Rafael Rojas Photography

Blog of Rafael Rojas Fine Art Photography

Use your DSRL as if it was a LF camera


Nowadays, we photographers are living exciting times. Newer and flashier cameras come everyday, with new technologies that seem to supplant bit by bit the role of the photographer: autofocus, auto-exposition, auto-white balance, bracketing, and bigger sensors stuffed with millions of pixels make the "life" of the photographer easier...Or not? Well, it depends. Cameras are just tools, and as the tools become so intelligent, so "self-sufficient", the risk of thinking (wrongly) that we can now leave the technical tasks to the camera alone becomes bigger and bigger. In these days, when thousands of people rave and spend their time in all kind of fora and internet communities discussing (even arguing) about the need of that X lens, or that new D8x camera still to be released, it is really important not to loose in mind the reality of photography. Photography needs tools, for sure...and these tools might change in time, but the technique which they are supposed to serve remains the same. And what is more important, that technique is only a means to an end, no the end itself. Technique should be put at the service of photographic vision, personal style, composition, visual design, a good understanding of light, clear knowledge and a strong emotional link with the subject...All these elements are what really will make a good photograph, a photographic work which will carry an emotional load, an image which will stirr the soul of the viewer. All these are elements which, fortunately, will never be automatized by any tool of any kind.

I really like the exercise of using two completely different cameras in my normal photographic work. One is the most advanced DSRL today, the Nikon D3x...the other is something which might not even be called "camera" in today's world... but just a "black-box-with-some-glass-in-front-and-a-piece-of-film-behind", a panoramic beast 617 camera with not a single wire or battery in it. These tools I use are as far from each other as they could be, however the process I follow when I use them is exactly the same. In a way, even when I using the full of bells and whistles Nikon camera, I like to think in the same way the late Galen Rowell did: "when using my DSRL camera, I always like to think I am using a complicated and cumbersome Large Format camera".

Maybe the need is not there, because a digital DSRL can give automatic focus, automatic exposure, instantaneous feedback in your LCD screen, automatic histograms...however, me too I like to think when I am using the nikon camera that I am using the other panoramic body. I like to use the handheld spotmeter to measure all parts of the scene and calculate the exposure in a very precise way, I like to compose my image after wandering around and trying to change perspective instead of zooming in and out, I like to set up my camera on the tripod and make minute changes of framing, observing that every single thing in the viewfinder contributes for a better image carrying a stronger message and feeling. I like to take my time and wait till the light I previsualized materializes...and not the other way around. In a way, I like to forget I could just take some dozens of images and run away, with the impression that I will have food enough for my hard disks when I arrive home...

This image I present today was taken following this same approach I tend to use for all of my photographic work. I had "discovered" this place in central Switzerland (near Grimselpass) a long time ago on the maps, foreseeing a good potential for some atmospheric images with a strong graphical composition. As soon as I arrived to the place, I realized the potential was really there. Glaciation processes have carved steep cliffs in the grimsel granit rock, where the lake Grimsel keeps the waters from the (unfortunately) melting glaciers. Lichers adorn the rock at the point the whole slope gets a green and almost fluorescent look. In photographic terms, the place is really a graphical bomb. Those beautiful rocks full with colourful lichens, the lake below creating a strong diagonal leading to the distant peaks, the steep valley and its strong diagonals framing the whole and the orientation of the valley where the sun sets below the mountains are really great ingredients to create an image showing the real meaning of this part of the Alps.

We spent a couple of days scouting the area, up and down, looking for a strong composition. As soon as I found this place I knew the search was over. That massive boulder, completely covered by lichens, stayed on the verge of the cliff, pointing towards the distant mountains. Just around it, several diagonals would add dynamism and energy to an equally energetic and dramatic setting. The atmospheric weather with clouds hovering above the valley would give striking backlighting effects when the sun would set, making it possible to match a dramatic lighting to a dramatic subject. All this would enable to photograph the very quintessence of this place.  Now it was just a matter of composing very carefully the image and wait for the suitable light to match the land and the message.

I took my time, set the tripod, put the camera on it, and adjusted the composition a second time. I set the boulder it in the very foreground, making it stick out over the lake to reinforce the sense of depth and create a dynamic shape in the water. I previsualized a shorter frame, 4x5 ratio, more suited to the scene I had in front of me. Once I made sure the composition was the way I wanted,  I waited for the light. An hour later, the sun sank below the horizon, painting with subtle warm hues the atmospheric and dramatic clouds which clinged to the peaks. Light reflected from the clouds above filled in the shadows of the foreground rock with soft light, revealing the details and colour of the rock. I set a couple of grad filters to compress the dynamic range of the scene, and took the image. After a couple of days working in the field, the previsualized and looked after image had been taken.

Days later, I downloaded the image and took a look at 100%. To my amazement, in the bottom left corner of the image I saw a guest who had arrived just in time for the photo. A chamois, outlined against the water lake, perched over a rock some hundreds of meters below...

Thanks for reading, and great light to you all

PD, click on the image to see it bigger!