Canon Explorer of Light, Jennifer Wu, shares her love for photography, the way she researches for locations and her post process technique
Hey Jennifer! It’s great to catch up with you! We are excited to have you as one of the pro’s that we get to chat with for the RRS Interviews, Raw & Unedited. To kick things off and get started, will you share with us how you got started in photography?
Well, like many kids, I started taking photographs when I was young. When I was five or six years old I started backpacking with my Dad and sister. Well, it was more like walking while my dad carried everything except my water bottle, stuffed animal and blanket. Anyway, I would take photographs of a lake we camped at or of the trees around it. Then, later on in high school I took a photo class. When I went off to university I took a variety of classes from biology to ceramics. I realized that I was taking so many photography classes (I liked it so much) that I decided to major in photography. I loved it! I kept shooting and choosing photography courses, in different fields of photography. I did portraits and weddings for a while and finally found my calling in nature photography.
You were named as one of the very few elite photographers who are Canon Explorers of Light, can you tell us how that came about and being selected?
I was doing nature photography and ran into a Canon Representative in San Francisco. He said hello and I immediately recognized him. I used to buy my camera lenses, developing paper and film from him when I was at university. It was the store across the street from where I lived. I told him that I just got back from Hawaii and had a blast taking some night pictures. I sent him some of them to see. He asked if he could pass them on. I was thinking that he was going to show them to his mother. Then I received a call from Canon saying that they saw my images of the Milky Way and asked if I could get a photograph of the Milky Way with the light painted trees, just for them. I was so excited. This was in 2008 and I had been shooting night photography for a couple of years. Creating something different made me stand out from other nature photographers at the time. It wasn’t until later that digital night sky photography became popular. After that I did a seminar and workshop on shooting the night sky. I didn’t know it at the time but I was recommended by a Canon Representative to be an Explorer of Light. I then received a call from Canon asking to set up a conference call with some people with important sounding titles. I had no idea why they were calling. They called and asked if I would like to join the Explorer of Light Program. I screamed, I was so excited. They said, we will take that as a yes then!
We are seeing more and more females emerging as landscape/nature photographers as of late, but you have been doing this since 1992. Tell us about the early days being a female in the field.
I really didn’t give a second thought about being a female in the field of nature photograph when I started. While there were not that many women landscape photographers, there were some. When I was doing art shows many years ago I would see Anne Xu at the same shows with stunning landscapes of China and Dianne Poinski as well with her serene hand painted scenes. Plus, there are women nature photographers, like Elizabeth Carmel and Linde Waidhofer that are doing incredibly well in the field.
I really don’t know why there were fewer women doing nature photography. Now I see even more women, young women too like Gabby Salazar, doing nature photography and I like that. Many women have asked me about safety since I often go shooting by myself, for both day and night. I usually say that I have a big metal and I can use it as a big metal bat. You can go with someone for safety and invite a friend, family member or find someone in a local meet up group or photo club to go photographing with. It is fun to have company.
I changed from portraits to nature photography in 2000 and didn’t really consider it a possibility as a way of earning a living, but I should have. If you are a man or a woman, you can get out there, be in nature and enjoy doing nature photography.
If we were able to get our hands on your camera bag, what would we find in there?
I am going out to shoot landscapes next so my landscape gear is in the bag. Different things for different shoots, of course. I use the 200-400mm for wildlife but for landscapes, my staples right now are the 16-35mm f/4, 24-70mm f/2.8 and 100-400mm f/4-5.6 or 70-300 f/4-5.6. Then I have a wide range of focal lengths. I usually bring another wide-angle lens such as 11-24mm f/4, 17mmTS f/4 or for stars 24mm f/4 is my favorite. I will bring the Canon 5DS R for landscapes and the Canon 5D Mk III for night photography.
For accessories, my favorite is the Peak 4x loupe to be able to see the image on the LCD screen in bright light and for focusing or other detailed image review. You will find polarizers, graduated and solid neutral density filters too. Plus, a rain jacket for the camera, water proof ground cloth and chamois to wipe the lens when it gets wet.
You are clearly a fan of RRS, can you tell us about why you have chosen RRS and stuck with them?
