Archive for the ‘Africa’ Tag
This series on casual video for the still photographer has mostly stuck to the basics. I’ve done that to show how easy it is to start shooting video. None of these videos have been edited either. I want to head off the excuse that some people use, that they have no time to learn a whole new editing program. Untold numbers of people shoot video with their phones. My goal is to get my fellow still photographers to create videos when the mood strikes, but to do them with intention and care.
I’ve also stayed away from stuff like time-lapse and slow-motion. These are rather faddish in my opinion, but speaking objectively, they are sub-areas of nature videography that require a specific focus. Time-lapses, for instance, are actually a series of still shots. While you do produce a video of sorts, the mood is often disjointed. Also there is no real-time, native sound. Creating a time-lapse is rather boring in practice, and it doesn’t really help you develop field video recording skills.
Of course there is nothing wrong with timelapse or any other type of video. But I believe that when you’re first getting into video, or any genre within the photography realm, it’s best to start simply. Go out and do it before you commit to creating a final (shareable) product. So many of us love what we see online so much that we just have to go off and create that very thing. Or something that looks just like it. It’s a completely understandable impulse.
Consider taking a more organic approach. See if you enjoy the process of creating it first before worrying about results. This way you’ll slowly develop your own style, eventually creating something that is uniquely yours rather than imitative. By the way, I don’t consider myself such a great artist. But I do have a firm idea of the way to get there!
I know this is the era of instant gratification, but it’s important to be patient. Learn to enjoy the process before you expect to create something you can be proud of. High expectations are fine, but don’t impose too-short a timeline. That will only cause unnecessary stress. Even a mild amount of anxiety can sabotage the creative process.
Video & Focal Length
Now let’s get to it! One of the best things about shooting video with a DSLR (or mirrorless) camera is the ability to use a variety of lenses. As I mentioned in an earlier post on the basics, when you’re starting out it’s useful to stick with a medium focal length lens. If you have a 50 mm. lens you’re in luck; it’s perfect for video. Otherwise use a medium zoom and stay 10 or 15 mm of 50. Reason is to avoid the distortion you get with wide angles, and the shakiness that can happen with long focal lengths.
Once you’re comfortable doing videos at medium focal lengths, you’ll naturally want to try different lenses. But this post isn’t about using telephotos for wildlife or wide-angles for landscapes. It’s about one of the most fun ways to shoot video: macro and close-up! In order to view these videos click on the title at top-left first, then click the play button.
By the way, I didn’t mean to cut short the video of the dung beetles below. A black rhino had suddenly appeared between my rental car and where I was lying on the ground. So I had to stop and figure out how to avoid being charged!
Macro Video ~ Tips
- Try to pick subjects that stay in one place. You can expand on this once you get some practice. Either way you should observe your subject for a time before you come up with a plan. For example in the video above I watched those beetles in Africa roll a couple dung balls from point A to point B before I followed along shooting the clip. That delay may have saved me, as I could have been regarded as a threat if I hadn’t been lying down!
- Use a tripod. Just as with macro still photography, a tripod is nearly essential. For one thing, most macro lenses have fairly long effective focal lengths. Hand-holding is hard to do without introducing jumpiness. Also, whether you use a macro lens or attachments like extension tubes or close-up filters, depth of field will be quite narrow. Provided you choose a suitable subject, you have a better chance of keeping things in focus when you’re on a tripod.
- Speaking of focus, choose a point of view and composition that makes it easier to keep the subject in focus without having to twist the focus ring. “Pulling” or “following” focus as it is called, is a skill that takes awhile to master. A subject that moves across the frame, for example, is easier to keep in focus than one that moves toward or away from you.
- Watch for repetitive or cyclical behaviour. Many times, when observing nature, you’ll notice that a critter will keep repeating its actions, or it might circle back to where it has been before. If you set up on a tripod focused in on that spot, all you need to do is watch and wait, ready to press record. For the video below the dragon flies were zipping around much too quickly for me to follow. So I simply watched one for awhile and noticed her returning to a nearby perch, spreading her wings like they do. I focused on her first, using manual focus (which is best for video). Then next time back, since she alighted in exactly the same spot, I shot the clip.
- Limit motions. By using the approach just mentioned, pointing at a spot and waiting for the critter to arrive, you’ll be forced to stay put. Insects and other small critters tend to get used to your presence more quickly than bigger animals, but it’s still helpful to keep still. Of course moving around is necessary for any good photography. But macro shooting, still or video, goes much more smoothly when movement is limited, planned out and deliberate.
