Being creative means adapting…

•January 16, 2019 • 2 Comments

frost, snow, hoar frost, prairie, brush, landscape, vertical, Dan Jurak, Alberta,

Even with super computers, European weather models, North American weather models and “experts” forecasting the weather is still for of a craft than a science it sometimes seems.

The past few days around Edmonton the weather has been unpredictable.

I’ve been watching the detailed forecasts for a few years and after many dozens or even hundreds of trips out of town I can usually tell when trips will be productive or not.

As I’ve written a few times before I prefer mornings over evenings. Both can times of the day can have the colourful skies that I like. Mornings though, have the added advantage of fog.

Fog has the ability to hide and reveal parts of the landscape. It softens light and makes the ordinary seem mysterious.

Morning fog in central Alberta is usually a combination of high humidity, 90 to 100%, light winds to no wind at all and overhead skies that are clear or partially clouded.

This past Monday looked to have all of the above so I was planning on double checking the highway cameras around Edmonton to see if indeed there was any fog.

At 6:00 am I found ONE camera where there was a thick fog. Every other camera I checked showed none so I switched to a local television station and kept hearing about temperature inversions and thick fog outside of town.

That was enough for me and by 7:15 am I was in the Rav and driving into the dark to get away from town before sunrise.

As I approached the city limits I kept scanning the horizon for any signs of fog. None. A good sign though was that as I drove along the back road I was seeing frost reflected from the trees lining the road, a good sign.

I continued to drive as the sky lightened and as it did in the distance I could see fog but it was misleading. There was some fog alright but it was light and spread out. Definitely NOT what I was hoping for.

By 9:00 am the sun had already risen and no matter which direction I drove, nothing. Even the trees were clear of hoar frost. Not a good sign so with just a couple of photos taken for the sake of taking them, I decided to head home.

A funny thing happened as I neared Edmonton. To my right all of the bushes and trees were covered in a heavy, thick, white coating of hoar frost. Pulling off the highway I made my way along a side road until I came across a ditch lined with small frost covered bushes and stopped.

Grabbing my camera and tripod I hopped out and made my way into the ditch landing waist deep in snow, plopped the tripod into the snow, aimed towards the sun and snapped away.

It wasn’t what I had planned on photographing but then you can’t force nature to do what you want. You have to adapt to what nature hands you.

Happy shooting,

Dan

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Keeping your sanity on Instagram

•January 9, 2019 • 6 Comments

instagram, landscape, popularity, dan jurak, sanity,

It’s been almost a year since I joined Instagram and it’s been both good and bad.

First the good.

The variety of landscape photos and styles presented are amazing. I do believe that I have learned from photographers much younger than myself in new ways of seeing and processing.

Now for the bad. Instagram can be a trap for those that seek affirmation of themselves or their photography. It can be one HUGE popularity contest.

Popularity isn’t a bad thing, ie. if you don’t seek it and I see too many desperately trying to attract more likes and follows.

Everyday I get follows and everyday I get unfollows. At first that was a puzzle and then my internet savvy kids pointed out what was happening.

I wondered why there were follows from accounts that had nothing to do with landscapes. Out of interest and courtesy I would always check back on those follows to see if there were landscapes that I might like and hopefully discover someone new to me.

Almost always I would see an account full of glamour selfies. You know the kind where the person has obviously shot thousands of selfies to get the one that was just perfect.

I picked up an app that shows me how is unfollowing and upon checking it would always see these for lack of a better word, vanity accounts unfollowing. Those accounts were promptly blocked.

I follow accounts for a few reasons. I like their photography. They photograph a place I know or they are people that I know. I NEVER follow anyone with the intention of getting a follow back.

I’ve been taking photographs since I was a young man both as a job where millions over the years would see my photos weekly and as an amateur. I think I know what a good photo is. Having said that, anything to do with the arts is a subjective thing. What is fine great to me might be garbage to another.

