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
Late afternoon light on the Guadalupe Mountains, west Texas.
Obstacles crop up as often in photography as they do life in general. It’s tempting to think only in terms of technical problems (exposure, focus, etc.), and it’s true that techniques of photography can take up a lot of your thought and effort.
But I’m not covering these sorts of obstacles for a simple reason. Shooting a lot (see Part I) will allow you to handle those things easily enough. This series of posts is about the bigger obstacles, those that stand in the way of becoming a very good (or even great) photographer.
Finding Good Subjects
As Joe McNally, the famed National Geographic photographer said, “If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff”. With photography, putting yourself in front of interesting subjects is the pathway to success.
Of course what one person finds interesting others may not. But it is true that some subjects photograph much better than others do. For example, put a human in any picture and you automatically connect with people (funny how that works). Do me a favor though, resist the urge to picture someone with tripod and camera in front of a sunset ;-).
Enjoying the last flat section of the Cooper Spur route, north side of Mt. Hood, Oregon.
Here’s one simple example of how to include interesting stuff in your photos. If you’re going on safari (anywhere not just Africa), why not try to time it for just after most of the animals bear their young? Nothing is cuter than a baby animal of course. But more importantly, the presence of youngsters means a better chance to photograph interesting behavior.
A young zebra glances back at me as his mom uses her tail to brush flies away, Hwange N.P., Zimbabwe
SUBJECTS AND YOU
While the above considerations factor into making good images, ultimately it’s really about your relationship with the subject. In order to get great pictures, it’s best to be into your subjects, to like (or better, love) them. If you like them enough you’ll spend more time with them and learn lots of interesting stuff about them. As a result, your photos will come out better.
It’s true that what will make you an accomplished photographer is an ability to shoot anything well. After all, why not be up for shooting any subject? Approach it with respect and an open mind. But don’t get in the habit of settling for easy-access subjects when you really want to shoot something else. By the way, don’t think your desired subject has to be in a distant exotic locale. It just has to be what you’re fascinated by. And you’ll overcome any obstacle to access and photograph it.
As an example, a subject like the high forested Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge, shown below, for a time became a personal quest to shoot in just the right light and weather conditions. This particular image is of Mystery Ridge, one of the toughest off-trail scrambles in the Gorge. After hiking it (can you call that hiking?), I wanted badly to photograph it in classic mist-shrouded conditions.
Mystery Ridge, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon
Here’s another example: I had always wanted to visit and photograph Carlsbad Caverns. But its out of the way location had been putting me off. Recently, after coming across some smaller caves in Arkansas, my urge to go was stoked again. So I made the drive to New Mexico and was so glad I did.
The great thing about going somewhere out of the way is that you so often discover other places you never realized existed. It makes the trip that much more worthwhile. Just south of Carlsbad lies the Guadalupe Mountains (image at top). What a nice bonus they were!
Carlsbad Caverns N.P. above-ground.
It’s a fantasy-land below ground.
No sunset this time, don’t want to be too predictable! Thanks so much for reading. Stay tuned for more of this series next Friday. Have a wonderful weekend.
Making great images is harder than most people think. It takes real effort to come up with shots that are relatively original, tell a story or elicit emotion, and are sensitive to subject. And to do that with any degree of consistency is a tall task indeed.
Technical mastery, though at times frustrating to learn, is staightforward in comparison. By and large, good photography is about not settling for the easy way. You need to overcome a variety of obstacles on your way to great pictures, and that’s what this series of posts is all about. As with life in general, obstacles in photography are both self-made (or internal) and imposed (external). But both kinds are treated the same. They’re all just things to handle and get past.
So to start out, here’s a few of the types of obstacles that typically stand in the way of good photography:
This statue outside the Museum of the Mountain Man in Pinedale, Wyoming symbolizes this post’s topic.
Finding Time to Shoot
Shooting with enough frequency, especially when you’re on the steep part of the learning curve, is the key to reaching the point where you’re able to capture good images of a variety of subjects under different conditions. When you overcome this time obstacle, you’re better able to find solutions to problems of technique (such as too many images out of focus). That’s why I put it first.
Most of us have heard about 10,000 hours of practice being required for mastery of anything. I never like putting numbers on this sort of thing. It’s very simple: the more you practice, the better you’ll become. Do you need to shoot every day? No. But you do need to shoot more than once or twice on the weekends.
Afternoon light over the Guadalupe Mountains, TX was not forgiving for most landscapes, but when I found this old viewpoint on an abandoned road, I thought B&W would bring to mind traveling through here in the old days.
While the above obstacle is most important for learning and for technical issues, not being caught unprepared will probably have the biggest effect on the ultimate quality of your portfolio. I know, you’d think it would be more complicated than this. But being ready for the unexpected, combined with putting yourself in front of interesting things, is the most important thing to practice if you want to become a good photographer.
Being ready comes down to having a camera with you and ready to shoot at a moment’s notice. That mean when you’re walking it’s in your hands not your backpack. While driving it’s within easy reach not put away. The old saying, “The best camera is the one you have with you”, is as true today as it was 50 years ago.
Capturing this little Indian girl’s smile, near Agra, depended entirely on being ready to shoot quick. She only paused for a brief second or two before rushing away to find her mom.
It’s also important to have the camera all set up to go. How you set up the camera often depends on what you’re expecting to shoot. If you’re doing candids on the street, where a second’s hesitation means you miss the shot, you may choose program mode.
Don’t listen to those who say you need to be shooting in manual all the time. In fact, I only shoot manual mode under certain (usually difficult) lighting conditions. For landscapes I normally shoot in aperture priority mode. But then again, I’m not concerned about how I’m perceived, whether it’s the camera and lenses I’m carrying or how I use them.
Thanks for reading. Have you faced and overcome any of these obstacles? Are you struggling with a particular one? Please don’t be shy. Comment away! Have a great weekend.
Sunset the other night, and a tree that has seen its share of lightning strikes.