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Category Archives: Technique

Historically, I have not made it a point to wake early in order to shoot in the morning twilight.  My preference has typically been to remain out in the evening so that, after the potential for golden light in the evening, I can then be privy to a sky full of stars.  Nonetheless, not too long ago I was hiking in the Bay Area for an early morning walk.  The temperature hovered in the low 30s, and the sun was not to come up for awhile.  Sometimes, a day can begin very, very well.

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.

What is my photographic style?  This is a question that often arises in discussion among photographers, although it is perhaps even more common within nature photographers as they seek to better understand their own work and the motivations behind it.  It has been said that a photographer does not decide upon a style; it discovers you.  This is a topic upon which I have devoted some thought as of late.  What have I learned?

– I most enjoy nature photography when it extends my interaction with the natural environment, whether by focusing my attention, keeping my longer in the field, or showing me things I missed as I review the frames.

– I am a believer in the importance of previsualization, but have found that my passion wanes when I go out to capture shots to check off a list instead of going out to interact with the natural world and ideally returning with photographs resultant of that experience.

– I love the technology.

– As a friend and fellow photog pointed out last year, I tend to view the environment (or at least compose my shots) in a very geometric manner.

– Ultimately, my passion to observe nature with gratitude, awe, and study guides my developing style.  I do not think the awe can be ignored.

As much as I would like to dedicate significant time to shooting on a regular basis, this is not currently realistic given my familial and professional responsibilities.  What I have instead attempted to do these past months is take advantage of fleeting winter moments by having my camera at the ready.  This has primarily materialized in my developing an increased awareness of morning sky conditions.  I might not have ready access to my own proverbial Listening Point; yet, nature often provides her visual bounty if only we wait and watch.

As I continue to study and practice the art of nature photography, I find myself increasingly aware of the importance of form and color in my work.  The manner in which the various visual elements of a photograph flow across the frame.  The real colors of a real landscape or closeup, unfettered by digital manipulation or the overuse of filters.

I just read Samantha Chrysanthou’s article in the current online issue of Nature Photographers Online Magazine.  This got me thinking about some of the photographs that have really impressed me, at an almost visceral level, over the years.  Beyond being beautiful examples of composition and exposures, many of these photographs appeared so sharp (see the Cambridge in Colour tutorial for an excellent review of sharpness).  I just assumed I was partially responding to an essentially perfect focus and good glass.  After reading Chrysanthou’s article, however, I wonder if I was actually responding to the use of texture.  Photographs such as Ansel Adams’ “Moon and Half Dome” and Galen Rowell’s “Fall sunrise on the High Sierra over the Owens Valley” have such presence that one can almost feel oneself drawn into the images.  Is this at least in part because they are so textured?

This photograph of a coastal redwood is one that continues to resonate with me long after I made it.  The photograph is far from perfect.  I used an inexpensive lens at maximum zoom to make the capture.  Still, it is so full of detail, of place.

Perhaps much of what I thought was sharpness in good and great photography has actually been an attention to the detail of texture.

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.

As a landscape photographer, I spend a considerable amount of time contemplating the notion of “landscape”.  This is not to say that I think exclusively about broad views of natural foreground elements framed by scenic backgrounds of mountains and sky.  I certainly think a lot about such images, but my vision of the landscape ranges from the the very narrow to the very broad.  Specifically, I conceptualize landscapes along a continuum of perspective which can be parsed into the following categories:

1.  Macro: This category is probably the farthest stretch of my definition of “landscape”.  Nonetheless, anyone who has ever looked through a lens+tube setup knows that entire landscapes can appear at the macroscopic level.

2.  Closeup: I envision the closeup shot as the tightest of all landscapes.  Essentially, making such a photograph is a recognition that one wishes to isolate a very specific element of that landscape.  I think the challenge is to do so in such a way that represents or hints at the broader landscape with two levels of depth (i.e., foreground or background included around the focal point object), or to intentionally avoid such a result with a single level of depth.

3.  Intimate Landscape: Some of the more evocative landscapes I have shot are intimate landscapes.  These are photographs of very near natural elements (e.g., a rock and few trees selected from a broader arboreal scene).  This category of landscapes typically includes two levels of depth (i.e., foreground and background).

4.  Landscape: This is the traditional conceptualization landscape shot.  I consider landscape photographs to encompass wide views and to ideally incorporate a full three levels of depth (i.e., foreground, middle ground, and background).  I think there is something of potentially significant power captured by the successful landscape shot in which the photographer, and later the viewer, becomes immersed in the perspective of the photograph.  The question of focal point is dependent upon the goals behind making the specific shot.

5.  Starry Landscape: I essentially visualize a starry landscape as a variant of the more traditional landscape in which the background is extended into a starry night sky and the perspective is angled up toward the stars.  This approach incorporates three levels of depth (i.e., foreground, middle ground, and background), but with the eye naturally drawn the the heavens.  Without doubt, I personally find this vision of the landscape to be the most invigorating to contemplate and the most challenging to effectively execute.

Note that these specific perspectives are not dependent upon lens focal length.  One might use a wide-angle or telephoto lens to make a landscape shot in the hills of the SF Bay Area.  Either lens will provide the same perspective, but the results will obviously look and feel differently.

In the end, I constantly remind myself that all lenses are potentially landscape lenses.

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?