Sunrise over the Atlantic Coast of Florida.
I’m back! Instead of offering excuses for my absence, I’m picking up where I left off as if nothing at all happened. The good part of a break from blogging is I have plenty of new images to post. They’ll give you an idea of where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to lately.
This little series is devoted to overcoming all sorts of obstacles to getting your best shots. If you like, check out the other entries, which cover the most important challenges we all face as photographers.
An Atlas 5 rocket soars into space from Cape Canaveral, Florida
This one is hard to define. Maybe a hypothetical will help. Say you want to get close to a certain foreground element, and this involves hopping a fence onto what is most likely private property. You’re naturally afraid of being caught trespassing. And you’re certainly not going to break the law to get a picture are you?
But think about it. What are the odds of being caught? Okay, maybe they’re not nil. But I’ve been caught a few times and on each occasion I explained what I was doing and apologized. I was honest and said sometimes I get too excited about a picture, but that I meant no harm. Nothing ever happened. On a few occasions I even got into a conversation and obtained permission to shoot on the property in the future.
A quiet walk through one of Florida’s few remaining hardwood ‘hammocks’. These are islands of forest surrounded by marsh.
I’ve actually gotten into more hot water shooting from public places, when people became paranoid about me photographing them or their house. Almost always my camera is pointed in a different direction. There’s really no way to avoid this sort of thing, short of not shooting around other people (which is pretty darn limiting).
By the way, I wouldn’t use this rationale to shoot government installations or other sensitive subjects. It’s not worth the risk. Let your gut feeling about situations be a guide. But in general, err towards moving past mental discomforts just like you should shoot through physical discomforts. Don’t let any fears or other mental assumptions you’re carrying around get in the way of a great shot.
Draperies line an alcove in Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico. This is the only image here that isn’t recent; it’s from last fall.
Always eager to get my feet wet in the pursuit of a great shot, this local showed up just in time to remind me where I was.
This is really another kind of mental obstacle. For example, we’re often under the impression that we just aren’t good enough. We say to ourselves, “I’m hardly an expert at this, so why should I go to extremes? I’ll leave that to the pros” I’ve mentioned this in other posts. Decide whether you want to remain casual or pursue photography in earnest. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the former. But if it’s the latter, then don’t hold anything back. Your attitude should be ‘I can and I will get the shot’.
I enjoy the act of photographing most of all, more than any other aspect. And as much as I appreciate them, that includes getting oohs and aahs from you the viewers. I can usually shoot myself out of a bad mood and into a good one. Still, I occasionally feel too crummy to shoot. Have you felt this way too? Too impatient? Or just too “off your game” that day? Or maybe it’s a stomach ache or something else physical?
I’m stubborn and try to move through these things by continuing to shoot. But there’s a point for all of us where the best thing to do is pack up and try another day. If your attitude is not improving as you shoot, you won’t get your best shots.
Beautiful (and car-less) Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia is a throwback to the old South, its good and its bad. This is a slave cabin made of compacted sea-shells and mud, on an old plantation.
Live oak dripping with Spanish moss: Cumberland Island, Georgia.
But before quitting, try this: put the camera aside and just appreciate the scene before you without shooting it. Tough to do in great light, but I think you’ll get even more out of this sort of pause if you watch awesome light come and go. We train ourselves to jump all over great light. So it’s nice to get out of this comfort zone once in awhile, chill out and just watch the show. This works with people too. Just call a break and hang out with them. Have a few laughs. Your pictures will be better after a bit of fun and relaxation.
Thanks a bunch for reading and have an awesome weekend!
Sunset at Missouri’s Bollinger Mill & covered bridge, which both predate the Civil War, was my plan. But Mother Nature had something else in mind. A violent thunderstorm was moments away here.
This continues the mini-series on overcoming obstacles to great photography. This Friday we look at two inter-related and very important obstacles: shooting position and physical barriers.
Being Too Far Away
“If you’re pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” is one of photography’s most basic truisms. To illustrate, I’d like to share a little story. At the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, I had always wanted a good shot of the horses who hang out along the east side of the Snake River (visible from Hwy. 89 north of Jackson). The image below was the best I had gotten before my visit last September.