- Look for subtle subjects too. Macro video isn’t just about insects. For example, flowers or other interesting macro subjects can be great targets for video when light is rapidly changing as clouds move quickly across the sky. Movements from wind can also make videos worth a try.
- Finally, don’t limit yourself to true macro. Do close-up videos with other lenses. If you have a lens that offers a “macro” setting, you may be able, depending on subject, to focus close enough to get that intimate feel of macro. Do you know the closest that each of your lenses will focus? You should. Wide-angle lenses often focus quite closely. They also enable you to hand-hold the camera with less chance of shakiness. For the video below I had to get my feet wet to move smoothly through the scene. At the end of the clip is a bonus: my little buddy Charl (RIP) watches from the bridge. No way was he getting his little feet wet!
That’s all for now. If you haven’t done so, try a macro video or two. If you have, let us know what you thought. Are there any tips I forgot? Thanks for reading and have a fantastically fun weekend!
My blog series on video for still photographers continues. It’s not been too popular, something I figured would happen because of the the nature of blogging. The blogosphere is quite biased toward still photography. Videos are very popular overall, but tend to be concentrated in other places on the web. It’s sad to say but most serious photographers still don’t think video is worth doing, I believe because they think the learning curve is too steep. But when you’re out shooting photos you’re also carrying a very good video camera around with you. So why not add movement and sound, even if the results aren’t likely to measure up to those of a pro videographer?
Last time we looked at landscape videos. Today let’s talk about critters, or animals. Specifically wildlife. Domestic animals have their own challenges. Video of wildlife is not easy. But it’s one of the few subjects that even non-video people think of shooting. The reason is that wildlife often do interesting things that are very hard to capture with still pictures. They also make fascinating sounds.
To view the videos don’t click the play button right away. First click the title at top left, then the play button.
Wild animals are generally shy and not easy to find. In modern times there is a two-edged sword. Plenty of roads and easy access make it a snap to go looking for wildlife. But the same development and population growth that gave us those roads also causes most species to decline in numbers. And the survivors normally become very shy and elusive.
A general truism is that the easiest critters to find also tend to have the fastest and most unpredictable movements. On the flip side, leaving aside rarity, if they’re very difficult to find they tend to be slow and easy to follow. Sloths come to mind. But it’s not always true that the slow ones are hard to find. It could be the animal is simply not afraid and instead looks on you as lunch, like the Komodo dragons below.
Location, Location. There are just a few main strategies that will make it easier to find wildlife. One is heading to protected areas. Parks and preserves concentrate the wildlife that we have chased out of most parts of the world. Some African parks even fence them in, which is actually to prevent them leaving the park where they can be poached. Of course the poachers just go into the park to kill, so the fences are relatively ineffective in that way. The fences do cut down on human-wildlife conflict, as well as reduce road-kill.
The Right Time. Another strategy is to go out looking when animals are most active. And I’m not just talking about dawn and dusk, when most (not all) animals are likely to be moving about. I’m also talking season. Fall is when many animals become active, and spring (or the start of wet season in Africa) is also good because many have their young and are thus forced to go out hunting, foraging or browsing to feed them. Also, the babies are irresistible.
‘Tis the Season. Seasonality also affects the ease with which you’ll be able to spot critters because of vegetation. For example going on safari in Africa during the dry season is popular because the general lack of green leafy growth on shrubs and trees of the savannah makes it easier to spot wildlife.
Some wildlife during a specific season will ignore their natural instinct to avoid humans and come right down into our towns. In late fall, the elk of several western U.S. National Parks (Rocky Mountain and Grand Tetons for e.g.) descend from higher country and congregate in gateway towns like Estes Park, Colorado.
Showing their Moves
Animals move (I know, duh). And they move apparently without warning and in unpredictable ways. But really not so unpredictable once you observe and learn about them.
Ready & Steady. Be ever ready to move the camera instantly. It’s a mindset that is applicable to still photos of critters as well. Your positioning and stance needs to be such that you can swivel or pivot easily. I liken it to when I was a kid being coached on how to take a lead in baseball. You also need a way to smooth out your motions, covered in a previous post: Video on the Move.
Observe. The most important thing in this regard is careful observation. The more you learn about a species, the better you’ll be able to predict its movements. But avoid the trap even experienced people fall into. You can know the species but not the individual. Like us, each one is different and unique, in ways that seem quite subtle to us (but presumably not them). So even if you know the species well, a little pre-shooting observation goes a long way.
