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Category Archives: Intimate Landscape

The world lost a revolutionary thinker yesterday.  Many of us are sufficiently fortunate that our actions, intentional or otherwise, will positively affect some small number of individuals over the years.  It is as if one acts as the locus from which ripples emanate across an otherwise fairly placid pond.  There are those few others, however, who create a wonderful maelstrom of change with waves that travel far and wide and change the very structure of the landscape.

Yesterday, I had the good fortune to be outside during a torrential rain.  This good fortune was compounded with the fact that I was standing there with two of my best friends.  Many people eschew inclement weather, but nature photographers know there is magic to be found in such moments of “bad” weather.  No, “magic” is not the appropriate term.  Inclement weather can help one to experience almost viscerally a deeper connection to the natural world around him.

One of the beauties of looking through the lens is that it can quite literally help one to focus on what visually matters in the surrounding environment.  For example, the leafy hanging branch in the photograph below provides a nice juxtaposition against the lake in the background.  The rainstorm that surrounds it all provides further detail and movement.

Even the most mundane of scenes can possess visual import, especially during times of dynamic weather.  The photograph below is one such example.  Heavy rain on pavement is about as simple an image as can be, yet there is a charge to splashing of the raindrops and their resultant little splashes.

Yet, it is sometimes in that ephemerally fleeting moment as the weather just begins to clear that the most sublime of photographs can be made.  These are those little moments I often treasure as a photographer.



I think there are numerous factors typically prerequisite to successful nature photography.  I never regret having previsualized my imagery before I arrive at a destination, nor do I ever wish I had decided not to bring along the tripod while traveling.  Nonetheless, as I have mentioned previously, perhaps the most important rule for the nature photographer is to simply make the shot.  The photograph below is a case in point.  What proved to be a rather serious spring storm recently rolled over my town.  I had been watching the sky all day for potential shots, and readied the camera as the sky began to change to green and then orange.  I was home alone watching my two young daughters; there was no real opportunity to set up the tripod and position myself outside in the ready.  Instead, when the light seemed right, I went outside with camera in hand and some basic previsualizations in mind.  I made many shots in the ensuing five minutes as the sky swiftly changed.  Had I not been willing to sacrifice image quality and shot hand-held at high-ISO, I would have returned indoors with nothing more than better wishes for next time.  Instead, I made the shot I previsualized in the moment before I tripped the shutter.

I have been seriously interested in nature photography for the past 8.5 years, during which time I have vociferously read about the art and science.  At some recent point along the way, I began to realize that I had actually become a competent photographer.  Yet, I still found myself wondering about the “secrets” of great nature photography.  How is it that I have never come across a list of “secret” skills or tricks to always make perfect shots?  I think a tripartite answer exists.  First, most accomplished nature photographers admit quite readily that there are no “secrets.”  Second, myriad inputs affect every shot when the trigger is tripped, to include personal, environmental, technological, and other factors.  Third, there are no “secrets” because competent nature photographers know them and have internalized them.

Practice, practice, practice.  Plan, plan, plan.  And pay attention.

On a recent trip to San Diego, I had planned to shoot the downtown at sunset from the top of a parking garage with a long lens.  I had checked the ephemeris for sunset time, noted the angle from which sunlight would illuminate the buildings, and arrived early so as to find an optimal spot and set up my equipment.  This did result in what I think are a number of fairly good shots of the downtown.  However, perhaps one of my favorite shots resulted from being in the right place, at the right time, and turning around.  In other words, even with practice and planning under my belt, I paid attention to the changing light upon the landscape and approached the world around me with gratitude and a finger on the trigger.

A good friend recently brought to my attention a rumor of a 16.7MP Canon body on the way to market.  What impresses me about this potential development is that the camera is stated to be full-frame.  As any regular reader of this blog has likely noticed, I tend to think a lot about matters related to image quality; I am especially intrigued by diffraction (see here and especially here for my previous relevant comments).  Diffraction seems to be a big deal these days among photographers, especially among nature photographers intent on squeezing the last once of image quality for large prints out of their small sensors.

Yet, among the numerous books I have read over the years by such luminaries as Rowell, Shaw, and Adams, I do not recall any major diatribe regarding the evils of diffraction on image quality beyond more than a side-note.  I suspect this relative absence of concern is an artifact of the difference between digital sensors and their emulsion-based predecessors.

Film emulsions based on silver halide technology featured individual light-sensitive grains in the submicron range.  Even the dye clouds around the individual grains manifested at this extremely small scale.  Contrary to the pixels of current digital camera sensors, which range from 5 micros to more than 100 microns and are separated by quite discreet boundaries susceptible to the effects of diffraction, the silver halide crystals of film benefitted from their minute size and essentially random orientation throughout the emulsion.  The result was that the effects of diffraction, which physics assures us were certainly present, were largely washed out across the subatomic interstices of the emulsion.

The difference is further complicated by the fact that the typical digital camera sensor relies upon a Bayer array to replicate via interpolation the eye’s response pattern to visual light.  Film provided three separate color-responsive layers in the emulsion.  What so intrigues me about the Sigma’s Foveon sensor is that it offers a digital analogue to this aspect of film.  Nonetheless, the Foveon sensor is still limited by the size of its pixels.

Perhaps the most intriguing possibility of relevance on the horizon is the advent of quantum dot technology.  Its application to photography has the potential to surpass the grain limit of silver halide crystals while obviating the need for a Bayer array.  Such arrays of nanocrystals might be the next major evolution to photography since the rise of the first CCD and CMOS sensors.

