Two Amazing Wilderness Photographers & Educators
0:28 Who is Jay Patel?
2:30 RAW Image vs. JPEG Image
3:50 Who is Varina Patel?
8:48 Favorite Images
31:24 Photography eBooks
Today I have two great wilderness photographers from Ohio – they are Jay and Varina Patel. They are so interesting that I have split this blog & audio into 2 episodes…
Who is Jay Patel?
Brent: Can you guys give me a little bit of background on where you’re from originally and the photography that you guys both create?
Jay: I was born and raised in India. I moved to US way back when – I won’t tell you when because that would give away my age. But I came over to go to school. I have a background in Engineering and Technology Management and Marketing. I started a photography career in 2001, when DSLR first started to come on the scene. I have pretty much no film experience and I’ve been doing photography for about 12 years now.
Brent: Jay, you and I are kind of similar there because I kicked on when the first DSLR came on too. Was it the Canon EOS D30? I couldn’t remember what it was.
Jay: Yeah, it was a Canon EOS D30. It was a 3MP camera with a really lousy dynamic range, but it was a great photo quality at that time.
Brent: Yes, and that’s the camera that changed everything for me too, because that was when my son was born and for the first time, I could actually get immediate feedback on what things were doing. Like for instance, aperture -you know, we change aperture and we get a different depth-of-field, and I was like “Oh, that’s what it does!”
Jay: And at that time, there were a very few RAW and JPEG tools, so I had to go through this learning process of knowing what was a RAW format and what it did. It took me a while to figure out, but once I realized the importance of it, my whole world changed.
RAW Image Vs. JPEG Image
Brent: Can you elaborate a little bit on that for my audience? Some people might not know what a RAW image is, as opposed to JPEG.
Jay: RAW image is the actual data off the sensor. Once the camera captures that RAW image, what ends up happening is, the camera itself uses some algorithms to convert that image into readable form; either into JPEG or TIFF. When you capture JPEG images, that algorithm is determined by the camera. So what we like to do as photographers, is to capture the sensor data and we decide what parameters to use to process the image. So the image comes out much better than anything that the camera can do on its own. These algorithms also include things like exposure compensation, white balance, sharpening, contrast, and curves among other things.
Brent: Excellent. I totally agree, especially when you’re photographing landscapes – shooting in RAW. Below are a few of the eBooks that Varina and Jay produce.
Who is Varina Patel?
Brent: Varina, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Varina: I was born in Canada. As a very young child, I moved to Washington State and then to Idaho. I spent a good chunk of my childhood in Idaho and then my family moved to Ohio. I’ve lived in a lot of places. I never know quite to say where I’m from, but my heart is in the Pacific Northwest. That feels like home to me and someday I’ll get back there. I started shooting when I was a kid. My dad used to let me use his camera, which was a Pentax K1000; a film camera. When I was in college, I spent every last penny in my bank account to buy myself the same camera, because I was familiar with it and because it happened to be on sale. I worked in the dark room in college and also in middle school actually, which was my first experience in the dark room. I switched to digital in 2005 with a Canon Rebel and went Pro that same year.
Photography is a really big part of my life. It’s something I’ve been doing since I was a kid and I’m not sure what I’d do without it.
Brent: When you say “went pro”, what does that mean?
Varina: Well, you know, I think it means different things to different people. For me, it was a shift from taking photos because it was “fun and I loved it” to taking photos because it was “fun and I loved it and I could make money from it”. In 2005, I started doing two things: I started submitting images to stock agencies and getting paid that way, and I also started shooting for Marriott –the hotel chain –doing interiors for them, which was really outside of what I wanted to do for a career. But to me, it was a way to get my foot in the door. In fact, both shooting for stock agencies and also shooting interiors for Marriott, they just felt like a good way to get my foot in the door. Get my name out there and start to put together a portfolio and shift into a role as an actual, professional photographer as opposed to just a hobbyist.
Brent: That’s great. Do you ever find that sometimes it’s difficult to maintain that enthusiasm for photography when you are out shooting and trying to create and income from your passion? Does it diminish your passion at all?
Varina: That’s a really good question. I think, for me, once I have my camera in my hand, everything else just goes away. It’s a little bit of my soul right there. I’m out there, I’m shooting, and I forget about the rest of life. Everything else just fades.