If you record the voices of animals (and why wouldn’t you have sound recording turned on?), you can be sure that even the chattiest of them will choose the time after you press the record button to give you the silent treatment.
Observe some More. Same goes for sound as for video: if you have the opportunity, observe the animal for awhile before you press record. You’ll gain a sense of the periodicity or patterns inherent in the animal’s vocalizations. The keys, as it is in general nature observation and photography, is patience and timing.
Examples. At Yellowstone Park I went out in the very early morning to film the buffalo above. On a previous morning I’d seen them crossing the Lamar River and figured they were sleeping on one side and eating breakfast on the other, with a bath in between. Also the early hour meant only one other tourist, and he stayed up by the road. A shotgun mic helped to capture their voices. Below, on the Kafue River in Africa, I couldn’t get close enough to these hippos but their voices carry so well across the water that I didn’t need the shotgun mic.
That’s it for this Friday, thanks for looking. Have an excellent weekend and don’t forget to press that record button!
Addendum: Dry Run
Try is a dry run from time to time. For example you could walk out into a forest in the wee hours to hear the dawn chorus of birdsong. Try leaving your camera in the bag, at least at first. The goal is to find the best locations and to simply listen. Note when certain bird species begin and end (it’s strictly regimented), along with how long the singing lasts. If you go out several times you’ll begin to learn how the weather affects timing along with other features of bird vocalization and behaviour.
Believe it or not I did this for a job one summer. I surveyed forests in the Pacific NW proposed for logging, looking for evidence of use by endangered bird species. Since most of the areas lacked trails, I would go out during the day with some white surveyor’s tape. I’d find a good spot to observe from and then, on the way back to the road, flag a route by every so often tying a piece of surveyor’s tape around a branch.
Then in the morning, at “zero dark thirty” I returned with my flashlights (I recommend two, a headlamp and a strong hand-held) and followed the trail in. White shows up in the dark a lot better than orange. On the hike out after sunrise I’d remove the surveyor’s tape. This is, by the way, also a good way to find and shoot out-of-the-way places at dawn, your “secret” spots that are away from roads and trails.
The edge of the continent, and the edge of night: westernmost point of the contiguous United States at Cape Alava, Washington.
It’s been a long time since I’ve participated in the WordPress weekly challenge. I like this week’s theme, Transitions. A lot. I think of it more broadly as the “edge”. I love pictures captured at the edge, or within a transition: from the literal edge of a cliff to the edge of a human expression, and everything in between.
These photos are mostly about the transition from sunset colors to dusk (blue hour). I think it’s my favorite time to shoot landscapes. Even my blog’s header image, moonrise over Monument Valley, depicts an evening transition. For variety, I included a photo where a Cambodian woman is at the edge of smiling, plus one captured at the dramatic transition from dry season to the rains in Africa. To see an image displayed bigger and better, just click on it. Enjoy!
The amazing Bolaven Plateau of southern Laos.
Edge of a smile: Cambodia.
I’ve never seen a more dramatic change of seasons than the one from hot & dry to the rains in Africa. A lone wildebeest stands against the first thunderstorm of the season, sweeping dust ahead of it: Mbabe Depression, Botswana.
High up on Mt. Rainier, clouds filling the valley below helped to reveal the edge of night.
End of the golden hour transitioning to night: Portland, Oregon.
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.
There are plenty of opportunities in Oregon to capture fog in all its variations.
Tomorrow is Halloween, a holiday I’ve always been of two minds on. On one hand, I’ve had many fun Halloweens. We used to decorate the basement in the house I grew up in, and on a couple occasions I remember parties down there with all my friends from school and the neighborhood. We would run around all amped up on sugar, bobbing for apples and playing pranks. The evening was capped off by sitting on the cement walls bordering the backyard, that huge oak tree forming a black silhouette in the center, telling ghost stories.
On the other hand, since reaching adulthood, I haven’t really taken to the holiday like when I was a kid. To me, it is a holiday for children, and never has had the enduring spirit of Christmas. It seems a little ridiculous how excited some adults get. I’ve even cynically thought of it as simply an excuse to get drunk at Halloween parties. Am I too much the curmudgeon? Probably, haha! Anyway, here are a few shots I managed to find with a more or less spooky mood to them.
