Foggy Saturdays, an orange toque and deer hunters

•December 4, 2018 • 3 Comments

landscape, forest, forest fire, fog, foggy, dan jurak, landscape, Alberta, deer hunt, deer,

My wife sometimes says to me that I don’t go out and take pictures anymore. I do.

After almost twenty years of obsessively going out at all times of the day regardless of the weather I can usually predict when the conditions will be good for photos and when it’s better just to enjoy the scenery and relax.

The past few weeks haven’t been anything to get excited about but I was chomping at the bit for a drive this weekend.

I’m an early riser. Maybe it’s old age? When I was younger I would often sleep past noon during holidays or when school was out. These days my around 4:30 a.m. I usually find myself laying in bed trying to fall back asleep for at least another hour. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

By 5:00 a.m. I was out of bed while everyone else was in dreamland. Coffee brewing I checked out the provincial highway webcams to see what the conditions were around me. The government forecaster had predicted fog but my cleardarksky website which is usually very accurate for astronomical photography said otherwise.

The webcams weren’t showing any fog, something that I love to take pics in. Hmm?

By 7:00 a.m things still weren’t looking good but half an hour later with the sky just starting to lighten I figured what the heck and put on my winter clothing, grabbed my camera gear and headed out into the dark.

As I drove away from home and into the country there was still no sign of fog. The snow was old and mostly melted away but onward I went. There’s a place that I usually go to that almost guarantees fog on mornings like this so onward I went in hopes of something good.

Twenty minutes later with the eastern horizon much brighter I arrived at my spot. Nothing.

It was then that I decided that I would make a nice drive back home and just enjoy the morning in the country.

Ten minutes later and a funny thing happened. As I was driving through an area that was used frequently by quads during the summer, full of pine trees and sand the fog or at least a thin fog appeared.

I knew the area well. It was only a few years earlier that I would take my two girls out here on weekends to learn to drive. The roads were two lanes, paved and twisty through the pine trees. Because the last few years had been very dry the once thick pine tree stand was now peppered with tall charcoal spikes pointing upwards.

Curiosity piqued I pulled over. Grabbed my gear and walked into the burned forest.

The sun might have been up but you couldn’t tell as the sky was so overcast but the eastern horizon was considerably brighter than twenty minutes earlier. I wandered around looking for interesting angles, kneeling in the snow, camera on tripod taking photos as they presented themselves.

That continued off and on for twenty or so minutes until I got back in my vehicle and found another spot that looked promising. I walked into the burned forest, took a few photos and was walking back to my vehicle when I saw a four wheel drive truck driving towards me. There is a lot of oil field activity out this way so its not unusual to see service trucks driving by.

As the truck approached I stayed out of my SUV to talk to the driver. There is always vandalism around these places so I usually say hi and make it clear that I am there for photos and not to steal anything.

As the vehicle pulled up to me and stopped the first thing that the two men inside said was, did you see anything? Puzzled I told them that I was out for photos in the fog.

It turns out that they weren’t working but were deer hunting that morning. That close to the city deer season goes late into the fall but hunters are required to use bows or shotguns which limits their range to about thirty or so meters. It was then that I remembered that I had put on a blaze orange toque which stood out like a sore thumb in the morning light. Bright and blazing against the dark background.

Even though the season is bows and shotguns there are still people who will illegally use rifles to hunt deer. It was then that I realized the wisdom of picking that coloured toque.

Not that it saved my life but when you are crouched in the snow on a dark morning who knows what some guy with a rifle is going to think that he is looking at?

With a few images on my memory card I headed home as the sky brightened.

Happy shooting,

Dan

 

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The best light of the year… it’s here

•November 29, 2018 • 4 Comments

landscape, golden light, prairie, frost, snow, winter, cold, alberta, dan jurak, fence, farm, sunrise, dawn,

A lot of people who live as far north as I do are not fans of six months of winter. It does get to be a bit much even though it makes for great photo opportunities. Snow is like makeup for the landscape. It can take an average looking place and dress it up to the nines.

A few years ago I was out on my usual photo jaunt outside of Edmonton. During that day and the following one of the headlines in the local news was that we were the second coldest spot on earth.

