Masking workflow I could utilize only the parts of each bracketed image that brought the best of exposure and detail to the forefront. *(You've got to remember that this was way before the introduction of HDR or Photomatix.)
That is exactly what I did. After spending several hours exploring the slot I finally found one place that really caught my eye. There was one small area high on the wall of the slot where a large piece of the sandstone stuck out and above the main trail through the slot. I spent about an hour in that specific part of the slot looking at the structure before me while I tried to figure out where the best composition would provide the most impact. I finally found the perfect spot, but it wasn't going to be easy. I had to lay down on the cool sandy floor, move a few pebbles and rocks, while I kinda leaned up against the corner where the wall met the floor......That was The Spot! However, when I looked through my camera I realized that I was not going to be able to capture the image I was seeing with my naked eye. It quickly became apparent that even in this contorted position, with my tripod set to the lowest elevation possible, that my widest lens simply wasn't going to be near wide enough!
I was shooting with a partial sensor (DX) camera with a 24mm wide angle DX lens. That combination actually gave me a focal length of 38.4mm ..... NOT 24mm !! *( 24 x 1.6 = 38.4mm) For the most part this combination had served me well, but there existed serious compromises when one tried to work with a wide to extreme wide angle workflow. But on this day, when I really needed all the wide I could get, it just wasn't enough. Disappointment seemed to rule the day for a few minutes. After all the effort to find the right spot, wiggle into position, and knowing I was only a few minutes away from capturing a remarkable image, then to not have the right equipment to get it across the goal line was a rude awakening. It was not a good day at all.
In an effort to try to salvage the shot, and with my camera to my eye, I began to back off as best I could until I found a secondary composition that I thought might work. After all, I sure as heck wasn't going to bail out at this point. Too many miles and too much effort to simply pack it in and leave.
The second scene wasn't nearly what I wanted or expected, but the more I worked the shot the better I felt about it. I kept telling my self....."Hey, no one else probably even knows that first scene is there. If I don't tell them they might think this new scene is on a par with some of the better images to come from Lower Antelope Canyon".
Over the next 11 years I told myself that same thing about a million times, knowing that I would go back with the right equipment and get my view of one of the most famous slot canyons on earth.
Since this article is really about the perceived image that laid dormant for all those years and not the one that had to fill the gap, let me just close out the original capture with a comment about the technical side of bringing that original image to completion.
To capture that original image I determined that there was a 9 stop (f-Stop) spread between the deep shadows on the floor at far right and the highlights in the upper middle/right of the scene. I set my camera on the tripod, adjusted for the composition I wanted, and then shot 9 different exposures of the exact same scene. On the one end was the correct exposure for the brightest highlight and on the other was the correct exposure for the deep shadows. Once all that was done it simply depended on my getting back to the studio to start the post processing of the 9 files. I used a Photoshop Layer Mask workflow and after 6 hours of work on the files I finalized the image, and saved it as PSD, TIFF, and Jpeg files. Over the years this Slot Canyon image has been a very good seller, has taken a few awards, and a nice canvas print hangs in my home. I always think about the importance of sticking with it when things don't always go exactly like you think they should. In this case, I'm really glad I have two very nice images of such a special place.
What's the back story on Raptor Canyon ? I did go back and it was the trip of trips. I spent a full month on the road shooting everyday in the SW and, yes, Lower Antelope Canyon was on my (do it again) bucket list. This time I was armed with a fairly new Nikon D 800e, Full Frame sensor (boy do I love that camera !!!) and a fixed f-2.8 12mm FX wide angle lens plus all the other stuff we all seem to pack around.
The particular room where this image was taken is pretty near the end of the canyon. The chamber it is in is about 75' long, about 30' wide, and about 70' to the opening to the sky above. I didn't waste too much time in the majority of the slot as I knew where I wanted to spend my time.
When I arrived in My Room there were 8 Japanese photographers all bunched together shooting each other with their point and shoots. I hung out a bit and got my gear together while I waited for them and as soon as they left I went to work. I went directly to my little secret spot and laid down on the ground to look through my Nikon with 12 mm wide angle lens. Would you believe me if I told you that all of a sudden there were Doves cooing, Monkeys chimpping, and a Fat Lady over in the corner singing? .............There it was !! Exactly like I had seen it over 11 years before.
I did the complete camera, tripod, remote release set up and organized the composition all within about 5 minutes. I did 6 bracketed sets of 9 shots each of the scene that was 11 years in the making. And then it was over. Eleven years of waiting for ten minutes of effort..........Wow !