On the other hand, when I’m sitting down and I have 30 blog posts to write and schedule and get those ready, when I’m dealing with the financial side of things, when I’m preparing for a big presentation or to teach a big class, that’s when the enthusiasm is a little bit less and what I want to do is put that away and pull out some images and work with them in Photoshop, and you know, just get outside and shoot.
So yeah, it does diminish the enthusiasm to some extent, but not for the actual photographic process itself.
Brent: So, when you’re photographing landscapes and out in nature, do you still get lost in what you’re doing; like you’re doing what you love, basically?
Varina: Yeah, absolutely. That’s when I feel most comfortable. That’s when I feel most myself. That’s just really who I am. I want to be out there. I want to have my camera in my hand and if I’m sunburned and sweating or freezing cold, I tend to forget that. I’ll say to Jay “Oh my gosh, it’s so cold out here. I don’t know how long we can stay out.” You know, we’re at 9,000 ft. or something and there’s a foot of snow and then all of a sudden, I forget that I’m cold. And it isn’t until I put my camera away that I realize that my fingers actually have no feeling anymore.
Jay: Sometimes, I even forget what day of the week it is. Or what our stock market is doing. Or what we have to respond to when we get home. We just totally get lost in it.
Brent: Especially when you’re out of the cellphone coverage area and you can’t get online. Sometimes, that’s a blessing.
Varina: Yeah, you get a little bit off the grid and pretend that the rest of the world doesn’t exists just for a little while.
Varina’s Favorite Images
Brent: Let’s have a look at your favorite images. I know you guys submitted three images to me each, can you tell me a little about these images; the thought process that went to creating these images and why they are your favorite shots?
Varina: Yeah, absolutely. We’ll start with the spider web shot. That shot is from Hawaii, from the Big Island. We were driving along the highway and looked over the edge of a bridge into this big gully down below, which was just beautiful. It was a rainforest out to the ocean; it was just gorgeous. I noticed that there was a road down there. And I said, alright we need to find that road, figure out where it is. So we pulled off, drove around a little bit until we found the road, we drove down into this beautiful rainforest location. We parked the car, got out and walked around. We walked out to the beach; the waves are just crashing against the shore. There was a beautiful sugar plantation there. It was very old and it’s just the ruins of it really. I want to say that’s Kalapana. It’s a name of a very small, Hawaiian town down there.
As we were walking, Jay actually noticed several spider webs and pointed them out to me. I grabbed my camera and set it up with the macro lens on it. I got in as close as I could and kept going closer and there’s this little spider in there keeping an eye on me. But she was great; she didn’t seem to be upset having me photographing her handy work. For that shot, what stands out to me in my mind is being the theme of getting that shot, to continually moving closer and closer. Each time I’d frame the shot, I’d say no, that’s not it. I need to be closer. And I’d move in a little closer and I say, nope that’s not it.
I wanted to show the repeating lines and the web, and I wanted to zero in on a specific pattern so you can see that there are “Y” shapes in the web and the very simple strands as well. I was very careful about that to make sure that I had an odd number, because that’s what felt right to me at that moment. And then I was very careful to get an angle where I could get as much of that flat surface in focus as possible because that can be difficult with a macro lens and an extremely narrow depth-of-field. Then the background was important to me. I wanted it to be completely blurred out. Of course, with a narrow depth-of-field like that that’s not too difficult, but I also wanted to make sure that there was nothing distracting in the background; no points of light, no heavy shadows, no odd lines or pieces of grass sticking through and so getting the just the right spot in the web took some time. Those water droplets that you see in the photograph are absolutely minuscule They’re about the size of the tip an unsharpened pencil. When I say unsharpened, I mean sharpened but slightly dulled. So it’s very, very tiny droplets and they’re created from the mist coming off from the ocean and a little bit of dew in the air.
Brent: This is an amazing photograph. It’s so abstract. It’s art, basically. It’s not merely photography. For me it’s art. I just love the lines and I’ve been looking at it now since you’ve been talking and it’s something that I would love print out huge and put on the wall. It’s amazing.
Varina: I think it would be interesting at a very large size too.
Brent: Let’s jump to the next one, Varina. It looks like lava coming out. Also an Hawaiian image, I’m guessing?
