Archive for the ‘Photo How-To’ Category
Looking south toward Mt. Jefferson from iconic Timberline Lodge, Oregon.
At the end of a winter’s day skiing, this is looking south toward Mt. Jefferson from iconic Timberline Lodge, Oregon.
This is the 3rd and final part of my little series on shooting alternate versions of the same basic subject. Check out Part I and Part II for the nuts and bolts of varying composition and other factors just enough to create alternates without completely changing the image. Today I want to discuss a very important part of alternate versions: the review. This is where a lot of novice photographers tend to become frustrated, so this post includes some basic advice designed to help you use precious review time wisely.
Last time I mentioned how it’s important at first to be aware of why you are shooting an alternate of the same subject. It could be as simple as grabbing a quick vertical. Or it could be a version that concentrates attention on one particularly strong subject by using a large aperture, thus throwing the background out of focus. Or you can change multiple things about the image, getting low and close while rotating to horizontal, zooming out a bit, and including less sky.
An old pile dike along the Columbia River in Oregon.
Review on the LCD
It’s a good idea to think about why you shot different versions when you review the images later, whether on your camera’s LCD screen or on the computer monitor. Speaking of the LCD, I see plenty of photographers checking out their photos during the shoot. That is fine if you’re checking things like focus and exposure; in other words, making sure you don’t need to re-shoot. Or if you want to get a human subject more interested in the shoot. But don’t take too much time looking at the back of the camera. Avoid the trap of getting too caught up in review when you should be concentrating on your subject and the light.
I try to review the images on my camera’s LCD very soon after shooting. I do this not only to delete images with obvious problems right away, in order to make more room on the card. But I also like doing a quick inventory of my alternate versions while the shoot is still fresh. It is easier than you think to delete images you should have kept. Unlike a computer, your camera doesn’t have a trashcan where you can recover deleted images. It’s forever!
For example, you might think you have useless repeats of the shot when you actually had in mind at the time good reasons to capture an alternate version. Maybe your reasoning was unconscious and maybe it wasn’t. But if it was, reviewing on your LCD soon after the shoot has the effect of bringing it right up to the surface of your mind. I don’t always keep alternates at this stage. Sometimes I realize my reason for the alternate was rather superficial.
Despite a significant difference in composition, the light and atmosphere are similar enough to call this vertical of the above image an alternate version.
Review on the Computer
No matter how conscious you are while out shooting, when you’re viewing and rating the different versions on the computer later, deciding which to keep, it’s helpful to note what sets each alternate version apart. The differences are often subtle but important for what you’re trying to get across in an image. Were you trying to emphasize an interesting foreground with an alternate version? Next time out will you get low and close while the light is at its best instead of doing that as an afterthought?
While it’s perfectly natural and appropriate to prefer one version over another, be careful about your judgments. For example you may prefer the vertical version of a scene you just shot in dramatic sidelight. But that doesn’t mean you should always photograph scenes like it vertically. Say you return in softer, more subtle light. The horizontal may turn out to be the better choice.
Another reason to avoid overemphasizing personal preference is the existence of considerations that have nothing to do with whether one version is better than another. A horizontal version, for example, may obviously look better because of layering or other characteristics of the scene. But what if someone loves the image and wants to frame and hang it in a place that will fit a vertical but not a horizontal? Or what if a magazine likes it but needs one that has more negative space? That’s yet another way to shoot an alternate, by the way. By zooming out and/or flipping the camera to include more blank sky, water, or other similarly plain space, you allow room for type, mastheads and the like.
The vertical of the opening image includes the weather vane atop the lodge.
Using Review to Grow
As you review more and more shoots you’ll naturally learn which kinds of images you like better for which kinds of subject and light. You might notice yourself gradually shooting slightly fewer alternate versions. But the idea behind doing alternate versions is to increase not decrease your options.
Although learning your preferences is a good thing, don’t over-generalize and end up missing opportunities. It’s important to realize that every scene and every moment’s light and mood is unique. Also unique is the message you want to get across in the image. Alternate versions can help you accomplish this most important of photography goals, but only if you do them.
The rocky coastline of the northern Baja Peninsula, Mexico.
One thing I’ve learned over time is not to force myself to judge when I’m reviewing images on the computer. Of course I do mostly prefer one shot over others, and one version of that shot over alternate versions. But when there’s no clear winner I don’t spend a lot of time forcing myself to decide. I just give the two an equal number of stars, label them both with copy names (a field in Lightroom just below the filename), and move on.
Most important is to keep an open mind. Open to other possibilities while you’re out there shooting, and open to different ways of evaluating images on the computer. As with all thoughtful post-shot review, considering your reasons for creating alternate versions can inform your next shooting session in interesting ways. It can also force you to grow as a photographer. For example you might find yourself better defining your style. Shooting and then reviewing different versions could lead you to explore a certain way of shooting in more depth. Thanks so much for reading and I hope your weekend is a fun one. Happy shooting!
For this alternate version of the above image I waited until deep dusk (which allowed a longer exposure). I also got lower and closer to the foreground rocks and relied on artificial lights from a hotel to illuminate them.
Dawn and part of a frozen waterfall in Zion National Park. 16 mm., 1.6 sec. @ f/11, ISO 100
Sometimes you have just one opportunity to get a shot. You have to whip that camera up and shoot. If you’re not ready the moment is gone. But more often there is time to capture different versions of the same subject. Since landscape photography is so applicable to this, and because I do a lot of it (I’m not alone!), I’m going to use landscape photography to illustrate ways to create alternate versions of an image.
