Field Experience
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, March 1999

Back in the seventies, I waited a long and stormy week on a Denali glacier to be picked up by the top bush pilot I had hired. As the clouds began to lift, two bold pilots dropped through and picked up full loads of climbers hours before Doug Geeting arrived in much better visibility. When I mentioned that I was probably going to miss my high school reunion, Doug smiled and said, "How do you tell a climber who's been sitting on the ice for days that the first pilot who lands may not be the one he wants to be flying with?"

Of those three pilots, Doug is the only one still flying Denali. His logic also applies to remote-area photography: How do you tell photographers heading off on once-in-a-lifetime journeys that the latest innovations may not be what they want to take? Using unproven gear or film on a remote journey is akin to flying into a cloud. Most of the time you come out the other side, but is that good enough?

As the old proverb goes, good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment. Being an outdoor pro and magazine columnist at the front of the line to try new products is not always an advantage. I've learned to be conservative about any changes to what's inside the basic 14-pound Modular Waist Pack that I carry onto flights to remote locations around the world. I spent more than eight months away from home in 1998 on climbing expeditions and photography for a big Fall 1999 book called The Living Planet with images by myself, Frans Lanting, and David Doubilet. Deep in the Arctic, I met a Swedish pro who wasn't taking any photos, even in the finest light, of splendid landscapes and wildlife. Her two identical camera bodies with the newest high-tech wizardry had both failed.

Only once have I had a product failure deprive me of any working camera at a critical time. In 1977, a nice man asked me to try out the camera strap he had designed. When a joint parted, my Nikon FM departed„at 32 feet per second, per second near the summit of the unclimbed Great Trango Tower. On top, I saved a small part of the day by asking one of my partners if I could run a roll of my film through his Pentax.

Had that happened at a major sporting event, I could have run over to the Nikon booth and borrowed another body. The advice in regular photo magazines is written by folks who are used to being able to take the darn thing back on the spot or to grab another body from their car or their assistant's hand. Not carrying extra gear is my key to staying light enough to get into the most exotic photo locations. In line with Doug's bush-pilot logic, I've had thirty years of success with Nikons from a company that doesn't try to land first with radical camera body innovations until they're well tested. They're more likely to be first with breakthroughs in lenses and accessories, such as the smart flash. In the sixties and seventies, using one or two basic bodies in the field with certitude that they were free from design flaws produced some of my life's best photos. Today, why shouldn't I be willing to wait for Nikon to add proven increments of technology to something as essential as a camera body?

For years I put up with a great-when-it-works Arca-Swiss B1 ballhead that locked up occasionally in transport. Despite following instructions to avoid the acknowledged problem, it seized up at the South Pole after vibrating inside a pack in the open fuselage of a C-130, causing me to lose critical telephotos of the plane taking off from the ice as I was trying to free the jammed tension and locking knob in Æ40F temperatures. I now use Kirk's improved BH-1 ballhead with separate knobs. I especially prefer it with big wildlife lenses, where it holds more positively at those partial settings that make for easy tracking of randomly moving subjects.

Another item I've recently switched out is the Project-a-flash fresnel lens attachment that I previously extolled for its ability to focus three stops more on-camera flash onto a telephoto subject. Because the milk-bottle-sized chunk of plastic wouldn't fit into my full waist pack, I left it behind when I most needed it. Now Visual Echoes (847-438-3587) makes a unit with the same-sized fresnel lens that instantly mounts onto plates which fit flat in the zipper flap of my pack.

Film is the item I'm most reluctant to change, but after back-to-back assignments last summer, I came to regret not having tested a new Kodak film in the development stage. When I finally brought the plain yellow boxes to the Canadian Arctic in September, tests against both Fuji Velvia and Provia knocked my socks off. Yellows and reds jumped off the light box in situations where I was used to subdued saturation through magnified haze or blue shadow. I wished that I had taken it earlier to shoot wildlife in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and Nepal.

Now released as Ektacrome E100VS (very saturated), the film's richer reds with clean neutral tones may not reproduce quite the same in these published comparisons. Also note that because our eyes respond more to the red end of the spectrum, it is easy to overlook the stronger Velvia greens. Velvia also reigns supreme for better resolution and detail in both shadows and highlights, plus more believable saturation of close, rich colors in direct light. E100VS holds a big edge in speed at ISO 125 for those, like me, who shoot Velvia at ISO 50 to hold brighter highlights in typical outdoor scenes, or at an honest ISO 100 for those who rate their Velvia at 40. In really flat light or for wildlife with long lenses, E100VS makes all six films I've now compared it with look dead in the water, especially both Kodak's and Fuji's recent multi-speed films beside E100VS push-processed to ISO 200 or 400 in soft light.

Much of what people were saying when Velvia first came out applies to E100VS today. Sometimes it looks garish, sometimes it looks great, and much of the time it will produce the image that editors will choose. E100VS often produces bright colors closer to what you believe you saw in flat light or at a distance, but if you use it all the time, you risk having the sum total of your style appear garish and suspect. In direct light this film doesn't just near the edge of the color saturation envelope; it moves beyond into a realm that requires the same sort of restraint as use of color enhancing filters.

Thus E100VS will never be the only film in my camera bag—as has sometimes been the case with Velvia in the past—but it's a great new tool I can't do without. Only time will tell whether its expanded color gamut will gain the general acceptance that Velvia has against those Paleolithic Kodachromes and Ektachromes of the eighties.

Galen’s columns are reproduced on our web site courtesy Outdoor Photographer.
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