Thursday, November 29, 2007

Best Laid Plans, Meet Annie Leibovitz

I took the day off of work on Tuesday and went down to the Bamberger Ranch to shoot some fall panoramas. Arriving in the wee hours of the morning (the drive is a lot less of a hassle on empty roads), I slept away the remainder of a near-freezing night in the back of my pickup, regained consciousness at noon, had lunch with Margaret Bamberger, then set out to re-shoot my "Jacob's Ladder no. 1" panorama, roughly one year later. I thought it'd be interesting to compare the scene in drought conditions (as seen in the existing pano), and in the aftermath of this year's wet winter, spring and summer. I also thought I'd shoot some more panoramas on the creek that feeds the Jacob's Ladder tank; there'd been a good, solid (and much-needed) rain a day or two before, so the creek should have had a nice flow, and, with luck, the bald cypresses and grasses would be at the height of their fall colors.

However, things didn't work out as I expected. It turned-out that there was another photographer with permission to be on the ranch that day, and they'd already claimed the full-length of the road leading to Jacob's Ladder, and even the trail-head that leads to it from far upstream. And they'd laid claim in a big way: catering trucks, motorcycles, support vehicles, loads of staff, etc. Turns out that Annie Leibovitz, of all people, was on the ranch to shoot—if the third-hand information I received was correct—the Paul Mitchell heirs.

I commend her on the choice of locations, but ...well... damn.

That meant quickly coming-up with a plan "B" and "C" for my day's shooting. The trees were no help at all; the fall-colors were minimal and spotty. According to Margaret, most of the trees went more-or-less directly from green to brown this year, skipping the "fall color" phase almost completely. Speculation is that the wet winter, spring and summer conspired with the dry fall to throw-off the trees in a big way.

What fall color there was, lay in the grasses, which were a beautiful mix of reds, oranges and golds. I'd been wanting to capture the fall grasses, anyway, so the Liebovitz/tree conspiracy wasn't a complete show-stopper. I re-shot some of my early work around Madrone Lake (plan "B"), then, taking advantage of a temporary ceasefire that had been negotiated with the season's hunters for Liebovitz's visit, I hiked up into a valley of High Lonesome that I'd had my eye on for years (plan "C") where I shot a sequence of panos as sunset approached.

“High Lonesome Sunset” ©2007 Chris W. Johnson

The big problem with trying to shoot high-dynamic-range panoramas of grasses (and a lot of other things, for that matter) is the wind. Even shooting with a 10mm lens, as I do, eighteen photos are required to capture each scene (three separate exposures for each of the six segments of a 360 degree pano), so a pano can be ruined by the movement of a single prominent stalk of grass in any one of those eighteen images. Needless to say, that means waiting long and hard for the local air to come to a complete stop, and, due to the scarcity of such moments, doing without second takes. Pieces of the panos look promising (see above), but there's no telling whether any of them were shot when their scenes were still enough, long enough, for them to assemble cleanly. I'll have to assemble them to find out, and that's going to take a lot of work.

If the panos don't assemble well enough to be usable, the silver lining will be that I can truthfully say that Annie Liebovitz ruined one of my shoots, which should do a wonderful job of conveying the mis-impression that I move in elite photographic circles, when I really move in a tiny, second-hand pickup truck.

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