A termite tower in Botswana’s Okavango Delta takes on a sinister aspect next to an equally spooky looking acacia tree.
The streets at night in Campeche, a colonial town in Mexico, are very atmospheric.
More good old Oregon fog. I don’t think this shot is that scary looking. The light was rather magical but not scary.
Mayan temples, such as this one at Tikal, Guatemala, don’t necessarily look scary. That is, until you realize what happened just inside that small doorway – human sacrifice!
Near dark deep in a Columbia River Gorge side-canyon, fog and water combine to create a ghostly aparition.
The only shot like this I got in Africa, these scavenging marabou storks are perched above an elephant carcass at sunset. Don’t worry, the elephant was not the victim of poachers in this case.
This Friday I’d like to continue with depth of field. But before I do I want to thank all those who contributed to my campaign to replace my camera gear (which tumbled over a waterfall several months back) and get back to showing you all some fresh material on this blog. I will be sending out a reminder email to those folks, to pick the images they want.
I didn’t make it all the way to my goal, but I got partway there. And that means something. I’m busy right now working 7 days/week doing the only thing I know how to do that makes me money quickly. And it’s actually legal, go figure! So it won’t be long before I make up the difference myself.
Make sure and check out the first two parts of this series: Part I and Part II. They go over the basics behind depth of field. The example here will show how to apply those basic principles in the field, so it’s important to know them.
Cape Ground Squirrel
I was traveling through Namibia when I took a break from the road. Namibia is one country in Africa where you can very easily rent a car and take off on an impromptu road trip, like you would in the western U.S. If the roads in the west were still largely unpaved that is.
I strolled up a small ridge with my camera and one lens (a 400 mm.). Suddenly directly ahead this cute little fellow popped his head up and looked at me with big dark eyes. I had never encountered this rather tall slender rodent before. Later I found out it was a cape ground squirrel, native to southern Africa.
Of course I wanted a shot of him, and quickly before he decided I wasn’t all that interesting. But as usual my position wasn’t ideal. A portion of the scrubby hillside formed the background not far behind him. My lens only opened up to a maximum aperture of f/5.6.
Since I wanted a portrait that showed him plus a bit of the bare ground at his feet but little else, the hillside was a problem. It was too close and would have been too much in focus, too distracting. I wanted as shallow a depth of field as I could get. But I was limited in what I could do. I couldn’t open the aperture larger than f/5.6, couldn’t go longer than 400 mm., and couldn’t change lenses.
I was down to one option, changing relative distance between camera to subject and subject to background. And since I couldn’t move closer without scaring him off, increasing the subject to background distance was all I had.
I grabbed a quick shot or two, in case he ran away. Then I slid down low, lying on my belly so that the hillside behind him was out of view. Now a much more distant ridge formed the background. Problem was, the lower point of view put my little friend out of view.
So I waited, hoping that his curiosity would get the best of him. Sure enough he popped his head up again. Luckily his long tail (which is what fascinated me about him in the first place) trailed to the side. I had been framing a vertical photo, but I quickly switched to get his tail in and fired off a few frames before he zipped off to continue his daily desert rounds.
The Cape ground squirrel lives in rocky areas of Namibia and South Africa.
I ended up with a pretty good shot of him, a key part of it being the smooth gray out of focus background. The shallow depth of field was afforded by a relatively long focal length of 400 mm. combined with the squirrel’s proximity to me relative to the distance between him and the ridge behind. The low point of view resulted in the picture’s main weakness, an out of focus rock low in the foreground.
I tend to combine all the factors controlling depth of field (aperture, focal length and positioning). But since focal length is pretty much dictated by the composition I’m after, aperture and positioning are the main variables. I’ll move closer or farther from my subject, change point of view to move background forward or back, or ask my subject to move if that’s possible (I haven’t figured out how to speak to animals yet). All the while I will adjust aperture to the degree that I can.
Of course I run into shutter speed limitations when adjusting aperture. But it’s easy to mitigate that by adjusting ISO. Better to have a little noise from a higher ISO than to have a blurry subject because of a shutter speed that is too slow. I have ruined many a shot because I thought animals or people were perfectly still when they weren’t. I’ve been a very slow learner in this regard. Always shoot live subjects at somewhat faster shutter speeds than you think are necessary.
Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe-Zambia border.