I spent one morning shooting along Hwy. 89. I didn’t visit the horses until well past sunrise, but the light was still interesting because of storm clouds. And because the sun was still low and behind me, I knew there was a chance for a bonus: a rainbow! There were a few other photographers coming and going. We were shooting the mountains plus some buffalo who were near the road. A fence lay between us and the fairly distant horses.
I was itching to get closer to the subject, so I slipped under the fence. I knew this was park property and that the horses turned out on it were used to take tourists on rides. Realize that the horse’s owners or handlers would probably not have not liked it to see a tourist next to their horses. So don’t take it as an invitation to follow this specific example.
Walking slowly up to the horses, I murmured soothing words and scratched them, just to say hello and allow them to get comfortable with me. Having owned horses I know how to avoid disturbing them. I had only taken a couple pictures when the rainbow happened. I clicked happily away. I used a fairly wide angle so everything was in focus while using a faster shutter (to keep the grazing horses from blurring and to shoot hand-held).
When the rainbow faded, I walked back to the road. There were quite a few more photographers because the rainbow made them pull off the highway. They were shooting with longer focal lengths and not getting the best shot. They were much too far away, and also they weren’t really ready when the rainbow happened. They let two important obstacles get between them and a great shot.
Not being too shy about getting up close and personal with a subject is the surest way to get great photos.
The fence in the story above is an example of a physical obstacle. In that case it was a pretty simple one to hop over, so what held the other photographers back was either laziness or more likely mistaking the purpose of the fence (it was for keeping horses off the road, not to signal it was private property). Sometimes the obstacles are a little bigger than this, but rarely are they insurmountable.
Is the best shot of that sunset from the shoreline or partway into the lake? Is the best shot of the waterfall from the near side or do you need to wade the stream to get closer? Do you need to get up higher for the right point of view? At Boudhanath Stupa in Nepal, I needed to get off ground level, and that meant asking around until finally, just before sunset, I found a place where I could buy a cup of tea that came with a good view.
The great stupa at Boudhanath, near Kathmandu, Nepal.
See the pattern? It’s actually about point of view and working the subject (a recent Friday Foto Talk). But to get there you need to get past obstacles regarding position and physical barriers. How about climbing that hill for a better point of view and composition? I’ve often been tempted to climb trees, but (alas) I’m not the limber guy I once was; it’s just too dangerous.
But so often it’s not danger that holds us back but the fear of a little discomfort, or of being seen doing something slightly ridiculous. The key is to not fool yourself one way or the other. Know your limits but don’t sell yourself short either!
Thanks a bunch for reading and don’t forget to add your ideas or ask questions in the comments. Have a very happy weekend!
I was able to see and shoot this fiery sunset in Kuala Lumpur only because I found a way on to the roof of my hotel.
Lake Malawi, Africa
This is an occasional series on my blog where two pictures tell one story. The images are from a trip to southern Africa a few years ago. Malawi is an amazing country. You can’t drive to this small village above Lake Malawi, and it’s a long steep walk to Livingstonia. Everyone was very friendly.
Halfway up, passing through a small village, I met a woman who offered to guide me to a local waterfall: so beautiful and refreshing! After that, we passed another woman pounding casava into flour in a giant wooden mortar and pestle. I tried and boy was it strenuous!
She was embarrassed at first to be the subject of my pictures. She was actually afraid I would take them back home where she would be ridiculed for her poor way of life and for being similar to a monkey! I couldn’t believe what my guide was translating to me.
My guide and I assured her none of the people I showed the pictures to would ever dream of making fun of her. I said both she and her village were beautiful and very impressive to me and everyone else back home. I asked to use the mortar and had her take pictures of me goofing off, trying to be funny. It didn’t take long for her to warm up to me (she’s the one seated).
With travel, not only are your own preconceptions about other cultures shattered, you get to correct what others think about your own culture as well!
Two local women crack up while preparing casava in a small village above Lake Malawi.