There are several main ways to vary a landscape shot. Let’s look at those that change the composition but keep the same main elements of the scene the same.
- Format. Changing between horizontal (or landscape) and vertical (portrait) formats is the easiest way to create alternate versions of an image. Normally a vertical emphasizes the height of things like trees and mountains. It can also give a greater sense of depth. Horizontals emphasize a sense of space and can lend a serene feel to a landscape. I usually try to get both unless the picture definitely lends itself to one or the other.
- Point of View. Point of view (POV) can be changed in many ways. I did a mini-series on POV that explores this very important subject. One of the most common ways to vary POV is by changing camera height. Depending on how close the foreground is, changing height will also change the distance to that foreground, which can greatly change the look of an image.
Vertical of the image at top. I lowered POV, got closer to the foreground and thus emphasized the ice and sandstone while reducing the apparent size and importance of the background mountains and sky. 16 mm., 1.3 sec. @ f/11, ISO 100.
- Proportion of Sky vs. Land. Changing POV in turn can change this variable. It involves changing the relative amount of sky vs. land in the image, a very common thing for landscapers to do. For example, simply tilting the camera down or shortening your tripod legs takes you from an image dominated by sky to one dominated by the landscape below. The possible variants are nearly endless. For example you can change from nearly fifty-fifty to almost all land with just a sliver of sky. You could even shoot with the horizon in the middle, but that works well only in certain situations.
- Distance from Subject/Foreground. As long as you don’t exclude a main element (in which case it’s a different picture), you can change the feel by simply moving closer to or further from the closest element in the frame. Try doing this without changing any of the variables above. It’s hard to do, isn’t it?
A rainbow and a tall fir tree frame Vista House in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge. 35 mm., 0.4 sec. @ f/11, ISO 100.
As just mentioned it can be tough to change just a single variable when you’re taking multiple shots of the same thing. Of course you don’t have to limit yourself to one variable. And you shouldn’t. We’re not doing science experiments, we’re shooting pictures. But if you’re curious and want to see more clearly what the effects of changing a certain variable look like, go ahead and control the other variables. Play scientist for awhile.
Next time we’ll look at a few other variables you can change to create alternate versions of your landscape images. Thanks for reading. Have a fun weekend, one filled with laughter and plenty of pictures!
Which version do you like, this horizontal or the vertical above? By changing format & using a slightly longer focal length, the tree and top of the rainbow are cropped off. The light has also changed slightly. 50 mm., 0.5 sec. @ f/13, ISO 100.
Let’s continue the series on video. Check out the introductory post if you have a minute. My goal in this series is to convince those of you who’ve been happily capturing still photos to give video a try. If you’re already doing it, good for you! Either way, read on for some tips on composing videos and making the transition as seamless as possible. The main theme of this post is that the two share more similarities than differences. For the videos, click the title at top first, not the play button. You’ll go to my Vimeo page.
Videos: What’s the Use?
I’m a still photographer first and foremost. Even so, I’ve been capturing videos almost from the beginning. It’s not because I love video. To be perfectly honest part of it is the mere fact that video was available on my DSLR. But that’s not a good enough reason is it? I think in the very near future video will be part of every professional photographer’s portfolio. I wish I’d been more committed from the beginning, but I have to admit that it’s been an “if I’m in the mood” kind of thing. I shoot video to mix things up and have a little fun. That’s more than enough reason for you too
Here are a few ways you can use videos:
- If you are putting on a slide show, having nothing but still pictures is, let’s be honest, a little boring. Mix in some video clips, short and impactful, and you’ll have more attention given to those still photos. The point is that any presentation of still pictures is made more interesting by just a couple-three short video clips. As long as they are relevant to the general theme and not totally jumpy and bad, they can only add something.
- Telling a story. Although a series of pictures can do the same, a single video can tell the whole story more completely. A combination may be ideal.
- Capturing and creating integrated audio. This is a very important aspect of videos, one that sets them apart from still images. You can add music to a video and fade it out to the soundscape that’s native to the video. And then back to music if you want.
Getting Started: Cautions
So how to get started? Most DSLRs are very easy to switch to video mode. You simply throw a switch to go into video mode, and press a toggle button to start & stop recording. I recommend starting out on a tripod and composing things just as you would a still image. And then don’t move it, recording a shortish clip designed to capture interesting sounds and/or motions within the frame. You may have to keep trying in order to catch just the right sound and movement. Later on you can pan the camera, zoom, and change compositions.
Here are a few things to be aware of and guard against when starting out:
- Compose carefully. You should do this with stills as well, but with videos it’s easier to forget. Check out the corners and edges, watching out for a tripod leg or some other distracting element. Recompose so that your subject is clearly delineated. And speaking of subject, find something both interesting and easy to spot. You don’t want it to get lost in the background. If either subject movement or the soundscape (or both) is able to hold your interest then others are likely to find the video interesting.
- Watch out for exposure problems. For example if you place your subject against a bright sky, you might end up with a silhouette. That’s fine if it’s what you want. Just realize that you might have a smaller range of editing options, especially if you’re planning to learn the major video editing software later on. I recommend simply metering the scene as you would with a still image and going with those settings. If you’re not moving the camera around then whatever mode you normally shoot stills in is fine for video.
- Don’t move around or touch the camera unnecessarily. Every time you touch the camera the microphone, which is built in, will record the sound of that. Every time you move you run the risk of the mic capturing the shuffle of your feet. And of course don’t move into the frame yourself unless you are a subject.