I was uploading today to Fine-Art America (a website for displaying and selling all sorts of artwork) and came on some images from an African journey a few years ago. As you know I like to post an image on Sunday that relates somehow to Friday’s Foto Talk post. How does this one relate to clouds? Well, with this much mist and spray it is very like shooting in fog and low cloud. In fact, the local name for Victoria Falls is Mosi O Tunya, which translates in the Tongan language to ‘smoke that thunders’. There is another (special) reason why this place is on my mind, but I’ll keep more personal details on the down-low for now!
I usually shoot waterfalls so that the water is smooth, but I’m always aware of falling into the rut of always doing it that way. I’m not sure that there is a “best” way in fact. It’s all in how you see the water. Often freezing the action looks too unnatural to me, but in this case it best captures the power of Victoria Falls.
This is actually low flow for this waterfall, believe it or not. There is no way to get to this point to photograph it when it is in high flow, when it becomes the largest sheet of falling water in the world. I scrambled over to the edge during a hike/wade out to Devil’s Pool (making my guide nervous). You can see a few people in Devil’s Pool at upper right. You jump in super-refreshing water right at the edge of the falls! It’s a bit scary, but really safe if you exercise a little caution.
Please click on the image to check it out on Fine Art America. There are all sorts of options for purchase, including metallic, canvas, unframed or framed, with numerous types of frames to check out. To view my whole collection over there, click My FineArt America Collection. It is some of my best! Thanks & have a great week ahead!
It’s been too long since I’ve participated in Ailsa’s travel theme posts. This week the topic is Dry. Enjoy these images from southern Africa. I was there for three months a couple years ago, at a time that straddled the end of the dry and beginning of the wet seasons. My better desert landscapes are from the American Southwest, but these show the real impact of dry.
It was amazing the sense of anticipation among the animals (and also people) as they awaited the rains. It is for many of them a time of life and death, a time of anxiety. This is especially true with respect to their young. Most animals there have babies not long before the wet season. Then they have to wait out the worst days, the end of the dry season while watching their young suffer. Maybe it’s a way for them to make sure the young are strong, I don’t know.
If you are interested in any of these images (copyrighted and not available for free download), please click on them. If you have any questions or specific requests, please contact me. Enjoy and thanks for looking!
A lone wildebeest stands watching the wet season’s first storm sweep into the Mbabe Depression of Botswana. No rain came at first, only wind and incredible dust. A moment after I shot this, the wildebeest ran for shelter.
A clump of grass grows at the base of an enormous orange dune in Namibia’s Namib Desert.
A large female African elephant shades her baby from the hot direct sun during one of the hottest days of the year in Botswana’s Chobe National Park.
Standing snags of camel thorn trees trace a dry watercourse in Namibia. Mountain-sized dunes of the Namib Desert lie in the background.
Ostriches seemed to be most abundant in the dry grasslands of Namibia.
During their incredible migration into the Makgadikgadi Pans of Botswana, a zebra mom uses her tail to brush insects away from her foal.
A desert plated lizard in the dunes of the Namib desert uses its armored head to dig quickly into the sand.
Plants adapted to dry conditions grow very slowly, but it’s hard to beat the ancient Welwitschia of Namibia. Some are well over 2000 years old.
The long horns and large ears are characteristic features of the gemsbok, an antelope superbly adapted to the arid regions of Africa.
This lioness in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert is preserving her energy during an incredibly hot day in order to hunt (the above animal) in the relative cool of the evening. Wish I had as good an excuse to be lazy!
Namibia’s Skeleton Coast is by far the driest, most empty place I’ve been, an extremely arid shore with plenty of shipwrecks.
Anyone who has spent a lot of time in deserts knows about the annoying, dry thing that happens inside your nose. This giraffe in the Kalahari has the solution!
Then he seemed to smile mockingly at me for having far too short a tongue!
A mirage of a lake appears on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast.
Sunset in the dunes of the Namib Desert.
An empty beach invites exploration on Costa Rica’s remote Osa Peninsula.
This is the third and final installment in this series on travel photography tips. I hope you’ve enjoyed and gotten something out of them. Check out Part I and Part II if you haven’t already. If you are interested in any of the pictures just click on them and you will see options for purchase of the high-resolution versions. Please contact me if you have any questions.
- What to Photograph: You should have done some research on what to seek out and photograph while on your trip. But if you didn’t do much, so what? Just hit up a gift shop when you arrive and check out the postcards. They will tell you what is often photographed in that place. You might not want to take most of those pictures, but it is only a good thing to know what they are. Don’t be shy, ask questions about the subjects in the pictures. Hit up the proprietor or buy the card(s) and approach locals on the street with questions about what’s pictured. This can yield much more than how to get to the particular spot. Think of postcards as springboards for further exploration.