The Palouse, Washington
It’s been ages since I’ve done a challenge theme. And Ailsa comes up with some great travel themes on her blog Where’s My Backpack?. Energy can be neither created or destroyed, says the physicist. But the ways in which it is transported and concentrated have always fascinated me.
Fossil fuel energy: Mist gas field, Oregon
Hydro: Glen Canyon Dam, Arizona
Moving energy: Page, Arizona
Also it’s interesting to think about what humans could do if we had an endless supply of intense energy and were advanced enough to use it only for peaceful and constructive purposes. For example if in the future we could harvest the power in a supernova or a quasar. Would we need to live and work near one? Could we then transcend time and space? All cool things to think about.
Wind energy: Texas Panhandle
Small-scale wind energy: Oklahoma
Geothermal: Energy from within the earth.
Sunrise over the Olympic Mtns., Washington state.
Good photography is all about overcoming obstacles. And not just those easy ones like how to afford a good camera, or which tripod to buy. It’s about tackling problems both internal and external, those you create yourself along with the ones that are present whether you decide to photograph or not.
Light is one of photography’s most important variables. Light is so important I can only write about it with the expectation that I’ll be leaving a lot out and of necessity coming back to the topic in future posts. I’ll also be discussing a thing of beauty (top image), which is never smart (and which I never claimed to be)
Obstacles related to light are many. There is, for example, the struggle to get your butt out of bed at zero dark thirty to catch great morning light, a seemingly insurmountable obstacle at times. This post will concentrate on finding the right sort of natural light for landscape and nature subjects. It’s all about making compromises.
Night light: It’s rare for me to post a sky-only image, and if the setting moon hadn’t been playing an intriguing game of peekaboo with low clouds over the mountains, I would not have shot it.
Finding the Right Light
In natural light, this usually means shooting in the golden hours (or at least with a low sun). However, it’s not a good idea to be rigid about light. Sometimes you want bright overcast, other times rainy and overcast, and still others dark, stormy skies. Sometimes (not often) you even want mid-afternoon light. And don’t forget about the night (image above), where the light of stars, moon and various ambient sources both natural and human can give you the right look for certain subjects.
How does one know what light works best for a given subject? My advice for this topic more than any other in photography, is to not look to be taught by others. Instead, shoot relentlessly and experiment continually. Become an observant “student of light” and you’ll eventually attain a genuine feel for what light to shoot a given subject in. After all, you learn the most about light when you use only light as a teacher; you don’t need anyone else, no matter how much expertise they have.
It also takes perseverance to shoot in ideal light. That’s because, even though you do everything else right, Mother Nature will simply chuckle and at the last minute throw you a curve. Clouds move in, or clear out. Light with deep contrast becomes flat for no discernible reason. Don’t despair; return another day and try again. The important thing is to take the time to shoot things in the right light, even if that means repeatedly missing dinner or dragging yourself out of bed before dawn.
Excellent light falls on mossy pilings at sunset along the lower Columbia River in Oregon.
LIGHT & COMPROMISE AT YELLOWSTONE
Shooting Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park represents a somewhat unconventional example. The thermal pools generally don’t show their characteristically deep blues at sunrise or sunset. They are at their most colorful with a higher sun angle. But light on the landscape around the pool is better with a lower sun, so an obstacle related to light pops up if you’re trying to capture Grand Prismatic at its bluest.
During one visit, I wanted to capture the spring in just this way. I wanted to feature the sapphire color of the mineral-rich water. I wanted to include a bit of the surroundings to avoid a totally abstract look and lend a sense of place. Also, as usual, I wanted a composition that differed from the others I had seen, my own unique take on it.
It was obvious that I needed to compromise on the time of day. By shooting later in the afternoon, I’d risk losing the blue color. But risks are necessary in photography, especially when dealing with natural light. The hill sitting just west of Grand Prismatic provided an opportunity. I thought if I got up higher and had the sun at my back, I might still, because of the angles involved, see that nice blue hue even with a sun that was starting to sink (and cast nice enough light on the pool’s surroundings).