That’s it for this week. Stay tuned for more on video. I really feel with video that it’s important to start off simply. You don’t want to bite off too much initially. Have fun out there and happy shooting!
One of my favorite portraits, from Cambodia.
The series on flow continues. I’d apologize for not posting this on Friday as usual. But I have a pretty good excuse. I was busy running away from a little storm called Hurricane Matthew. Flow, or “being in the zone”, is that state of hyper-concentration and engagement that we’ve all experienced. Check out Part I for ideas in flow with photography, and Part II for its connection with meditation.
The goal of these last few posts is to apply the idea of flow to various common types of photography. I started with, beginning with Landscape and continued with Travel. You’ll find useful tips on each genre covered, some of which may not seem to have much to do with flow. On the other hand, I’m not offering comprehensive tutorials on each type of photography here. The posts don’t cover many of the basics, for example, concentrating instead on more subtle stuff. I want people to not only make great pictures but to have great fun doing it; to experience the satisfaction of being able to shoot anything and everything well.
Whew! I didn’t plan that tangent. Now let’s look at photographing people. Shooting any live subject, including pets and wildlife, is in many ways quite similar to people photography. But for brevity’s sake I will focus on people here.
Candid portrait of a Nicaraguan vaquero.
I believe one not often mentioned reason that novice photographers gravitate toward landscape is they believe it to be simpler than photographing people (which they’ve done a lot in snapshot mode). It seems to be more straightforward to produce professional looking results when shooting landscapes, with rules that are easier to follow (do this and then that, and you’ll get beautiful pictures).
Of course this is not really true. With either type of photography your goal should not just be technically good photos. This is what so many of those people who have gotten into photography in recent years stops with. I’ve said it more than once in this blog: an excellent photograph elicits emotion and/or tells a story. Since your viewers are human, it’s easier to reach into the emotional parts of their brains when you photograph people than any other subject.
I ran into this young girl on a hike in the Guatemalan Highlands. I think her smile speaks eloquently of the natural playfulness and warmth of Mayan people.
People Photography Tips
- As with all photography there are really no rules when photographing people. The only “rules” are those that cover all social interactions, with or without camera.
- In my opinion there are only three keys to photographing people: (1) be curious about your potential subjects and what they’re up to; (2) spend a little time with them rather than expecting a quick shot; and (3) relax and have fun with them. Notice I didn’t mention lighting. Since light is important in all photography, it goes without saying.
- Number 3 above is probably the most important thing when photographing people. For me it’s critical that both photographer and subject have a good time. That way the posing takes care of itself and is most natural. Best of all, experiencing flow is easiest when you’re just shooting and playing around with someone. Sure, shooting a professional head shot is going to be more structured, but even there you can make things relaxed, thus capturing a more natural facial expression.
I met this young Nordic couple at a nature reserve in Nicaragua and we had some fun times together before I asked to shoot their portrait. It made a difference.
- Next, think about the kinds of images you want. Do you want a portrait or something more candid and active? How obvious should the surroundings & background be? Do you want an image with the frame completely filled, as in the image at top? Think about that stuff ahead of time and be very familiar with your gear. That way when it’s time to click the shutter you can concentrate on your subject, not technical matters. You’ll also have a better chance of experiencing flow while shooting
- Most photography teachers will tell you to talk to your subjects, that silence is awkward. While I agree, the nature of your interaction will depend on the situation. You need to decide when to be interactive and when to slip into the background. It’s a feel thing. For example if you’re shooting a group, being a part of the fun and then quickly switching to passive observer role to shoot might get you a great candid.
Moving away and being passive observer is sometimes necessary, in this case to let the horses as well as the girl be themselves.
- Since some interaction is always necessary, what should you talk about? Be curious about their lives and keep it light. Joking around, being self-deprecating, even making a bit of a fool of yourself, all that can help. It’s fine to talk about the photography & what you’re after. It can help keep them engaged. But unless you’re shooting a pro model you can easily overwhelm and even bore your subject. You don’t want forced and unnatural poses and expressions. Finally, complimenting your subject will obviously make them feel good, leading to better pictures. But pouring it on is usually (and correctly) viewed as being false.
Although she’s a model, I found talking and joking with her made it easier to move in closer for this shot, necessary since I had a 50 mm. lens.
- While I believe photographers tend to control posing too much, some direction is called for. You have to move people around for the best light and background. But you can do that in a sneakily natural way. “Hey, that looks like a cool spot to get a few shots.” Or, “a shot of you in front of that (background) would look good, wouldn’t it?” They don’t have to know that you’re going to blur it. Again, the thing is to make your time together come first and the photos second, in order to ‘let it flow’.
I will follow up on Sunday by looking at a distinctive sub-category of people photography: those serendipitous opportunities we often encounter while traveling. Have a wonderful weekend and happy shooting!
After a fun afternoon with these two Botswanans, they couldn’t help but be relaxed and happy at sunset. Rare for me, I used a flash and balanced its output with the background light. That usually takes a number of tries to get right, so a slow-paced, relaxed atmosphere was key.
Sunrise at Reflection Lakes, Mt. Rainier National Park
This is the second in a series on the state of flow in photography. Check out Part I for introductory ideas and general concepts. Flow, known also as being “in the zone”, is a mental state most of us are personally familiar with. While it includes intense concentration, it’s a whole lot more. Photo flow, at its essence, is not any different than flow in any other endeavour. As with, for example, flow in writing (especially nonfiction), photo flow is marked predominantly by an intense engagement with your subjects.
Macro is custom-made for slipping into flow.
