Behind the Image: Creating Emotionally-Evocative Travel Photography with Richard Bernabe

Small shapely iceberg on the black sand beach at Jökulsárlón in southern Iceland

Small shapely iceberg on the black sand beach at Jökulsárlón in southern Iceland

I recently did an interview with the folks from Adobe about how I got my start in photography, some of my philosophy when it comes to photography, and the story about the image above.

You can read the whole interview here: Behind the Image: Creating Emotionally-Evocative Travel Photography with Richard Bernabe.

Enjoy.

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Going Coastal

As a landscape and nature photographer, there are few experiences that compare to walking out on the beach in the dawn’s faint light, examining the sky, the clouds, the mood of the surf, and anticipating what the next hour might bring.

What is it, exactly, that unceasingly beckons the photographer back to the edge of terra firma time after time? Is it some visceral, primal urge to “go back from whence we came,” as John F. Kennedy once speculated about the kinship of human beings and the sea? Or is the seemingly boundless ocean a visual metaphor for the infinite photo possibilities offered the photographer? How about the local seaside tiki bar that serves up a kaleidoscopic array of boat drinks with miniature umbrellas during the idle light of midday?

Whatever the reason or excuse, coastal landscapes are a favorite subject for many nature photographers, including myself. So with spring soon turning to summer and the unofficial start of beach season, here are a few tips for better coastal landscape photography in any season.

Find a Point of Interest

Beaches are often nondescript, featureless expanses of sand and endless water without any apparent focal point. With no obvious visual fixture, the scene might leave a photographer confused and viewer of the image bored. Locating a conspicuous geological feature, rock, tree, tidal creek, piece of driftwood, or serendipitous conch shell in the foreground can provide a visual anchor that makes for a more compelling image.

Small iceberg on teh black sand beach at Jökulsárlón, Iceland

Experiment with Shutter Speeds

The ocean is a dynamic body of water, heaving and churning with the ebb and flow of each and every wave. Photography is an interpretative art form, so the shutter speed you choose will greatly vary both the look and feel of the scene to potential viewers.

For example, a shutter speed of 1/250 of a second or faster can freeze the water’s motion, projecting a feeling of power or urgency. Any shutter speed of one second or slower can tame even the most furious ocean swells and ascribe a certain grace or fragility to the sea. A range of 1/20 to ½ of a second with an advancing or receding wave or foam is a good compromise, giving water the illusion of motion yet retaining important detail as well.

The focal length, physical distance, and water’s velocity will all vary the visual effect of the wave’s movement for each shutter speed, so the examples cited above are merely rough guidelines. I think it’s important to experiment with a variety of speeds before ultimately deciding on what you prefer for each situation.

Sunset at Hunters Beach Cove, Acadia National Park, Maine USA

Look For Reflections

As mentioned earlier, beaches can seem featureless with little “working material” to assist in assembling a composition. Reflections in wet sand and tidal pools, however, can add some interest and depth to an otherwise ordinary scene.

Tidal pools and puddles can reflect the sky or clouds like a mirror if there’s little or no wind and the thin film of water left on the sand by a receding wave produces reflections that are impressionistic and expressive.

Look for Patterns and Textures

Wind and water can conceive captivating dunes, mini dunes, ripples, ridges, and basins in the sand. These features can be used as a component of a larger, expansive scene or they can become the primary subject themselves. Look for conditions created by low-angled, directional lighting where the verge of light and shadow add yet more compositional elements with which to work.

These conditions can be difficult to visualize under flat or direct midday light. But as the angle of the sun becomes more oblique, textures, patterns, and lines will soon reveal themselves. Work quickly, as the light and shadows will be fleeting.

Tree stump reflected in tidal pool at sunrise, Hunting Island, South Carolina

 Arrive Early – Stay Late

This advice should be mandatory for any landscape photographer – coastal or otherwise. But does the world really need yet another photograph of the sun setting or rising over the ocean? My short answer would be, “Sure, why not?”

I prefer to bracket and blend exposures in post-processing for sunrise or sunset scenes that need usable detail in both the sky and foreground, but the level, unobstructed horizons are ideal graduated neutral density filters as well.

But if beauty for beauty’s sake is too banal for your tastes, you still have the twilight wedge, dawn or dusk’s glow, and low-angled, warm sunlight during the golden hours to compliment the landscape. Snobbery is no excuse for sleeping in.

Protect Your Gear

The best advice I can offer with regard to keeping your gear looking and working like new: Take someone else’s camera to the beach.

Seriously, the saltwater, sand, and wind can run roughshod on your camera gear. Even if the camera is not dropped in the drink, saltwater spray and mist from the pounding surf can do damage over time. I always wipe down my camera and lenses with a damp, freshwater towel and let dry.

Tripods can become corroded and completely inoperable if the legs are submerged in saltwater. Since I cannot resist getting into the water, I carry an old, backup tripod on my coastal excursions and go for it. It’s still a good idea to rinse off the sand and saltwater off the tripod legs when you are finished shooting to extend its life as much as possible.

Dunes with Snow Dusting, Hatteras Island, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina

Get Wet

Despite the previous point of advice, it often helps to get your feet and tripod wet in order get an interesting perspective. Wading into the water and getting a low angle to onrushing waves can provide a unique viewpoint while vicariously injecting the viewer into the scene.

Waves can move the sand and tripod during long exposures, resulting in soft images. For this reason, I push the tripod legs as deep into the sand as possible before an incoming wave arrives. This usually stabilizes the tripod and camera sufficiently.

Research Tide Information

Your favorite coastal photo locale has many different faces and characteristics, which all depend upon the height of the tide. Knowing when high and low tides occur and how they correspond to sunrise and sunset is vital to both your approach and your planning for a future photography trip.