Varina: That’s correct. It’s also from the Big Island. This is lava from Kilauea, the volcano on the Big Island, which was erupting obviously while we were there. We actually got very, very lucky with this shot. We knew the volcano was erupting. We hoped we’d be able to get some nice lava shots. What we didn’t expect was that the lava would be flowing into the ocean. That actually started about three days before we arrived on the island and we went out twice. We hiked out twice with a guide; this is private land that this is happening on. We couldn’t go out on our own as that would be trespassing. So we hired a guide and she took us out. It was an amazing hike, both nights. But it was during the second night when I took that shot and you can see just the swirling of the mist as it comes off the ocean.
What was happening at that point was the lava was coming off at the edge of the cliff and when it hit the water; the steam would come up in this huge, sudden, swirling cloud. It was an amazing, chaotic experience; just beautiful to watch.
My goal with that photograph was to show the chaos in a very quiet way. I think what stands out to me with photography a lot of times, is that, I can take a scene and take away the sound of it, take away the noise of it. My goal in a lot of cases with my photography is to take a very complicated scene and simplify it for you. Jay has a photograph of the same location and he has the sun setting, it’s beautiful. He has sort of a glow of the water from the sunset and from the lava itself. He has several streams of lava coming into the water. Like I said, his photo is just gorgeous. But for me, I wanted to take away all that extra and just show the very simple reality of what was happening. So that was my goal with that and to capture that stream of lava as it dripped down from the cliff, and the spire that it was creating as it cooled, which I thought was just awesome. So I took several shots. I wanted to make sure you could see the spire. There were a few shots that I took where you couldn’t see it; it was covered by lava. This one is the one I chose for that reason because it showed exactly what I wanted to show. And the swirling steam behind was particularly effective in that shot as well.
Brent: Great image. With this shot, did you use a long lens for this? And did you say it was night that you shot this?
Varina: Yeah, the shot was taken just after sunset so it wasn’t pitch dark, but it was getting dark. This was actually a single exposure, it was unnecessary for me to do any blending. I simply allowed the darker areas to go dark. I felt that worked for them because the highlights are very bright. I didn’t need to worry about the texture in those areas and so I could use a single exposure. So yeah, that worked out really well for this shot. And it is a long lens, a 70-200mm lens. I used that to just really zoom in. Now we were close enough to the lava. We took the Poke-A-Stick Tour. We were actually poking the lava with sticks and watching the sticks ignite, which was really cool. But this was over at the edge of the cliff so I didn’t want to be that close.
Brent: Okay, so can you give me a tip here, because I’ve actually been to a lava flows on the Big Island. I can’t get anywhere close. The security and the people wouldn’t let you anywhere near. How do you actually get a guide to take you to these places?
Varina: You’re right, the security is pretty serious, they take it seriously, and they don’t want people getting hurt. And because, at least at that time, I’m pretty sure it’s still erupting now onto private lands. Private land owners, they don’t want you in there. Granted their land has been completely destroyed, but it’s still theirs and we need to respect that. There are actually several groups that do lava tours. The one we went with was Poke-A-Stick Tours and there’s a website run by a woman named Sheryl, she’s wonderful. She goes out there every single day with groups and that’s a great job. She said she goes through a pair of hiking boots a month. I mean, you know, my boots were damaged from the hike, but not badly that I need to replace them. So, you can do that and you can look into other tours as well. There are several groups that do that.
Brent: That’s great. So, you wouldn’t suggest going on with Havaianas flip flops or as we call it in this country, thongs (which means something else in America).
Varina: No, you definitely don’t want to go out there with flip flops or a thong, or just in a “thong”; that would be a bit of a shock. But no, seriously. The heat coming off this lava is very extreme. When I was shooting, holding my camera, as I was taking photos, the skin on my arms was getting pretty uncomfortable. I needed to finish my shot and back off. Anytime you’re getting close to the lava, it is really hot. Definitely close-toed shoes and I would recommend shoes with a thick sole like hiking boots, because this terrain is not a joke. It’s the most bizarre and most twisted terrain I’ve seen.
Jay: And the surface is actually made up of glass, so what happens is if you fall down on a regular ground, you may get scraped. But if you fall down on this lava, little shreds of glass will get embedded into your hand pretty quickly or you’ll slice your hand on very quickly.