I went ahead and shot a couple of other scenes using every millimeter of my wide angle lens simply because things do look different when you can actually capture images with that wide a view. But, by the end of the day nothing even came close to the look and feel of my original scene.
My post production workflow involved bringing the files into my Nikon preview software to do the initial editing to pick one set of 9 bracketed exposures. Once that was done I did the RAW conversion with minimal corrections and then brought 5 of the 9 images into Photomatix for the HDR treatment and Tone Mapping. (I personally don't like some of the weirded out HDR stuff that seems so popular in some circles but I do like the software's ability to stretch the tonal values and to bring multiple images together while still allowing one to keep a realistic visual for the final output.) Once that was done then it was simply a matter of a few tweaks here and there. The one issue I did run into was the amount of blue within the scene. Because the blue sky light was filtering down from above and the sun was low enough to not penetrate down into the slot there ended up being a lot more blue than I remembered seeing with my naked eye. I did a second conversion of the same 5 files and spent some time backing out a bunch of the blue within the scene to see if it might improve the over all viewing experience................. It didn't !
Since I shot almost 7,000 images on that SW trip it took me several months to get around to working on this specific image. However, once I did I knew it was going to do well. It has been one of my best sellers in a number of different venues and has done very well in the professional image competition arena. In 2014 it took best of show, best landscape image of the year, best in its division, and highest scoring image of the year in the Oregon Professional Photographers Association (OPPA) end of year competition. That image, together with half a dozen of my others, also allowed me to be selected as Oregon's Photographer of the Year for 2014. Raptor Canyon clearly carried the day at the competition when it scored a 96 (highest score in the event) out of a possible 100. Yahoo !!
I've been asked a couple of times "Why did I title this image Raptor Canyon?" It's a question I really hadn't anticipated since, to me, it clearly looked like a bird of prey (or Raptor) swooping down into the canyon with his head pointed down and both wings swept in a graceful arch to complete the scene. I saw it as soon as I looked through the camera eleven years ago, but it really stood out when I was able to see it through the wider angle presentation of my 12mm lens. I didn't think of the actual title until I had lived with the image for a week or two, but all of a sudden it just came to me and I said to my wife, "That's Raptor Canyon !"
Revisiting these two photographic experiences as I wrote this story, I was reminded of a basic standard I have tried to live by for over four decades. I always tried to purchase equipment that exceeded my capabilities to ensure there was room for my growth, knowledge, skills, vision, and that I would never allow myself to be caught in a situation where I was limited by my equipment. Boy did that ever come back to haunt me as I thought and re-thought my experiences of that first trip into Lower Antelope Canyon. Rest assured it's a lesson well learned. Fortunately, the image I saw while looking up from the canyon floor stayed the same for those 11 years. I like to think it was waiting for me as much as I was for it........ A little cheesy, but Raptor Canyon is exactly what I saw and now I get to share it with others......... Vern
Please allow me to be blatantly commercial for a moment, if I may. I want you to know, starting with Raptor Canyon, I am offering a 20% discount off the purchase price of any size Fine Art Print, only to the subscribers of my VBIC Newsletter, for the Image of the Month. Additionally, if you are already a subscriber you are eligible, by resubmitting your signup to my Newsletter to be eligible for my Fine Art Print GIVEAWAY of a 13x20 Fine Art Print of Raptor Canyon, absolutely free, shipped directly to your address if you are the lucky one drawn from the pool of Newsletter signups.
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* A PERSONAL THANK YOU *
I want to take a moment to thank a very important person for making this possible. On my first trip to Lower Antelope Canyon I had the great fortune to meet the owner of this famous Slot Canyon. He is a native Navajo who is truly the guardian of this national treasure. He oversees Lower Antelope Slot Canyon in every way. He built and installed the metal ladders we all use to get from one level to another as we pass through this special place, he built and maintains the rescue box's on the roof of the slot that contain the rope ladders, and equipment to assist in the evacuation of the slot should they ever experience another unexpected flash flood. He does it all with an aire of quiet humility. He also raises bucking brahma bulls for the NRA rodeo circuit and has a loving wife and great family. As if that isn't enough.... he is also an accomplished photographer in his own right. I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to share and be shown some seldom seen locations as the two of us shoot together for a day or two, each time I am in his neighborhood. He is in the process of finishing a new building at the parking lot for his slot. It will be a small gift shop and gallery for some of his work. The next time you visit Lower Antelope Canyon, if you get a chance to meet him, please tell Ken that Vern says THANK YOU again.