When it gets that cold everything is affected. Even the tires on your vehicle will remember the flat spot that they are sitting on and when you start to drive they will bump, bump, bump for a few minutes until they warm up and return to their round shape.

After a few minutes of being outside, a heavy coat of frost was covering my moustache and even my eye lashes had pieces of ice forming on them. It’s funny though, if you dress for it you can be very comfortable when it gets to -37 Celsius and that was with NO wind.

I was up as usual on that morning before the sun which if memory serves me was around 8:30 a.m. Twenty five minutes of driving and before long the sun started to rise over a thick ice fog that was hanging just above the ground. When it gets this cold we don’t always get a real fog but its more like ice crystals suspended in the air.

I had a great time taking photos, getting back into my vehicle to warm up, driving a few hundred meters and repeating the whole process.

The whole time that I was taking pictures the sun clung close to the horizon. It was then that I realized that two hours had passed and the sun was now just getting too high for me to take pics.

That was almost TWO HOURS of the lovely, low light that I love. The same thing applies to the evening. Two hours in the morning and two in the evening.

The best part of this was that it wasn’t yet the shortest day of the year.

For the next seven or eight weeks those of us who live at the higher latitudes will be blessed with a very special light. The farther north you live the longer and lower the golden light will be.

Near the horizon sunrises and sunsets happen very quickly. The sun rises almost vertically into the sky and poof its done. This far north we can luxuriate in the golden hours. Make sure to get out and dress warmly.

Happy shooting,

Dan

Learning to see

•November 19, 2018 • 1 Comment

learning photography, landscape, winter, snow, cold, prairie, Dan Jurak, surreal, foggy,

Do you remember when you were a small child? Your friends were all riding around on their two wheeled bicycles and you were still on your tricycle. Sure the trike was great but that two wheeler looked like so much fun and so easy.

When your parents finally got you a new two wheeled bicycle you were so excited to give it a try and when you did… you fell down.

Up again and on the bike and determined to do it yourself you try again with the same result.

But it looked so easy you thought. Everyone else was doing it. Determined to master the new bike you chose not to give up and your parents either put training wheels on the bike or they did like mine did they held onto the back and guided me along as my brain and body slowly learned to coordinate the new skill.

Some of us got it right away and pedalled on with our friends. Others of us needed more time and practice but eventually we got it and could ride with the best of them.

Photography is much the same as learning to ride a bike. Everyone can do it. There will always be some that can ride without holding the handlebars or stand on the seat and continue without falling and then there are those of us who will be content to ride with both hands on the handlebars.

Today when I’m out taking pics it seems automatic to me. There is very little conscious thinking or awareness that I must get this angle or adjust my camera a certain way it happens, almost automatically!

But where I am now is not where I started. I was one of those kids that didn’t get it right away with the camera. I loved to take pictures but when I got them back they never seemed to look as good as they did in the viewfinder.

Back then I learned to shoot with film which was for me a very expensive thing to do whether I shot print film or transparencies. For every roll of 36 exposures if I got one or to “keepers” I was happy.

But I persisted. There was something about photography that had me interested. I didn’t realize it then but it was the creative process that drove me. I photographed friends and family. I photographed flowers and the family pet. I photographed our river valley skyline and most of those photos fell far short of what I expected the result to be. Undaunted, I marched on. There were so many great looking photos in magazines and books (there was no internet back in the seventies) and it looked so easy.

Slowly but surely my discard to keeper ratio got better and then I transitioned to large format sheet film where each exposure was a deliberate act. Looking under a black focusing cloth and seeing your image upside down and left to right, metering the scene, setting the camera lens aperture and shutter, closing the lens down. Loading the film holder, pulling out the slide, exposing the film and repeating were a slow and deliberate act.

It was long process just to take ONE photo. Over time I improved. Two years in photo school where I was taking pictures every day of things that I had no interest in forced me to see things differently. Screw the instruction or the marks the best thing about school was being forced to take pictures almost every day. It was like riding a bike every day and it got easier.

Forty years later and I am still learning. I am experimenting. Always trying something new.

I think that one of the things that has made me better is photographing the same part of the province where I live over and over and over again. It is forcing myself to see differently than I usually do. It is having to actually “work” for a photo in an area where most everyone would drive by.