- Roaming & People Pics: I mentioned wandering above, but I want to stress that there is one good reason that a plan is not really necessary. That reason is people. There are almost certainly going to be people anywhere you go, and they are endlessly fascinating subjects for your pictures. While I am normally quite reserved around home, I open up on the road. Especially in different countries, I’m willing to sort of make a fool of myself. I approach people readily, perhaps make a joke, and ask to take some photographs. Most say yes. Sometimes I even take their picture first then go up and explain why I just took their picture. My reason is usually flattering. As you might know, flattery will get you everywhere.
- Children: I hate seeing tourists with cameras converge on kids and you see the kids aren’t into it. It’s one thing if a group of laughing children approach you and ham it up. But you should always ask about and look for their parents. Ask the parents if it’s okay first. Just don’t be one of those doofuses in the Himalayan village cornering a couple young friends just being themselves and feeling slightly threatened by all the pasty tourists pressing in with their cameras.
- Elderly: There is a sort of axiom out there about travel photography that kids and old people are what you should focus on. This might be true as far as the impact of the images, but I don’t generally go along with it. I think there are all sorts of interesting people out there: young, old and in between. But kids and the elderly are probably most likely to have the time to give you. Just don’t treat the elderly like some people treat kids – as if they have no real say in the situation. Treat everybody the same, with respect for them and their time.
- Communication: A nice smile and willingness to chat is always good. Sometimes language is a barrier. But you can just share what pictures you’ve taken with them (via the LCD) and have a laugh. It’s important to make some kind of connection, and make clear from the beginning that you’re into taking pictures. Don’t be shy about that.
- Sharing: It goes without saying, if you promise to send pictures of people that you’ve taken, you need to follow through. Doing it while on the road is the best option. But I carry a Polaroid Pogo printer, a pocket-sized printer that uses no ink and connects directly to my DSLR via a mini-USB cable. It produces wallet-sized prints. I give out prints for people who cooperate and with whom I’ve spent time. I don’t go crazy (you can only carry so much paper), but it has greased many a wheel believe me. I just found out, however, that they have almost quadrupled the price on these. The new ones have bluetooth, but I paid $45 and they are now about $160! I can’t really recommend this thing (which produces, after all, rather poor quality prints) at that new price. But if you can find an older one, go for it.
- Money: Should you pay for pictures or not? If a person is dressed up like his ancestors and is accompanied by a bored animal, you can bet you need to. But in most cases it’s optional; always has been. I don’t generally do it. But since in the case of other countries (where you are more likely to be asked to pay) the people I want to photograph are on the street and thus may likely be selling something, I will simply buy something from them. Then I’m not some tourist with a camera but a customer. Or if they ask for money I might offer them a small print (from the Pogo – see above), explaining that it’s not my “thing” to pay for photos. Like all rules, this rule of mine has exceptions, but I try pretty hard to stick to it.
- Relax: I think everyone should read Tao de Ching before they travel. Trust me I’ve tried too hard when traveling, usually only for the first couple days though. Just take it as it comes. If it rains, get an umbrella and shoot interesting city stuff. If it’s hot get out early and late, taking advantage of “pool light” in the mid-day. Shoot what interests you in the place you’re in and don’t stress about things. You want to have a good time on your trip, so you should be willing to miss some shots and keep your “let the good times roll” vibe in place. For one thing, you’ll get better people shots with a fun carefree attitude. Have fun!
Okay, I’m tired of this subject for now. There is more, probably much more, to say on this subject. If you have something to add, or any questions, let it fly! I’ll probably be posting on this subject in the future, and many of my posts are travel-related anyway. Thanks for reading!
Their shapes and fact that these camel thorn trees in Namibia are in silhouette helps to isolate them from the background of dunes. The strong morning light washes out the background, further de-emphasizing it. 55 mm., 1/1600 sec. @ f/16.
This is a look I sometimes go for in my images, if for no other reason than to occasionally get away from the extended depth of field, wide-angle landscapes that dominate my shooting. It involves highlighting one or a few particular subjects and allowing other parts of the scene to be less obvious. Although close-up or true macro photographs fall into this category, I’m not really talking about those. They are relatively straightforward images to make. The trick I think is to isolate a subject and yet still leave something of the surroundings for the viewer to identify – even if it’s just a feel for the surroundings.