A good friend was using RRS and recommended their ballhead after seeing me struggling. That was my first introduction to RRS and have been using their gear ever since. I had many other ballheads from well-known brands but they would either stick, slip or just not tighten all the way. I kept buying different ones and hoping the next one would be better than the last. Once I tried RRS gear, I was happy. I almost always use the BH-55, that is the largest size and I like that I can use it with a heavy telephoto lens if needed. I use it on the TVC-23 tripod. I got the taller tripod first, but being only 5’2”, that was really very tall. I thought I would use it on uneven ground for extra height but it towers over me. I called and asked if I could return it and get the shorter TVC-23 tripod and it happened, it fits me better. For lightweight tripods when hiking or traveling, I use the BH-40 and BH-25. I recommend getting an RRS L bracket for your camera base because it makes shooting from horizontal to vertical so much easier.
For making panoramas, I like using a levelling base. I have the TA-2-LC Levelling Base with Clamp but there are several types to choose from. I level out the camera using it. This way I will have a straight line in the pano and not at an angle. It is very handy and lightweight when not bringing the pano head. Another favorite of mine is the B150-B macro focusing rail. This makes shooting macro photography so much easier instead of my fighting with moving the tripod back and forth in the field shooting flowers on my belly.
Having been in the game for so long, what keeps you inspired?
I really love being outdoors and in nature. It is revitalizing. I love adventure and travel. Combining them always keeps me interested in finding the next location to go for the next fun adventure. I have always enjoyed being creative, doing any type of art growing up. Of course, photography is my favorite way to be creative. When shooting outdoors the weather doesn’t always come together. If I'm photographing a location and it doesn’t work, then I want to go back to make that wonderful image. I might go back several times until the light, weather and seasons all come together. If getting the photograph was easy, it would not be nearly as compelling to go out and photograph.
You run workshops in many different locations such as Madagascar, Namibia, Yosemite, Hawaii to name a few. Which would you say is your favorite place to instruct and teach?
What a tough question, I like them all! Off the top of my head I would say Iceland and Namibia are amazing because of the diversity and unique subjects. Namibia is so special with wildlife and landscapes. I always enjoy going to Hawaii’s Big Island as it gives me a chance to show people how to photograph along the coast with long exposures as well as night photography and rainforests. It is very rewarding for me to help others with their photography and creativity in workshops. It makes me smile when people get excited about a photograph they took in a new way for the first time!
If we could tuck ourselves in your backpack, where would we be heading next?
I am planning on going to the northern California coast. Being at the ocean is always a fun time and I like taking long exposures of the surf at twilight. It makes those really misty and mysterious type images.
What kind of research do you do before leaving for the trip?
Sometimes I just head out but often I will watch movies or study photographs of places that look interesting. My friend, Scott Stulberg, told me about looking at stock agencies to get an idea of what a place looks like before going there and I often do that. I will check out a location on Google Earth looking for mountains or lakes to find out if sunset or sunrise will be best for some light on the landscape. I like using The Photographer’s Ephemeris or PhotoPills apps for finding out the angle of the sun and moon.
Just before a trip, I will check road and weather conditions. I will check the National Parks web pages for current road conditions and announcements or call a park before going. Plus, many states have road condition phone numbers to call, such as the 511 numbers. The National Weather Service provides pretty good weather reports compared to other ones out there. www.weather.gov
Once you arrive at a new location that you have not been to before, how do you spend your time searching for compositions?
I am looking! I know that sounds obvious but I am looking to see what catches my attention. What might be the subject and the most compelling area of the scene? Looking at that, I consider how I can incorporate it into the image. I love the wide-angle landscapes so I start by looking for them. My friend whom I lead workshops with starts by looking for the telephoto landscape. Both are excellent styles and just personal preference. I start with looking for the wide-angle scenes and then go to photographing with longer focal length lenses. Often I am searching for the foreground element first. I look for rocks along a shoreline, flowers at the base of the mountain or icebergs on a lagoon. I like to line the subject up with a compelling background of mountains, trees or cliffs.
I’m a huge fan of your post processing. Your images are deeply rooted in realism but still have a very soothing and elegant touch. Can you share with us some of your post processing techniques?
Thank you, that’s nice to hear! I like to keep images looking real. In post processing I increase contrast with the white and black points as well as increase color saturation using vibrance. I try not to take it too far. I don’t care for super high contrast or high saturation and avoid overdone looking HDR. I use Lightroom or Bridge and do most of my adjustments in RAW. I only go into Photoshop if needed.
The main thing is getting the color balance to look good. If an image has a color cast it will have less contrast and will not look good. The biggest part about learning to process images is to learn to color correct the images to the color you want.