It should be an interesting next few years.  In the meantime, I shall continue to look toward the horizon while remaining quite satisfied with the tools already at hand.

A recent evening reminded me of the importance of being able to adapt and apply a photographic vision beyond one’s regular subject matter.  A couple weeks ago, I had the good fortune to spend time on a farm with a lovely group of people.  I naturally brought my camera, but quickly discovered that the landscape before me did not readily mesh with my more typical previsualizations.  I was thus forced to think differently about what stood before me.  The resultant lesson I internalized that evening?  Light is light, no matter where is shines.

My good friend Brian Kolstad just posted some comments on what I suspect is a common but little-discussed phenomenon among photographers.  Modern lens technology provides myriad options in a zoom factor.  Historically, a photographer opted for some number of prime lenses that provided her with the desired angles of view to complement her artistic vision.  For example, a nature photographer might carry in his bag a 24mm, 50mm, and perhaps some variant of the ubiquitous 70-200mm.  Zoom lenses were understood to have particular value in the telephoto range because of the much smaller change in angle of view per millimeter of zoom than would be seen at wide angles.

Photographers are now able to purchase zooms in almost any range.  I think what Brian writes is correct.  There is a tendency to unintentionally treat many zoom lenses as bifocal primes.  In other words, a 70-200mm lens may often be used as a 70mm lens and 200mm lens, but with little us of the intermediate angles of view.  I am as guilty of this as anyone, typically shooting my 70-300mm lens at 300mm and almost exclusively for closeup work.  I am attempting to correct this reliance on the extremes.

The photograph below is an example of shooting in the middle.  While hiking in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, I came upon these natural bonsai trees growing from the rocks.  There was little ability for me to move off of the trail, so I relied on the ability of a zoom lens to accommodate my position.  I shot this photograph at 25mm with an 18-55mm lens.

I am not a fan of zoom lenses.  So, why are all of my current lenses zooms?

There is little doubt that major progress has been made in the past decade regarding zoom lens design.  Perhaps the most common example of such progress is the availability of an increasing array of all-in-one zooms that incorporate wide-angle, normal, and telephoto focal lengths into a single lens barrel.  Some of these lenses are parfocal, and many feature low-dispersion, high-dispersion, or aspherical elements that noticeably improve image quality.  If one is willing to spend the requisite money, the sky is nearly the limit when it comes to high-end, exceptionally fast zooms.

Another reason zooms ostensibly have become so popular is the preponderance of digital SLRs with crop sensors.  For example, my preference is to shoot most of my work at a 35mm-equivalent of 24mm.  On my SLR with a 1.6x APS-C sensor, I need to shoot at 15mm to achieve the desired angle of view.  Whereas a 15mm rectilinear lens is typically a very expensive piece of equipment, current technology allows for the production of ultra-wide-angle zoom lenses at fairly reasonable cost to the photographer.  Hence, although I would prefer to shoot entirely with primes, I shoot with zooms.

I understand the common argument that limiting oneself to primes is akin to a painter limiting himself to a single paint brush.  The analogy is a poor one, but the point is clear.  Why prohibit oneself from a broader range of options?  My personal response is that shooting with primes feels right for me.  As much as I admire the technology behind zoom lenses, I find myself spending more time working on a potential image when I do not have to fiddle with a zoom ring.  There is nothing logical about this stance.  It is simply a matter of personal preference.  Indeed, I am debating taping the zoom barrel of my 11-18mm lens at 15mm.

I shot the image below at 43mm.  This focal length provided what I thought at the time to be the ideal angle of view given the limitations of available perspectives.  Obviously, zooms have their advantages.  Who would purchase a 43mm lens?

One of the best ways I have found to improve my photography is through online research.  I do not mean to suggest that anything can replace the central importance of spending time behind the lens, but instead that times between photographic outings can be ones of cognitive fecundity.  There is no doubt that Wikipedia provides the nature photographer with a wonderful range of information.  However, I have derived major utility and enjoyment from reading a number of other websites dedicated to photography:

1.  The Cambridge in Colour Digital Photography Tutorials provide a wealth of detailed, yet highly accessible, articles on topics ranging from metering and exposure to digital sensor technology and how to read an MTF graph.  The site also features a number of useful calculators (e.g., diffraction limits, hyperfocal distance, effects of crop sensors on focal length).  It is also worth noting that the site offers a growing list of tutorials on photography techniques.

2.  Digital Photography Review provides regular updates on all things photographic.  More importantly, the lens and camera reviews are second to none.

3.  Photozone also provides reviews on a wide range of cameras and lenses.  My experience is that the pages often require a click of the “reload” button to load properly, but aside from this peculiarity the reviews are quite informative.

4.  As a Canon shooter, I make it a point to daily check Canon Rumors.  The site is authored in a surprisingly humble manner.

5.  The LensWork Technology Blog is a relatively new resource.  Written by the editor of the eponymous magazine, the blog provides what might be described as a more mature and artistic perspective on the technologies and toys often relevant to photographers.

As I said above, the ultimate classroom for the photographer is in the field.  However, any worthwhile class requires significant reading.

As the snow continues to fall while the temperatures float sufficiently near freezing to taunt the sensibilities with the possibility of warmer days, I find myself beginning to look forward to the colors, scents, and warmth of spring.