An example, where I live in Alberta, Jasper and Banff are very popular with photographers and for good reason the scenery rivals any on earth and its for the most part very accessible from the road.

Of many of the photos that I see from Jasper and Banff there are very few that I like. Why? Well the photographer shot a pretty place and it looks nice but what lacks in most of the photos that I see are an awareness of light and weather and a lack of creativity.

If you saw photos of my neighbours and me on a fashion catwalk you wouldn’t look twice but put a celebrity or very attractive model in that same picture and you would give it a second look. Thats what happens in the national parks. Lots of pictures of pretty places but not many imaginative/creative photos. Those photographers in my eye anyway are still learning to see. Maybe some of them will be like me and never be able to stand on the handlebars and balance the bike? Maybe some of them will?

There are NO secrets to any kind of photography or art that can’t be learned by repetition and being aware of when you have made progress or when you have made mistakes.

Eventually we all pedal off on two wheels going our own way.

Happy shooting,

Dan

I love the mountains but my heart will always be on the prairies

•November 16, 2018 • 6 Comments

moody, winter, landscape, prairie, foggy, fog, snow, sunrise, dawn, Alberta, farm, Dan Jurak,

I’ve been going through thousands of RAW images that I have taken over the years. Starting with a 10 megapixel Canon Rebel that I bought only to take better photos of my kids playing intramural sports (I had lost my interest in landscapes having been shooting editorial for a living for many years. More on that in another post) and realizing that the state of digital photography was in its infancy.

Over the years what started as a fun pastime and a return to my roots I would get out before work and catch the sunrise regardless of the season and then be out again in the evening as the sun set.

There are thousands upon thousands of images that no one other than myself has ever seen. When I got serious about landscapes back in the late seventies and early eighties film was king and the king of the landscape was large format film. I lugged a large wooden field camera and heavy tripod into the back country of the national parks because that is where I thought the best images were. Shooting colour transparencies is very different than digital. Your exposure has to be right on or it is trashed. Today, I auto bracket most scenes and quickly delete any exposures in camera that are too over or under exposed to use.

As a result, I am a very prolific shooter. If you don’t have it on your memory card it is lost forever. Shoot it now and decide later if it gets onto the hard drive.

As I was saying, I would get out to the mountains in my now old Ford van almost every weekend in Jasper. Banff always struck me as over photographed and too crowded even back then. Today it is a zoo. But back then editors eyes would beam when shown photos of places that they hadn’t seen before. Today there isn’t much that hasn’t been photographed a thousand times before.

With the advent of digital photography and photo sharing websites the popularity of photography has exploded. Everyone it seems now goes to the national parks to shoot landscapes.

Today be at one of the popular spots in Banff or Jasper and you are almost guaranteed to not have the place to yourself. For some that is a good thing. To me having others around was always a distraction. Oh sure, I could shoot fashion on Jasper Avenue in Edmonton at lunch hour and have hundreds of people around but landscape photography has always been a solitary experience, aside from when I have my girls come along.

Once the interest in shooting landscapes was rekindled I was out every week of the year and with a family my trips were limited to taking them close to where I live. A funny thing happened. Every once in a while all the elements would align and the prairie would be transformed into a most magical place. And the beauty was breathtaking. On drives home before work I would be almost high having experienced such beauty.

It became a passion photographing the prairie. With all the images that I was getting I started selling them through a few stock photo agencies. They ended up outselling the Jasper and Banff photos that I had submitted. From governments agencies around the world to Fortune 500 companies, my back yard, the flat and uninteresting prairie was making prairie landscapes profitable enough to to buy me newer equipment, etc.

Over the years things started falling into place. When to go. Which weather was best. Which weather to stay home in. Always learning. Always experimenting.

During that learning period I was privy to some of the most remarkable scenes ever. This wasn’t Alberta. This wasn’t the flat and featureless prairie that I expected.

This was heaven on earth.

The photo at the top of this post I remember very well when I took it. The temperature was below -30 Celsius. The wind was non existent. Being outside only a few minutes and a thick coating of ice was forming on my moustache and beard. I took a couple of selfies that I saw this morning and even my eyelashes had thick frost/ice stuck to them. It was cold but it was amazing. The sun at that time of the year stays close to the horizon for most of the day giving a very Renaissance kind of light and with the ice fog hanging in the air a dreamy look.