Tidal information can be found online. For the United States, http://www.saltwatertides.com/pickpred.html is a good place to start. A quick Google search for “tidal chart” and your area will produce several results.

An excellent iPhone application is Tide Graph, which gives tidal information for hundreds of coastal locations, which can then be quickly accessed and deciphered.

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5 Reasons to Love Iceland in Winter

Iceland is a four-season photographic destination. As I wrote in a 2013 Popular Photography feature article, the country has often been mistakenly characterized in the past as cold, barren, and probably hostile to visitors. And with a name like Iceland, one can be forgiven for thinking of this small, northern Atlantic island country in this way. But with tourism on the rise, the perception is changing. It would be harder to find a more comfortable, less barren, and more welcoming country than Iceland anywhere on the planet. It’s also beautiful beyond words, which happens to be a boon to those of us who make a living creating images instead.

But even to those who know and love Iceland dearly, the idea of visiting in winter is too much. But Icelandic winters, for the most part, are no colder than those in New York, London, or Paris. In fact, there are some pretty compelling reasons to visit and photograph Iceland in winter – on purpose.

1. Fewer Tourists and Photographers

Iceland is becoming more and more popular with every passing year and people are discovering that winter is a great time to see and experience Iceland. But there are still much fewer tourists and photographers during this “off season” than there are during the summer months.

Skogafoss is a popular location for tourists and photographers. Bus after bus arriving from Reykjavik unloads dozens of people who make getting a clear photograph of the spectacular waterfall almost impossible. Could I have taken the above selfie during any season other than winter? I don’t think so.

2. The Aurora Borealis

Iceland is one of the best places in the world to see and photograph the aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights in the northern hemisphere. Iceland falls at exactly the right latitude in the aurora belt (yes it is possible to go too far north to see the northern lights) so as long as the sky is dark and clear, there’s a high probability that you will see it.

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During the most popular times to visit Iceland, May through August, the sky never gets dark enough at night to see the aurora. Winter nights in Iceland are long and dark, perfect for aurora photography and watching.

3. Surreal Snowy Landscapes

If you like minimalist landscape and nature images, Iceland in the winter is a target rich environment, particularly after a fresh snowfall. White-on-white scenes (with the ubiquitoius pewter winter skies) can be the perfect canvas for creating some stunning winter landscapes.

No color or epic sunrise and sunset lighting needed here. Just throw in some iconic Icelandic horses and you have winter’s understated beauty at its best.

4. Ice Caves

Ice caves are created by rivers and streams carving tunnels under the glaciers during the warm summer months. There are very few experiences as surreal and magical as exploring these sapphire blue caves with a camera and an experienced guide.

During the winter season – from approximately November through March – the water freezes and the caves become safe to enter. This is one bucket list experience you do not want to miss.

5. Changing Light

The light in Iceland is phenomenal. In the winter, the sun never rises very high above the horizon so the low-angled light is always soft and warm – the type of light photographers dream about.

But even when the weather is bad (and yes, it can be bad) it never seems to last very long. There’s always a break in the clouds somewhere which gives the intrepid photographer hope of something good on the way. Of course, it also makes you appreciate the good weather when you have it. As I said, it’s changeable and highly changebale light is what gives landscape photographers those truly magical moments.

You can experience Iceland in winter with me January 22 – 31, 2017 with Epic Destinations.

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Vignettes: Galápagos 2016

Here are just a few images from last month’s photography trip to the incomparable Galápagos Islands. I am currently on my way to Iceland so I won’t expand beyond the basic captions below each photo. If you ever have the opportunity to visit this amazing place, don’t put it off or pass it by. It truly is one of nature’s greatest bucket list destinations.

In case you missed it, see the 20 Days of the Galapagos on my Instagram account.

Galápagos flycatcher (Myiarchus magnirostris), Floreana Island, Galápagos Archipelago, Ecuador

Galápagos sea lion (Zalophus wollebaeki) at Punta Espinoza, Fernandina Island, Galápagos Archipelago, Ecuador

Ecuador Volcano in warm evening light, Isabela Island, Galápagos Archipelago, Ecuador

Galapagos penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus), Punta Moreno, Isabela Island, Galápagos Archipelago, Ecuador

Blue Footed Boobies (Sula nebouxii), Floreana Island, Galápagos Archipelago, Ecuador

Galápagos giant tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra) on Santa Cruz Island, Galápagos Archipelago, Ecuador

Great blue heron (Ardea herodias), Elizabeth Bay, Isabela Island, Galápagos Archipelago, Ecuador

Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia), Santa Cruz Island, Galápagos Archipelago, Ecuador

Male great frigatebird (Fregata minor) in mating display, North Seymour Island, Galápagos Archipelago, Ecuador

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MindShift’s New Ultralight Camera Backpacks

My friends at MindShift Gear just released what might be the three lightest weight outdoor photography backpacks ever.  (The new UltraLight Single 16L backpack weighs in at a slim 1.9 pounds, including the rain cover!)  The UltraLight Sprint 16LUltraLight Dual 25L, and UltraLight Dual 36L side-panel designs allow quick access to cameras, lenses, and accessories without first having to take off the bag. The backpacks also offer generous space for personal belongings, zippered storage, a hydration reservoir and electronics. Additional features include an integrated tripod mounting system and highly breathable shoulder straps. The UltraLight Dual 25L and UltraLight Dual 36L also include a removable camera compartment and shoulder strap that can be worn separately when you wish to drop your full pack and bag a peak with even less weight.

Again, the three new models are as follows:

Ultralight Single 16L
Ultralight Dual 25L
Ultralight Dual 36L

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