Meditation & Photo Flow Compared
I mentioned in the last post how photo flow is like meditation. But there are also contrasts. The point is not to have a blank mind, as in (zen) meditation. It’s to shoot without thinking too much. Photo flow is marked by intense engagement with the process, and that involves conscious thought, punctuated by many small decisions. It’s too active to be synonymous with meditation; but then again, flow can be thought of as a type of meditation.
Meditative on the northern California coast.
I think of flow as a very relaxed, largely unconscious focus, one in which your body may be anything from very quiet (while writing for instance) to intensely active (I’ve entered flow while climbing mountains & skiing powder). Meditation, on the other hand, normally implies a quiet body, one that mirrors a quiet mind. I realize that people think of things like long-distance bike rides as meditation, and I can understand the comparison. But in general I believe flow not meditation characterizes those sorts of activities.
So how does flow most resemble meditation? It’s when you’re actually tripping the shutter. Just like anyone who excels at something, good photographers think about photography for a good chunk of any shooting day (if not every other day!). But they don’t think about it at the moment of capture. As that quote machine of a photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson put it: “Thinking should be done before and after, not during photographing.”
Next week we’ll look at some examples of photo flow in landscape & nature shooting. Thanks for looking, have a great weekend and happy shooting!
Being alone near sunset in the desert dunes with the fractal patterns and stark light you can easily slip into flow.
Beach grass on the dunes under a crescent moon along the Atlantic coastline.
The idea of flow has been around a long time, although doubtful that it’s had so many different names in the past as it does now. Hyperfocus and ‘being in the zone’ are two other terms for it. One of my pet peeves, by the way, is when people take an old concept or idea, slap a new, sexier name (or three) on it, and then pretend it’s brand new. People have known about flow for a long time. It is an experience common to all humans and undoubtedly as old as our species.
At some point in time everyone experiences flow. It is that wonderful feeling of getting lost in an activity. You lose sense of time passing. You forget to eat. And you don’t stop until you are finished or otherwise satisfied. It’s what all artists strive for and what everybody wishes their jobs allowed them to do.
Flow is often described as a state of total concentration, but for me it is more than that. It’s when awareness and action combine with total focus, but in sort of an unconscious way. I find flow very hard to enter into without having a genuine interest in what I’m doing. Anything worth doing is worth doing in a state of flow.
A historic building all by itself along the Santa Fe Trail in New Mexico.
A rock formation called the Lighthouse in Palo Duro Canyon, Texas.
Photography flow is just like flow while doing anything else. It’s complete absorption. Nothing is capable of distracting you or takes your mind off the act of finding the best compositions and the most authentic ways to portray your subjects. There are a few things unique to photography flow that are worth keeping in mind:
- First off, don’t expect to enter into photography flow without some shooting experience. It’s like anything else. The more you shoot, the easier it is to flow along without a lot of conscious thought of what you’re doing. But as soon as you’re comfortable with your gear and the basics of photography, flow is achievable.
- It’s critical to be acutely aware of your surroundings during photo flow. I’ve stressed the value of observation many times in this blog, and I’ll repeat it here. If you want to get better at “seeing the shot”, practice observational skills whether you have a camera with you or not. The goal is to see everything without needing to remind yourself.
- Photo flow is also aided by awareness of position with respect to your subjects. Purposely moving through space, walking closer to the subject, getting very close to the ground, all of this variation of point of view helps to put you in close touch with the scene and your subject. It avoids the bystander role (which in my opinion gets in the way of good photography) thus allowing you to ‘let it flow’.
A hoodoo in Bisti/De Na Zi wilderness, New Mexico. What does it look like to you?
- Working the subject, good advice for several reasons, can also help you enter photo flow. If you don’t think you’re in the right frame of mind or your mind is wandering, try working the subject intensively. By its nature this tends to eliminate distractions, allowing the sort of focus and concentration that leads to flow.
- Obviously, entering flow is difficult if you’re thinking of things other than photography. Clear your mind before beginning a shooting session, and if thoughts enter unwanted, just let them go on. Don’t follow them to more distracting thoughts. In this way flow is like meditation, which is discussed in next week’s post.
- Focus on the seeing and shooting and leave for later your judgments about how good the shots are. The only thing that should distract you from the act of shooting is a quick review on the LCD to make sure a shot was properly focused and exposed. Avoid lingering over reviews and move right on to the next composition or subject.
Next time I’ll use a few examples to illustrate photo flow and also show how it is like meditation in some ways. Have a wonderful weekend and happy shooting!
A recent sunset somewhere in New Mexico.
Dust and sand from the dunes at Mesquite Flat blows up-valley ahead of a storm. Surprising for this hyper-arid place, I got soaked hiking back.
I took a break last week from Foto Talk. Hope you all didn’t give up on me! This week I passed by an area that was readying itself for a hurricane. And there’s been plenty of rain besides. So I’m taking the hint and posting on the subject of photography and weather, in particular photographing in the wet stuff.
Shooting in stormy conditions presents both challenges and opportunities. You’ve probably heard the advice to keep shooting right through stormy weather. While I won’t disagree with this in general, I prefer a less absolute, more realistic attitude. It’s a matter of weighing the upsides against the downsides.
On the plus side, depending on the clouds and sky, you may get some of your most atmospheric or dramatic shots during bad weather. On the downside your gear is at risk. In wet weather you are taking the obvious risk of getting moisture inside camera or lens. Since that’s where your sensitive electronics reside, this is of course not good.
A storm blows itself out over the Columbia River, Oregon.