Varina: Actually, a guy on our tour did fall and he was bloody. It’s not a nice fall. So, be prepared for it if you’re going to go out there. Protect your feet at least.
Brent: Great image, Varina. I love it. I love the lava coming down and it looks like it’s solidifying and kind of crawling up again like a stalagmite, is it? It’s just amazing. I know how difficult that is to shoot, it’s something where the light is actually coming from the object that you are photographing. It’s not an easy shot to do.
Varina: Yeah, and it’s a fascinating thing to watch the land change so quickly. Like I said, we were there two nights in a row and between those two nights, the shape of the land as the lava came through was altered just catastrophically. It was amazing to see the change.
Brent: So, the land owners are actually gaining land, are they?
Varina: In a way, but unfortunately it’s a dead land. It can’t grow anything on it. It’s taking out houses. It’s taking out homes. It’s taking out grassy areas. It’s just completely dead and hard. You can’t dig in to it and plant. You can’t build on it easily. It’s bad.
Jay: And other danger is that it’s unpredictable; the lava flows unpredictable. So they have had several lava flows in the course of the last 25 years. So, they thought that the first lava flow was just it, so then they started rebuilding it. Fifteen years later, another lava flow showed up. And then they stopped and they started rebuilding it again and six years later, another one shows up. So, it is very unpredictable. It will go away for several years, but then it will come back.
Varina: Yeah, you just never know. Luckily, it’s a very slow flow, which means the families can evacuate and people aren’t getting hurt, but it is still a catastrophic loss. It’s really tough to see how much land they’ve lost.
Brent: Do you guys do workshops in these places like Hawaii?
Varina: Not right now, we’re actually (at this point) not teaching on-location workshops regularly. We did teach a workshop in Nicaragua this year and we’ll teach about one a year from this point on.
Jay: We will entertain private workshops if somebody is really interested in it, but private workshops can be pretty expensive.
Brent: Okay. So, let’s jump to the next one. It looks like a long exposure to me. Can you tell me a little bit about this one?
Varina: A long exposure and the water in the foreground is sort of a bluish and purple toned. On the mountain there is an alpenglow. That shot is from St. Mary Lake in Montana. That’s a shot that we took actually while we were teaching a workshop. I think that was the last day of the workshop. It was raining, I was right up against the water and so the waves were splashing up onto my lens and I was very close to the surface of the water in order to get that angle. I wanted to be nice and low. I was constantly wiping my lens for that shot; cleaning it again and again and again. The glow on the mountain came up and right away I knew I wanted to capture that. As a landscape photographer, that happens and you go, okay stop everything.
So, I helped a couple of students get their camera set-up first. Luckily, when something like that happens, you really want it to happen on the last day of the workshop after your students have had the chance to get used to their camera and practice the techniques that you’re teaching. If that happens on the first day, it just breaks your heart, because it means that most of your students won’t have the knowledge or the ability to capture it yet. In fact, we prefer to have kind of crummy skies on the first day so that people don’t feel like they’re missing something important. So we got lucky with this workshop. We got had kind of crummy weather on the first couple of days, but the last day, we had rainbows dropping down out of the sky. We had a beautiful sunrise, we had that alpenglow before the sunrise so it was perfect. The students were ready. They were prepared for it. They had their filters out and they got the shot that they were wanting, which is wonderful and I could even take a shot, which is unusual. I don’t shoot a lot during a workshop, but I could step back and say,“okay I’m here if you need me, but I think you’ve got it”. They could practice it and I got my shot too.
Like you said, it is a long exposure. It was taken with a wide-angle lens and I wanted to take away the waves on the surface of the water. That’s something I do a lot. I think you’re probably getting a scene here, I like a very simple image and the surface of the water was very choppy. But the glow on the water, sort of that very subtle glow, comes from the sky and from the sun as it’s still below the horizon but rising very slowly. Capturing that was my goal so I used a very long exposure to smooth the surface of the water. I think it’s a 30 sec exposure and the challenge for that was keeping my lens dry for 30 seconds. So, I think I had to remove one water droplet, which wasn’t too bad.
Brent: So, what do you use to actually keep your lens dry? Do you have one of those microfiber cloths or do you use a t-shirt?
Varina: I have one of those microfiber cloths and about 12 more. I have a lot of them and I’m constantly using them. I like a clean lens and I like a dry lens.