This type of image works well if the subject contrasts in some way with the rest of the scene. Your subject doesn’t have to be big, or even all that interesting. You will make it more interesting by photographing it in the right way! But it sure helps if the subject you’re trying to isolate is already set off in some way from its surroundings.
For this picture of my mare I simply opened up my aperture all the way (f/4) and shot. I checked my LCD and saw that the background was a little too much in focus, so I moved closer and shot again. I wanted it to be only slightly out of focus. 200 mm., 1/160 sec. @ f/4.0.
Here are some examples of subjects that are suitable for isolation:
- Flowers, either a single bloom or a tight bunch. Their color can really set them off against the background.
- Trees, if they are interesting in some way. Good candidates are trees that show off a different color (say a golden larch against green pines or firs), or a stark, bare tree against a background empty of details. A tree that stands far above the rest of the canopy can make a good subject for isolation too.
- Rocks can be good subjects for isolation, so long as they either contrast in color (difficult to find) or stick out in some other way from their background. So-called hoodoos are a perfect example. These are pillars, often with interesting shapes, that stick up out of the surrounding landscape.
- Animals or people are perhaps the easiest subjects to isolate against a natural background.
For this shot of spring poppies, I wanted to include the cliff they were growing beneath, so I moved in close and chose a wide-angle. If I had shot it from a standing position, the flowers would not be a strong enough subject. 24 mm., 1/125 sec. @ f/11.
How you go about isolating a subject will depend on how strongly the subject already contrasts with its surroundings, plus how much you wish to hit the viewer in the head with isolation. Your approach can be subtle, such as a slight vignette applied in post-processing, or it can have full-on impact, such as a shallow depth of field combined with a mask applied in post-processing that darkens and further blurs everything but the subject.
USING DEPTH OF FIELD
If you use a large aperture (small f number), you can put your subject in clear focus while the rest of the image is blurred. You should be aware that it rarely works to put a lot of the area in front of the subject out of focus. It’s best to limit this effect and go for blurring the background instead. A blurred background looks much more natural than a blurred foreground. This is certainly not a hard and fast rule, however. You should play around with different levels of foreground blurring when the opportunity arises.
For this macro image of moss, I wanted to highlight the droplet, so I focused on that and got as close as I could. The blurry stalk in front of the droplet takes away from the picture. 200 mm., 2.0 sec. @ f/16; taken with Canon 70-200 mm. f/4L + Canon 500D close-up lens.
I often will spot a composition that just begs for an isolation technique, and it is only because of a subject that intrigues me. It might be shape, it might be texture, but I most often pull the trigger when it is color that sets the subject off. Perhaps this is because of my bias toward color in photography, but it also seems to work better than using a subject’s other characteristics.
USING BRIGHTNESS (NATURAL)
This might be the best way to highlight a subject. Anyone viewing a photo will tend to look at the brighter parts first. You don’t have a lot of control over this sometimes, unless you can move your subject. I should note right here that it’s not okay to damage the natural world in your pursuit for the perfect picture. But if you are photographing a person or pet, moving them into a beam of light is a good option. You can also wait on a cloudy day for light beams to fall on your subject. You will see stunning shots of hill towns in Europe highlighted in this manner. Also think about shooting into the sun in order to highlight your subject in the opposite way – by making it much darker than the background (see top image).
USING BRIGHTNESS (FLASH)
You can use flash, whether it is daytime or not, to isolate a subject with brightness. Even a subtle flash directed at the subject can be used in combination with a darkening mask for the surroundings to create a “spotlight” effect. The spotlight can be obvious or subtle or something in between. When I say subtle flash I am talking about either being near the outer limits of the flash’s working distance or using flash exposure compensation to dial down the power of the flash (or a combination of the two). Check the owner’s manuals for your camera (and for your flash if it is an off-camera unit) to see how to dial down the flash’s power.
For this shot of springbok in Namibia, I broke a rule saying that your in-focus subject should be in front. But placing the male in shadow helped to focus attention on the well-lighted female in back. 400 mm., 1/1250 sec. @ f/5.6
If you are closer to the subject, even something small like a flower, it will appear bigger in your frame. I know that is obvious, but it’s amazing how many photographers refuse to simply move their feet and get closer to a subject. If you do this, you might get one more picture out of the scene, one you didn’t see initially. Maybe it will not turn out very well. But maybe it will!