SHOOTING IN THE STORM
I’ve lived in both Oregon and Alaska, two places where dramatically bad weather is very common. Here is what I’ve learned over the years about photography in bad weather:
- I just mentioned the risks of water inside the camera. But that’s not nearly as bad as putting yourself at risk. It doesn’t happen often but dangerous weather does occur. Use common sense and know when to beat a hasty retreat, to high ground and/or shelter.
- Find camera protection that works for you. I’ve posted before with tips and recommendations in this regard, and this post isn’t about that. Just realize that no matter how good your rain cover, lens changes and other occasions expose your camera to the weather. So no matter what you do some moisture will likely fall on your camera. If you have a well-sealed professional grade camera and lenses, you can get away with wetter conditions. The key is to know how well sealed your gear is and act accordingly.
I shot this lighthouse on the Gulf Coast of Florida recently just after a heavy shower had passed.
- At least as important as having camera/lens protection is having good clothing that keeps you reasonably dry and comfortable. But since no clothing is perfect, be ready to put up with a certain degree of discomfort. I always remember what my grandmom used to say whenever I complained about getting wet. “You’re awfully sweet but you’re not made of sugar. You won’t melt!”
- Unless I see something quite compelling, either while driving or hiking with camera in a pack with rain-cover on, I usually don’t bother getting my gear out when the rain (or wet snow) is coming down hard. Shots I may try when it’s dry I won’t chance when it’s very wet; that is, unless it’s really calling out to me. It’s a simple calculation of risk vs. reward.
- When it’s raining or snowing, contrast tends to be subdued. So I tend to be attracted to compositions where low-contrast helps instead of hurting. Low contrast in the wrong shot can rob it of impact, but in the right situation it helps establish the mood of your image.
Hiking up into the Oregon forest during a rainstorm near dusk was the only way to get this shot.
- I shoot from within my vehicle a lot more when the weather is bad. And I don’t think it makes me a wimp! It does require sometimes pulling off in odd places. If you do this, take it from me: turn your attention away from the light and pay attention to your driving until you’re stopped, and even then continue to keep one eye out for traffic. Unless the road is truly empty, I won’t block the travel lane. I always make sure there is good sight distance behind and in front. Having good sight distance is key, as is using emergency flashers and being quick about it.
The rain was coming down hard for this shot from inside my van: Columbia River Gorge, Oregon.
- Being near big waterfalls can be just like being in a rainstorm. So all the precautions you take in rainy weather you should also take when shooting a big waterfall in high flow.
- Normally I don’t use UV filters, but when it’s wet I like to put them on. Lenses seal much better with a filter than without. Any filter will help seal a lens. If I’m shooting in a forest and especially along a stream, I use a circular polarizer instead of a UV filter. CPLs cut down on reflections from wet leaves and rocks, bringing out their colors.
- If you like shooting the stars at night, consider also shooting on moonlit nights when clouds or even storms are around. Lightning is an obvious draw for many photographers, but if you let your imagination roam you can find unusual night compositions.
Most photogs. want clear skies when they shoot at night, but the clouds added drama to this overview of Norris Geyser Basin in Yellowstone Park.
As I’ve gone along, shooting in weather of all kinds, I’ve learned that shooting on weathery days is all about transitions. Periods when weather is moving in on you or just clearing away very often offer the most rewarding light and atmosphere. That’s why I titled this post Shooting around Weather, not in it.
- Given that weather transitions usually happen quickly, it’s important to be ready. That means, for a start, getting out there. Some people think it strange, but a landscape photographer looks at bad weather forecasts and plans to go out shooting. And it’s not just landscape shooting that can benefit. You’ll get some of your most interesting architecture, people or wildlife shots when weather adds some drama to spice things up.
The interesting light here at Bollinger Mill & Bridge, Missouri is from a rapidly approaching violent thunderstorm.
- So how to plan for something so capricious? First, identify “transition days” ahead of time. They are days when weather shifts from one regime to another, and the weather-person will sometimes call them out for you. Otherwise you can see them coming yourself, once you’re familiar with the weather in your area. Because they are full of change and thus unpredictable, you can easily get skunked with either socked-in conditions or clear blue skies. But you can be rewarded with fantastic light as well.
- Because they are literally defined by change, success on transition days is anything but guaranteed. So instead of trying to outsmart the weather, go out on storm days too. Transitions in the middle of stormy periods, often featuring brilliant sun-breaks and colorful rainbows, occur between fronts and generally don’t show up in weather forecasts (although you can sometimes see them on radar).
Within seconds, the rain stopped and light of the setting sun shot out from behind the Grand Tetons, Wyoming.
- Watch the sky carefully and try to anticipate transitions. This can take practice, and expect Mother Nature to throw you many curves. During dry times, get to where you want to shoot and wait (hope) for the shift to stormy weather at the right time, when the sun is low. During the storm, get to your spot and shelter there with camera & tripod at the ready. As the sun lowers, there is always the chance it will dip below the storm clouds, illuminating everything in beautiful light.
Thanks for reading. Now I’m off to get some shots of the ocean and sky in tropical storm weather. Wish me luck! Have a great weekend and happy shooting!
Recent sunset in a coastal area along the Gulf of Mexico where Hermine was due to hit.
Sunrise over the Continental Divide, Rocky Mtn. NP, Colorado.
After several weeks of relatively involved Foto Talks, I’m in the mood for short and sweet this week. As my annual pass to National Parks (NPs) expires, I’m trying to decide when (or even if) I should buy another one. I probably will. But it’s made me consider all that I love (and all that I don’t) about America’s National Parks. I’d love to hear what you think of my likes or dislikes. Or if you have any of your own you’d like to add. So fire away in the comments!