I climbed the hill and, working around a lot of obstructing trees, finally got a clean composition just before the sun sank too low and the pool lost its color. The hill in the past has been a popular place to shoot this spring from. But the trees grow higher each year, blocking the view. It’s an example of not only finding the right light but also handling physical obstacles (discussed in a post to come) to get a good point of view. The lower sun provided a bonus in addition to good foreground light. It caused a long shadow to be cast behind a lone snag.
Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring an hour or so before sunset.
That’s it for this Friday. A long one, but there’s so much to say about light. I’ll end with one more thought: may you have the best of light this weekend and for all your photo ventures.
The Source: Sunset over Roatan.
Morning sun and a rare full water-pocket in Utah’s Snow Canyon State Park.
On your way to great images, you’ll need to overcome a lot of obstacles. You can instead think of it as doing the right things. But what is right and what is wrong can be a subjective thing in photography. So at the risk of appearing negative, I like to think of it as avoiding those things that keep you from capturing pictures you can be proud of.
Last Friday was all about finding the right subject, one you find interesting. But you can’t discuss subjects in photography without mentioning backgrounds. So that is what this week’s topic is.
The moon & Black Butte are a strong but supportive background to these burned trees while skiing above Santiam Pass, Oregon
FINDING SUITABLE BACKGROUNDS
If your background is in decent focus it needs to be interesting as well. It needs to support not clash with or overwhelm your subject. As long as you’re using a small aperture with good depth of field, thus emphasizing the background as much as the foreground and subject, try always to think about how the two complement each other. If they clash make sure they contrast with each other, make sure they do it in the right way.
For example, a soft and beautiful model against a gritty industrial background, while a bit cliche, is the right kind of contrast. It adds interest. Conversely, there’s not much point in shooting an interesting subject/foreground with a boring, in-focus background (or vice versa). In that case you’d want to use a large aperture and put the background out of focus.
And there are cases where you may want something in between. In the image below, the jars of miel (honey) are dominant, but the honey-sellers playing cards are in partial focus in order to give them an important but still subordinate role.
Raw miel (honey) for sale on a Mexican street.
As another example, let’s take night photography, starscapes in particular. Many people (including me) have photographed the Milky Way as background for many different subjects. I’ve gotten away from that in favor of more subtle star fields, where foreground subjects have most of the attention.
Super high ISOs are used to make the Milky Way appear very bright & detailed. For me that’s usually too much brightness & detail to work as a proper background. Of course that doesn’t stop hoards of photographers from going out and replicating images they’ve seen. I still shoot the galaxy occasionally. But I usually strive to make it appear much as it does to the naked eye, in order to work as a good supporting background.
Orion the Hunter plus Jupiter highlight the background at Turret Arch, Arches N.P., Utah
This is an old film shot of Mt. Drum in Alaska. The Copper River, famous for its salmon runs, sparkles in the foreground. Drum is a large volcano, part of the Wrangell Mountains in the south-central part of the state. The mountain and surrounding area are protected within Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park, which at over 20,000 square miles is the largest national park in the United States.
Although it rises just over 12,000 feet above sea-level, hardly a great height for these parts, Drum stands up in dramatic fashion. It rises 11,000 feet above the Copper River in about 25 miles, and the spectacular south face rises 6000 feet over the Nadina Glacier.
It is quite a young volcano, the youngest in the Wrangells in fact. It last erupted just 250,000 years ago when a large part of the summit collapsed and a huge avalanche cascaded down the south face, covering some 80 square miles (200 sq km) of terrain.
Although it is not technically very difficult to climb, it involves a fairly major expeditionary effort because of the remoteness and the amount of glaciation and snowfall. It was first climbed in 1954 by Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer. It wasn’t climbed again until 1968.
This was shot years ago, as a young man driving through God’s country on a beautifully crisp autumn afternoon. It was mid-September. I recall that evening camping on a pass and, while freezing my butt off, seeing the northern lights. It was the only time I actually heard them, and they were also the brightest and most spectacular I’ve seen so far. Unfortunately I didn’t think it possible to capture them on film. Reason enough to return for a road-trip!
Mount Drum and the Copper River, Alaska