The barn in the photo has since been demolished to make way for industrial development as have the old trees in the foreground and background.

It was a magical morning. On the drive home the heater in the Rav was blasting hot air to warm me up but it was heaven. The hot thermos of coffee that I had made earlier tasted even better on the drive warming me up as it made its way down my throat.

Those are the memories that I have of my prairie. The mountains are fun. Its like going to Disney Land or getting a sugar high from a chocolate bar but the prairies are so much more satisfying.

Find your magic place. It is out there.

Happy shooting,

Dan

 

 

A surefire way to improve your photography and its free!

•November 13, 2018 • Leave a Comment

snow, winter, Banff, rockies, mountains, Alberta, landscape, Dan Jurak,

I don’t know why but I have always loved looking at photographs. Photographs in magazine. Photographs in books. Our family albums. They have always captured my imagination.

Those photos even at an early age were able to transport me to a place or time far away.

We are the sum total of all that we experience. We draw upon our past to help us with the present and into the future.

Analogies can sometimes make an idea more obvious than it might otherwise be. Here’s my analogy. Imagine if you are four years old and have a pack of crayons and sheets of blank paper but lived inside a house with no windows and never saw the outside world. What would you be drawing with the crayons?

Contrast that with a child that lives in the real world and  have seen all manner of art in magazines, museums, etc.

The second child is more able to draw upon their experiences to use their imaginations to draw.

Photography is like that. Even after having spent my life as a photographer and designer I still learn by browsing hundreds and thousands of photos each year. For every photograph you see you immediately like or dislike it. You don’t spend any time thinking about why you dislike this one but quickly go onto the next one.

What you are doing is formulating your style. You are learning what light, colours and composition together make an image positive in your eyes. There is no right or wrong to this. You have spent your life being influenced by all that you see around you. Your experience is different than mine is different than everyone else in the world.

After all these years there are times when I look at a photograph and think to myself, why haven’t I done that before and one day in the future that will be in my repertoire of things to do. It isn’t copying. It’s learning. Its learning because you are applying what you learned and applying it in your unique way.

Happy shooting,

Dan

Winter Photography… its a snap if you do it right

•November 12, 2018 • 8 Comments

winter, clothing, dressing for winter, alberta, jasper, dan jurak, landscape, photography, landscape, reflection,

Winter is here. There is no going back until mid-April.

One of the really neat things about living this far north is that when we approach the shortest days of the year, about 8 hours of daylight where I live, the sun for most of the day stays very low to the horizon. Morning and evening shoots are extended because of the low light.

If thing play out the way that I hope, I’ll be in Jasper in a few days with my two girls while they are away from university for reading week.

Having lived and played in -30 Celsius winters since I was a toddler here I understand the value of being dressed properly to enjoy our long cold periods.

Years ago when I was into running I would get out during lunch break and run in the river valley. My first winter I discovered something that I had long since forgotten.

After ten or twenty minutes of exercise outdoors your body radiates so much heat that you find yourself taking mittens and head coverings off. You open your jacket. Your frozen toes are suddenly flush with heat.

That happens only if you keep busy and when taking photos that usually isn’t the case for me so instead I dress differently.

It is easier to overdress and open up your clothing when you overheat than it is to do the opposite and end up having to cut your time outside short.

Starting from top to bottom, always, always, always wear a warm toque. You can dress like a polar bear and if your head isn’t covered properly most of the heat you generate will be lost there.

For a jacket I wear a heavy down parka and underneath it a fleece jacket. There is a waist string on the jacket to keep snow out when skiing, tightening it also keeps warm air from escaping.

I usually wear cotton or wool pants. Jeans are a no no. When they get wet they seem to say wet forever. Over the pants are a heavy pair of waterproof and insulated snow pants. I often find myself laying down in the snow taking pics. Keeping dry means staying warm.

For boots it depends upon where I am going. I have a heavy pair of arctic type boots that are so large that I cannot safely drive with them. They are rated to something like -85 Celsius. If I am in one spot for a long time I wear them if not I have an insulated pair of hiking boots that I sometimes pair with gators to keep the snow from getting in my boots. Again dry equal warm in the winter.