Of course the bigger the subject the easier it is to isolate it from the background. In other words, you won’t have to rely on other means, like depth of field, nearly as much. If you are going wide-angle, for example, and only have f/4 or f/5.6 as a maximum aperture on the lens, you won’t be able to throw the background very much out of focus. In this case you will appreciate characteristics of the subject like color and size; they will play a bigger role in isolation.
Although I recently posted a similar image to this one, I included this because it illustrates well the technique of getting close to your subject and playing around with depth of field to get just the right amount of blur. Canon 100 mm. macro lens, 1/80 sec. @ f/8.0
USING EMPTY SPACE
This might be the most obvious technique to isolate a subject. Just put a lot of empty space around it. You feel isolated when you are surrounded by empty space, so why shouldn’t a picture give a feel of isolation if a person, animal or tree is surrounded by a lot of empty space. Photographers often call it “negative” space. It’s just portions of the frame lacking in elements. Broad expanses of sky, grass, water, they all count as empty (or negative) space. See the bottom image for an example of this technique. The more compelling your subject, the better.
USING POINT OF VIEW
You’ve probably noticed that the lower you get, the bigger objects closer to you appear, while things further away appear even smaller. This is really using size, as mentioned above. But here you’re taking advantage of apparent size. Does it matter to the viewer whether the size of something in the frame is “real” or “apparent”? Nope. If you’re using a relatively wide angle, this effect is magnified. With fisheye lenses, it reaches the extreme. I should mention the opposite case. If you gain an elevated viewpoint, things that are closer to you will appear to be closer in size to things that are further away.
This big male hippo in Zambia put himself closer to my position in the boat, thus giving me the chance to quickly grab the shot and isolate him against his pod of females. 81 mm., 1/800 sec. @ f/7.1.
USING FOCAL LENGTH
As I just mentioned, things closer to you appear even bigger when you get lower. The same thing occurs when you use a wider angle, a shorter focal length. If you use a lens with a focal length of 20 mm., for example, you are going to isolate closer subjects by virtue of their appearing bigger in the frame. If you use a telephoto at 100 mm. or more, you are going to accomplish the opposite. Closer subjects will more easily blend in with the background, again mostly according to apparent size.
Although I got close to this flower, I kept the focal length fairly short (wide angle) to include plenty of sky and keep the background from going completely out of focus. 67 mm., 1/30 sec. @ f/22.
USING THE COMPUTER
There are several techniques to use in post-processing that will further isolate your subject. But realize that you will need to use some or all of the methods listed above during capture so that you don’t need to push the post-processing too far. This is a truism in photography. You will only get natural-looking results if you take steps during capture that get you partway (most of the way?) to where you want to be in the end.
Vignettes, masks, selective focus treatments and more are all used to further isolate subjects from their surroundings. Instead of going into detail here, I recommend doing a bit of research. Look into how portrait photographers use post-processing techniques to isolate people from backgrounds (in non-studio surroundings). Nearly any book or video series that shows you how to use Photoshop, Lightroom, Aperture and others will go into the techniques used to help isolate people (or animals) from their surroundings. Take a look, and apply those things to flowers, rocks, or any subject you wish to isolate.
For this shot of blooming beargrass with Mount Adams in the background, the fact that I was close to the subject relative to the background meant that a small aperture was needed to avoid the background being too blurry. 165 mm., 1/60 sec. @ f/22
Use all of these things together. Use characteristics of the subject like color, brightness and size (or some other feature), use apparent size by varying distance to subject and point of view, use the focal length of your lenses, and maybe even use flash. While editing on the computer use vignettes, masks and other techniques to further isolate your subject.
If you bear these things in mind while shooting, pretty soon it should become second nature to you. It will help keep your mind on the subject. I’m not promising that you’ll get a level of isolation that yields a winner every time. But I can promise you’ll obtain a greater variety of images, even if you only vary depth of field. If more of your images isolate interesting subjects, you will eventually have more images with impact in your portfolio. And that can only be a good thing.
This is just a straight picture taken at f/11. The height and interesting shape of the lightning-struck tree does all the work of isolation without any help from the photographer. 28 mm., 1/80 sec. @ f/11.
Isolation in this image comes from a combination of the fact this roan antelope is the only live creature plus all of the open space of Malawi’s Nyika Plateau that surrounds him. 31 mm., 1/50 sec. @ f/11