There are photographers that get many times more likes on their photos than I do and that is a great(?) thing because when I post photos I post photos that I like. The emphasis being on “I”.┬áThere are also lots of in my opinion, very mediocre photographers with thousands or tens of thousand of followers but does that make them “better” than you or me? If you are asking yourself that question then you are posting for the wrong reason.

As I have often told my kids when they were growing up, its not important what other people think of you, it’s important what you think of yourself.

Instagram is NOT the place for validation. It is only a place to share ideas and photos.

Happy shooting,

Dan

Adapting to the weather…

•December 13, 2018 • 2 Comments

sand storm, jasper, landscape, winter, clouds, dan jurak, alberta, silhouette,

I just returned from a few days in the mountains. It’s not often that I make the drive. A few times a year seems to be plenty for me. This trip was amazing for the variety of conditions that I experienced over three days in December.

From photographing ice bubbles on Abraham Lake to chest deep snow near the Columbia Icefields to sandstorms and shelf clouds. Yes SANDSTORMS and SHELF CLOUDS in December.

Weather is to me the most important ingredient in landscape photography. Shooting mainly on the prairies if you don’t get the right weather most photos end up looking flat and uninteresting.

The internet has really helped in deciding when to go and at what time. Websites like Cleardarksky.com can be particularly helpful with hour by hour breakdown of humidity, wind and cloud cover.

Apps like TPE for Android or iPhone with the accompanying Skyfireapp add-on very accurately predict the chances of having a blazing sunset or sunrise.

On my last morning I had decided to go to one of two places. My first option was to drive 100 kms towards the icefields as a moderately coloured sunrise was predicted. That was in the OPPOSITE direction of home. The second choice was to drive towards home where an absolutely blazing sunrise was being shown on the app. Hmmm… which to do?

Cleardarksky was showing moderate cloud cover over both of the areas but directly to the west of me was a really heavy band of cloud cover. Even with sophisticated weather satellites and programs predicting the weather is still sometimes hit or miss.

Because the heavy band of cloud was so close I decided to wait until morning and see what the forecast looked like and decide at that time.

Up around 6:00 a.m. and checking the Environment Canada forecast it had now changed to light snow which meant completely overcast. Out the window went the previous evenings plans.

I checked out of the motel at 7:00 a.m. bought a pumpkin spice latte and waited in a parking lot in Jasper townsite for the sky to lighten. If the forecast was wrong I might make the short drive to Pyramid Lake and take a photo of the bridge to the island on the lake with blazing morning colours. If the forecast was right I would point the Rav in the direction home.

I sat for the next hour watching the sky. It wasn’t promising. What the heck, I made the ten minute drive to Pyramid Lake near sunrise and nothing but heavily overcast skies with a smattering of snow flakes falling.

That was it. I would be heading home.

A few minutes later I was on the highway and driving into the Athabasca River valley. The skies were darkening even more and the clouds dropping near to the ground. As I drove on the wind picked up and started pushing the vehicle from side to side. This was a regular storm that I was driving into.

Now heading eastward along Jasper Lake which is really the Athabasca River where it widens to over a kilometre sand was whipping up off the flats and sheets of it were being blasted across the highway. Wow! I pulled over. Put on my flashers and grabbed my camera for a few shots.

Early December in the mountains and in the middle of a sandstorm. The ice that was parts of the river was now covered in a thick coating of brown dust and the distant mountains were obscured by the blowing sand.

I continued eastward stopping every few kilometres taking photos of the storm. Satisfied that I was done I got back in the vehicle with the intention of heading straight home.

As I was approaching the park gates what should I see but a HUGE shelf cloud over the mountains. EEEEEEK! In all my life I have never seen such a cloud in the mountains. It was like being on the prairies in July chasing supercells.

I pulled over by the Fiddle River bridge, threw on an ultra wide lens and snapped away at the cloud as it quickly moved eastward.

The next few hours was uneventful. The predicted sunrise never appeared but then I hardly ever get what I plan for when taking landscape photos and neither should you.

Happy shooting,

Dan

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

 

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