Brent: Varina, talk about your Iceland shot.
Varina: Well, that one is, again I’m using a very long exposure to take that shot. It’s a photograph of an iceberg against a blue background. The iceberg itself is very blue as well. This is a shot at Jökulsárlón. That beach is really wonderful. The black sand beach, it is gorgeous. As far as you can see, there are iceberg scattered across the beach and some of them are deep blue, some of them are crystal clear; they’re just gorgeous. They’re about the size of, maybe a cow. Some of them are the size of a small car and some of them are the size of an egg. So there’s a huge variety, but they’re beautiful icebergs.
I took the shot with a long exposure to smooth surface of the waves as they came in and I wanted to capture the iceberg itself against a very subtle background. That day was very blue. That sounds strange. It was late in the evening, we had storm clouds as you can see there and the waves were blue. The black sand as the water came in, it was foaming, which is why you get the coloring in the foreground and then the reflection of the sky. And then in post-processing as well, normally I try and go with very natural colors. In this case, I actually allowed the image to go a little bit more blue than it already was. People ask me all the time, “Do you think it’s fair to do that? Is that cheating?” and I say “no, of course not. This is art. I get to do what I want”. So yeah, it’s more blue than the reality of the scene but to me it felt that it needed to be that way.
Brent: Awesome. It’s just an amazing image, Varina. You know, what I really like about this shot is the glow within the iceberg. You got the long exposure, you got the blue coming in and out, you got the waves in the background. You got the sky which is a little lighter than everything else. But there’s this luminosity inside the iceberg. It’s kind of hard for me to judge big it is, but you said it’s as big as a car or cow, did you say?
Varina: Maybe about the size of a cow. That one‘s huge. I know it’s interesting; I’ve had people tell me it looks enormous. I think because of the surreal location, I think it’s very hard to get a good read on the size there, but it works for me. I’m okay with that. I think it’s a really dreamy location – It feels like something straight out of your imagination
Brent: That’s amazing. I’ve seen some great images from Iceland recently; would you suggest that as a bucket list for place for a photographer to go to?
Varina: Absolutely. We loved Iceland so much that we’re going back again this summer. Iceland’s wonderful. The variety of locations is fantastic. These are locations that you’re not just going to find anywhere else. You know black sand beaches with icebergs, huge waterfalls that are coming out of the mountains and falling out with a mist; they’re wonderful. On top of that, you have lava rocks covered with 12 inches of moss, it’s just amazing. It’s a beautiful, beautiful country.
Brent: Do you have to go in summer, the Iceland summer?
Varina: Oh no, not necessarily. This trip that we took – the photo you’re looking at now – was taken in fall. We’ll be going back in summer. You know the light is very different there. You get light all day or it will be dark all day; be aware of that . Part of the reason why we’re going there in summer is to make the most out that longer day.
Brent: Okay. Beautiful shot. Beautiful image, Varina.
Brent: Tell us a little bit about your eBooks.
Varina: Yeah, we have a collection of 18 eBooks on everything from creating vibrant colors in the field to composition and the gestalt theories of perception. We have books about layers and masks on Photoshop and histograms; all kinds of things. We have a variety of topics.
We have a Complete Collection that we sell where people can get the entire collection of eBooks by placing a single order.
We also have smaller collections for those that are interested in just getting a look at what we do, maybe giving a gift. That’s something a lot of people do. They’ll choose our Apprentice Series, which is three eBooks or our Workflow Series, which is four eBooks. They’ll give those as a gift or purchase those for themselves. We have a huge collection of those. And of course, we also have another in the works right no;we always have another one that’s up and coming. Hopefully that will be out within a few months.
Then we also have a Webinar Series that we sell, where we teach our iHDR process. That’s something that’s impossible to teach in a series of blog posts or you know, in a few minutes sitting down with someone. This is over 9 hours of instruction and it includes sample images and notes and a few videos to help. So that’s the whole series and it’s sold in four parts so that you can purchase the parts you need or purchase them one at a time as you’re ready for them.
Jay: We also do occasional workshops, but those are once a year and if anybody is interested in private workshop, they can email us and we’ll give a price. But like I said, they tend to be fairly expensive.
In the next part we look at Jay’s favourite images and talk about more interesting photography stuff…
Please comment below, and Brent or Jay or Varina will reply.
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