Hands are alway a problem. They get cold. Cold. Cold. I have a heavy pair of mitten under which I sometimes were a pair of light, really light gloves. Maybe this year I’ll try a portable hand warmer.

As for cameras freezing and condensation, that has never been a problem. I don’t know why. I always have a spare charged battery handy but have never had to replace one while shooting.

There you have it. Dress properly for winter and you will enjoy it every bit as much as the warmer months.

Happy shooting,

Dan

Weather and landscapes… what is the best time?

•November 10, 2018 • 4 Comments

landscape, winter, fog, foggy, snow, Alberta, Dan Jurak, trees, prairie, dreamy,

My apologies for not posting here on WordPress more often but after so many years of blogging it sometimes like I am repeating myself and nobody but nobody likes to hear the same thing over and over again.

Winter has finally come to central Alberta and looks to stay again until the middle of April.

A question was raised the other day on Instagram where I now post about when is the best time to go out. Evening? Morning? Daytime?

The answer simply is, it depends.

Unless I am going out for a specific reason that is, a big storm is on radar during the summer months that I want to chase or if I happen to be doing infrared photos or long exposure photos… I get out in the middle of the day.

The storms usually happen in the later afternoon when with convection the clouds build up and then usually fizzle once it gets cooler in the evening.

With infrared photography which for me is a summer only pursuit the middle of the day when theres plenty of radiant energy in the foliage is the best time.

For long exposure images I want some blue sky and some clouds. For whatever reason it seems that we get these great popcorn shaped clouds around 11:00 a.m. on summer mornings. Too early, no clouds. Too late and the popcorn clouds have filled up the sky. When that happens a seven minute exposure leaves not tones in the sky. The sky becomes a blank white area.

Now to the original question from Instagram. If I am doing landscape in colour and am at home I only go out when conditions are right for me. From trial and error and many, many kilometres of driving I have learned how to best get the results that I want.

The first requirement for me is that the sun needs to be near the horizon. That means the morning or evening and they are usually both very different.

Here on the prairies we can get some blazing sunsets especially after storms so the evening can be good. In the winter sunsets are not usually as dramatic. Evening is my second choice.

My absolute first choice for any season is MORNING and the reason for that is FOG.

On the prairie things can look really blah. A large expanse of nothingness.

Fog has the ability to magically transform a boring place into something very special. If there is no fog forecast I prefer to walk my dog early in the morning because past experience has shown me that it is rare that I get images that I am happy with on fog free mornings.

Being in Alberta the climate is usually very dry so fog doesn’t happen often but on a good morning I can usually get twenty or thirty unique and very different kinds of photos that make up for the lack of good weather.

I have become a bit of a weather nut in my search for fog. The first place I will look is our  government forecaster for a forecast. If it looks slightly promising I go to a website called Cleardarksky.com It is my most valuable weather resource for photography for a few reasons. It gives me a great indicator of the chance of fog.

weather

When you visit it for your area it will show the predicted forecast for your general area no matter where you live. I look for a few things on there.

The first thing to look for of course is when the sun is rising. The chart is broken down into bars that cover the 24 hour clock in one hour increments. So you can look at 6:00 a.m. and see what it is predicted to look like for your area at that time.

The second is cloud cover. If the skies are one hundred percent filled with clouds I am probably not going out. Probably but that is more of a general rule than an absolute one. Winter mornings with completely overcast skies, frost and fog can produce some interesting results.

In order to get fog where I live one hundred percent humidity is needed. The chart shows that by the hour and in order to keep the fog from blowing away and disappearing NO WIND.

If I see that the humidity and wind are where I want them I am almost guaranteed pictures no matter where I go. They seem to be everywhere on those morning.

Of course when I visit places that I am visiting like Jasper or Banff, I go out regardless and hope for the best. I don’t have the luxury there of going out only when the conditions are great.

As with most things there are exceptions. About fifteen years ago during the Christmas holidays we were blessed with TWO day of thick fog, hoar frost and no wind. This made for long days because even the sunsets were foggy and dreamy and with the sun being so low to the horizon this far north at Christmas it was almost like early morning all day long. Like I said that was years ago and I have only seen that once but I hope to see it again one day.

So there you have it. My so called “secret” to getting good weather photos.

Happy shooting,

Dan