On the Ute Trail, Trail Ridge, Rocky Mtn. NP, Colorado, in the very early morning when all my fellow hikers are behind me, to be met on my return hike.
National Parks are photo-worthy. Of course it’s easy to like the scenery and wildlife of the parks. It’s mostly why they were protected in the first place. Nearly all of the parks are photogenic.
NPs are crowded. All that beauty and wildlife draws a lot of visitors. Nearly all of the parks have seen steady increases over the past few decades. And with recent drops in the price of gas, people are on the road, flocking to the parks. Visitation is exploding. Of course a few parks have always been busy: Yosemite, Great Smokies, Grand Canyon.
But two fairly recent trends are bothersome, at least for those of us with some history in the parks. One is the increase in off-season visitation. Another is exploding visitation in parks like Zion and Rocky Mountain (which has recently leapfrogged both Yosemite and Yellowstone). Even small, out-of-the-way parks like Great Basin (which I recently visited) can get busy in summertime.
Colorful rocks and the lichen that like them high up in Rocky Mtn. NP, Colorado.
NPs are diverse. Most parks are all about mountains, forests and streams. Others are more famous for their wildlife. But many others feature history or pre-history. The newest unit, Stonewall National Monument in New York, even celebrates LGBT (gay) rights.
NPs attract very non-diverse visitors. I don’t know how much of a dislike this is because I think it’s slowly changing. But parks are lily white. Black Americans in particular are few and far between, especially in the big nature-dominated parks of the west. Latinos are beginning to visit in greater numbers, probably because they have families to entertain. But they’re also under-represented.
A mated pair of pronghorn (which are not true antelope) in Wyoming well outside of any NP.
So-called cave shields in Lehman Caves, Great Basin NP, Nevada.
NPs are managed for people. Most parks go out of their way to make parks accessible to everyone. And this includes the disabled. It’s actually in their charter. They were created with a dual purpose in mind, which if you think about it is a pretty difficult pair of opposing values to simultaneously succeed at.
But they do a good job. There are accessible trails and fishing platforms at Yellowstone and other parks, for example. Roads give access to the best attractions, and lodging plus camping allow staying inside the park (as long as you make reservations early enough).
NPs attract all sorts of people. Here’s a sad fact: many people bring way too much with them when they go on vacation, yet they routinely leave common sense at home. People arrive ready to have a good time, and that’s fine. But for so many, a good time means getting loud and raucous. You won’t see the same people in a NP that you see at a trailhead for a remote wilderness area, getting ready to hike in for a week of self-sufficient existence. That doesn’t mean you won’t find these hikers in NPs (I for one, haha!). It’s just a numbers thing.
In nature, around wildlife especially, being the typical noisy human being is simply not appropriate. It ruins the atmosphere and impacts all sorts of creatures, including other humans. But sadly it’s all too typical. Many young people don’t learn how to have a different sort of good time until well into adulthood. It’s one of the things I am thankful for. I learned early on.
Next time we will continue with some general advice on shooting in national parks. Happy weekend everybody!
Dusk falls at Bluebird Lake in the alpine terrain of a less-traveled area of Rocky Mtn. NP, Colo.
A recent shot from a lovely place in the Colorado Rockies called Bluebird Lake.
Let’s follow-up on the topic point of view (POV) and in particular last week’s Foto Talk on ethics and legality. As you begin to dream up and try a wide variety of positions to shoot from, you’ll find yourself getting more deeply involved with it. It’s what photography is all about. But before you get lost in the moment, take another moment to consider the following cautionary tales. The phrase “safety comes first”, after all, applies to photography like it does to any undertaking.
Flowers grow on a lichen-covered rock outcrop at 11,000 feet in Rocky Mtn. National Park, Colorado.
POV & Safety: People
- Property Territoriality. I mentioned last week how you might run afoul of property owners or officials. Yet anybody could take strong exception to your shooting near their “territory”. One time in a lonely rural area I was getting some sunset shots. Not far away was a farm house. I was on the side of a county road, not even pointing the camera directly at the house. But driving away in the gathering dark I noticed a guy following me in a pickup. He continued for quite awhile until I stopped, got out and challenged him (something I don’t recommend). Later I was pulled over by a cop (the guy had called) and had to explain who I was and what I was doing.
While shooting this barn in central Oregon I was approached by the owner who told me I was on a private road. I was honest about my reason for being there and he let me shoot away.
- Compositional Territoriality. It’s not always property owners who have issues. You can also get in the way of other photographers too. Although I generally shy away from popular locations and subjects and so don’t run into many others, on occasion I have inadvertently stepped in the way of a fellow shooter. Some of these guys (they’re always guys) are extremely possessive of “their” compositions (see bottom image). I don’t know why but they seem to like shining flashlights or (worse) laser pointers at me in a sort of passive aggressive way. Weird.
- See Below for more on staying safe in populated areas.
Dusk falls at Bluebird Lake. I balanced on the edge for this shot ’cause I wanted a POV highlighting the metamorphic rock textures in the foreground.
- Stay Cool. I probably don’t have to tell you that situations involving angry people can spin quickly out of control. But if you remain relatively calm and listen to what the person is saying you’ll thank yourself later.
- Be Honest. It’s always best to state honestly what you’re doing. If you try to obfuscate in any way you’ll just put yourself under suspicion.
- Be Sensitive but Firm. I try to strike a balance between (1) being sensitive to both the law and to people’s concerns and (2) being firm about my right to be on public property and my right to use (especially to keep!) my camera gear.
- Know when to Walk Away. I don’t always handle people the way I later realize I should have. The main thing I’ve done wrong in the past is to not apologize and walk away when someone gets very angry. Apologize even if you don’t think you’re in the right. If they won’t let you go and want to get physical, just pull out your phone and dial 911.
St. Vrain River, Colorado.
POV & Safety: Animals
People are obviously the biggest danger, but other animals can be dangerous as well (see what I did there?). How close to that buffalo do you really need to be? Seems we read on a weekly basis about tourists getting hurt when they get too near buffalo or other wild animals in Yellowstone Park. And it’s not just tourists. Pro photographers with not enough wildlife experience or common sense get too close. Don’t take domestic animals too lightly either. For example I give Brahma bulls more respect than most wild animals.
This large African elephant in the Okavango Delta gave us a fright when he bluff charged.
- Learn. Start by reading about your animal subjects, paying particular attention to body language, territorial behaviours, “comfort distances” and related info. But remember to take anything you learn on the internet or in books as a general guide only. Animals are like people. It’s not just that each individual is unique; it’s that each situation you find it in is unique. Animal behaviour depends not just on instinct but on the individual and its circumstances.
- Observe. There is no substitute for careful observation of body language while you’re anywhere near a potentially dangerous animal. Don’t approach until you take a good look. For example, ears back is a common warning sign with prey animals. For predators you may get ears back if they’re feeling defensive, or ears forward and alert if they’re on the hunt.
- Go Slow. Approaching slowly will not only avoid frightening the animal and blowing your chances, it will also give the animal a chance to get comfortable and keep it from becoming defensive. It will also allow you more time to observe your quarry and stop if a behaviour indicates you should. As a rule you should never turn your back on or run from any potentially dangerous animal. There are exceptions to this however.
I’ve posted this one before, but it shows so well how animals use body language to warn you about getting any closer (arched tail).
POV & the Blinder Effect
- The blinder effect is when you are dialed in to what you’re doing, changing positions and POV. Our minds are on the shot, not on possible dangers.
- As photographers we are more vulnerable than the average person. To see why, let’s take mountain lions as an example. If you’re a smaller man or a woman you need to be particularly careful in cougar country. But even if you’re big and ugly like me, think about it. As a photographer we often choose to shoot near dawn or dusk when the light is good. And that’s when most predators are active. Further, we tend to crouch down (making ourselves smaller) with faces pressed to the camera instead of directed toward danger.
- In populated areas, simply substitute the word mugger for cougar and the situations are perfectly parallel.
It’s not just when they’re the subjects that wildlife is a potential danger. On a couple occasions I’ve been so focused on a landscape shot that I allowed a curious animal to approach me quite closely. Depending of course on the animal and the situation, this could be either a pleasant surprise or a dangerous development. For example cougars inhabit even populated areas. And don’t forget venomous snakes. Adjusting POV often means walking through tall grass or thick brush.
This Komodo dragon on the island of Rinca, Indonesia snuck up on me while I was photographing a bigger one. It’s a bit chilling to be stalked.
- Urban Areas: In cities, wandering into a sketchy neighborhood near dark is easy to do when chasing a shot. I did it in Kuala Lumpur once while trying for a photo of the Petronas Towers at blue hour (dusk). That is, until a kind local noticed and let me know I was putting myself (or at least all my camera gear) at risk. I got a shot but it wasn’t right, so next night I did something different (see image).
Not as famous as the Petronas Towers, but still worth shooting, the Kuala Lumpur Tower & the perfect POV on my hotel’s roof. I don’t think I was supposed to be there.
- Remote Areas: One reason I like wilderness areas is because there’s normally no need to worry about other people. But the other side of that coin means you are more vulnerable if a bad character does appear. Several years ago I was in Colombia on a hike through a jungle known for its bandits. I stopped to watch some very cool-looking monkeys. There was a small noise and I turned around to find that two young native guys with machetes had caught right up to me. Chills went down my spine. But happily they turned out to be friendly and we ended up hiking together. One even climbed a tree and used his machete to cut a huge fresh papaya down (yummy!).
For the blinder effect there is really just one solution: Be Aware of your Surroundings. Take your face away from the camera and look around from time to time, particularly in lonely places.
I feel like I’ve sounded a tone that’s a bit too paranoid. We all know what can result from too much fear: paralysis. In fact you’ll probably never run into most of these situations. But they are worth being ready for in the same way that it’s wise to prepare for a natural disaster that’ll probably never happen. So be careful out there, just not too careful. Shoot with as many POVs as you think is necessary. Practice awareness and common sense and all will be well. Have a great weekend!
At Utah’s Deadhorse Point, a popular spot, I showed up very early (rare for me). While shooting this gnarled juniper a guy who arrived after me but apparently wanted the same shot circled around trying various ways to hurry me.
In a forest I often find stumps or fallen logs to stand on, raising POV. Like atop this fallen giant in California’s redwoods.
This is the second of two parts on Point of View (POV) in photography. Last week Part I looked at general position and angle related to subject and background. This time I’ll focus on what most people think of when they think of POV: height.
Point of View: Height
Let’s go back to when we first picked up a camera. What did we do? We shot from a standing position. Then when we got hold of a tripod we extended the legs and again shot from eye level. This isn’t surprising; it’s almost always the way we experience the world.
Unfortunately, it quickly becomes boring to see picture after picture from this same position. You start to wonder what it’s like to see things the way the world’s shortest man or the tallest woman sees them. Going further, what is it like to see the world from an eagle’s point of view, or an insect’s? There’s only one way to find out. Get up or get down and shoot! It’s the other major way to change point of view: change the camera height.
Long’s Peak, shot last night from the highest point I could find on Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mtn. National Park, Colorado.
The easiest way to change height POV is to lower it. You go down on one knee, assuming the classic shooter’s pose. Or you squat, getting a bit lower. Or you lay right down on your belly with elbows propped in a sort of tripod. When you’re using an actual tripod and want to go lower, you either change the length of the legs or spread them more widely.
You can also remove the center column or otherwise rig up the tripod to go even lower. For ultra low POVs you can just plop the camera right down on the ground. Or you use a beanbag, your camera bag, or a piece of clothing for cushioning, giving you a POV very near ground level.
This small cholla cactus I wanted to highlight against the stormy sky of Death Valley, California. So I used a very low POV, a foot or two above the ground.
When you lower your point of view a few interesting things happen:
- Foregrounds draw nearer and get bigger. For compositions with close foreground elements, lowering POV brings them even closer (see image above). If you want everything in focus front to back you may have to stop down to a smaller aperture (higher f/number). Or you can take more than one shot and focus stack the images.
- Foregrounds change position. Lowering your POV also changes how foreground subjects are set off against the background. As you go down, close foreground elements rise in proportion. This can set them against the sky instead of the landscape and even put them in silhouette. You also need to be aware of foreground elements blocking important parts of the background. Make small shifts in position to compensate and get the composition just right.
- Backgrounds recede. This depends on how wide your lens is, but when you lower the camera the background can lose prominence in favor of foreground elements. Even tall mountains tend to shrink. Not as much as when you change from a 50 mm. to a 17 mm. focal length, for example, but the effect is similar. It’s another way that lowering POV helps to emphasize foreground elements in an image, by de-emphasizing the background.
For these two elk this morning, I got low to set them against the rising sun. Compare with image below.
Another recent elk from Rocky Mtn. National Park. But this time from a higher POV gained by walking uphill.
Another way to vary height POV is to raise the camera, so you’re looking down on your subject. It’s more challenging than lowering the camera, but it’s often more interesting to try. And it’s more satisfying when it turns out well. That’s because, as hard as it can seem to get very low (especially as we get older), going up usually requires the most effort and imagination. You need to either climb with your gear up to some perch or do some outside-the-box thinking, or both.
Here are some ideas:
- Climb a rock or mountain. We tell ourselves it won’t matter so much, but that’s our lazy side talking back to us. In actuality, scrambling up onto a rock or heading up a steep trail is often all you need to make that landscape photo pop. It can also add interest to a group photo. Depending on your subject, even a modest increase in POV height can help to add a sense of depth. The image above only required a short (but breathless) walk uphill. I also gave him plenty of space and shot with a longer focal length (600 mm.) so as not to disturb him from his morning “zen spot”.
- Or a tree! Last weekend while photographing these moose in Colorado I was becoming frustrated by the tall willows. While the moose were more than okay with it, happily munching on one of their favorite foods, the willows were also limiting my view to head and antler shots. So I did something I rarely do anymore: I climbed a tree. I only had to go about 6 or 7 feet up to make a big difference in POV. I ended up liking the shots with lower POV, those few without obscuring willows that is. But how would I have known for sure without trying?
I had to get part-way up a tree to even get this much of a moose in the willows, Colorado.
A fairly low POV, helped by finding an avenue through the willows, emphasized the size of this rather rude fellow.
- Tote a ladder around. This is something I’ve only done a couple times, but it’s certainly a good solution in some circumstances. For photos of people, just those few extra feet can really add variety and shift perspective dramatically. For landscapes when you’re in a flat area, especially when shooting from the road where vegetation blocks the view, it can make the difference between getting the shot and getting skunked.
- Go flying. I’m always on a budget, but on occasion it has worked out to charter a flight in a small plane. In the Okavango Delta, for example, I went in with a couple other people and took a spectacular flight over the enormous wetlands in northern Botswana, looking down on elephant and antelope herds. If money is no problem, a helicopter flight is the best option of all. You can hover for one thing, allowing extra time to shoot. In addition, being able to land anywhere (if regulations permit) makes choppers my all-time favorite mode of air travel.
- Get a drone. I don’t really like drones. For some reason they annoy me, and besides I like to be physically behind the camera. But I have to admit that drones allow you to dramatically raise point of view in a hurry. They also allow you to put the camera into places that are impossible to get to.
A low POV and wide angle helps to lend a sense of depth to this shot of a glacial tarn high in the Rockies.
I sometimes catch myself getting lazy when I’m out shooting. Not often, but it happens. I’ve learned that attitude has so much to do with photography, and occasionally the enthusiasm and motivation is just not there. In those cases I think it’s best to just enjoy the place you’re in without photographing anything. Of course us photogs. have a hard time doing this.
But if you are standing in one place and not varying your point of view, ask yourself if you really want to be out shooting that day. A good way to check if you are truly motivated is to simply observe yourself. Are you moving your feet? Are you changing position and height?
The bottom line is that if you want better photographs you simply must vary your point of view as much as possible. All this shifting around to get the shot can lead to problems both legal and safety-wise. So nextFriday I will add a post-script to the topic of POV. Thanks so much for reading, and have a wonderful weekend!
For this sunset shot at Red Rock Lake, Colorado, I wanted to get low enough to emphasize the grasses yet not so low that Indian Peaks would appear too small.