Archive for the ‘animals’ Tag
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.
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.
Orange globe mallow in bloom.
Yesterday was the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere. So in celebration here’s a Two for Tuesday post. It’s where I post two photos that are related to each other in some way.
This pair shows a couple closely related signs of Spring. During a splendid hike through a desert canyon recently, the season was springing forth in typical desert fashion. Spring rarely bowls you over in the desert. But the closer you look the more you see. It’s why both of these are close-up shots.
The hummingbird surprised me at first when he buzzed by my head, looking straight at me hovering a couple feet away before zooming off to perch on his branch. I wondered why he was there at first, but then walkiaround I found a spring with some flowers blooming. In fact the further up the little draw I walked the more like a lush oasis it seemed.
This little hummer was spending part of his morning checking out the visitor to his little oasis near a spring in a desert canyon: Death Valley National Park.
Get out there and enjoy springtime (or autumn for my southern hemisphere friends). And thanks for checking in!
The Mission Mountains north of Missoula, Montana
I’m in the mood for a travel post, so here goes. This is the first of at least two parts. Glacier National Park lies in northwestern Montana. It’s part of a larger park, an international peace park, spanning the border with Canada. The Canadian portion is called Waterton Lakes.
Glacier is a place of beautiful, rugged mountains and big blue lakes, a place of charismatic wildlife, including grizzly bear, moose, and even (rarely seen) wolves. Because of widespread glacial retreat over the past century or so (an effect of global warming), you need to hike into high country to get up close and personal with the park’s namesake glaciers. Those that remain, while visible from the road in places (mostly on the east side) are relatively small. Much more obvious are the spectacular landscape features left by the extensive glaciation of the past. U-shaped valleys, glacial lakes, sharp aretes (knife-edge ridges), moraines and more lie around every corner.
Springtime is lambing season: Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep
Before I get too far, I have a pet peeve. When we read about travel destinations, either in a guidebook or in a blog like this, the author invariably tells you when is the best time to visit. We are so used to this that we feel cheated if it’s missing and go off to another source to find out this important piece of information.
This of course, for nearly every destination, is pure bull. I’ve heard professional photographers complain about how over-popular and over-exposed places like Iceland and Patagonia are getting. Too many photogs. and too many pictures. And yet they all continue to schedule their workshops at the same time of year. It’s like the busiest road near where you live. You only think of it as having tons of honking cars or bustling people on it. But try taking a walk there in the middle of the night, or the middle of a snowstorm.
Spring is also a time of plentiful water falling down the mountainsides: above Grinnell Lake.
Is there really a “best” time to visit? Maybe, but travel authors are giving their opinions, as should be obvious from the word “best”. You aren’t learning about the only time to go but the best time with regard to climate and other factors (the main factor being the author’s personal opinion). It’s a very subjective topic that is far too often presented in a misleadingly factual manner. Now some places are virtually off-limits during some times of year because of major road closures or other factors. But it is a very rare destination that can’t be visited at any time of year.
Glacier lilies are the first to bloom after the snow melts in Glacier’s subalpine regions.
For example, on a trip across Montana a couple weeks ago, I had plenty of options other than Glacier. But I love the scenery in the NW corner of the state, so I drove up toward Flathead Lake through the Mission Valley (top image). After that, it was an easy decision to go a bit further to Glacier. It was my first springtime in Glacier (late May is still springtime in the northern Rockies).
Every photo workshop plying this park I’ve ever heard of is scheduled in high summer, some in early fall. But that doesn’t mean other times of year aren’t worthwhile. I guarantee you’ll be amazed at the park whatever time of year you go.
I may sound like I’m contradicting myself here, but I’m going to recommend, if it’s your first visit to Glacier, that you think about sometime after 4th of July weekend, on up to early October. But if you’ve been before, if you want fewer fellow tourists, or if you want a slightly different experience, consider either an early (May to mid-June) or very late (mid-October into winter) season visit.
In May, and most years well into June, you’ll be dealing with snow in the high country. The famous Going to the Sun Road over Logan Pass was closed to vehicles when I visited. It’s closed until at least mid-June most years. That’s a big draw for Glacier; first timers want to drive over that pass. But read on for a way around that apparent limitation.
It didn’t bother me too much that Logan was closed. For one thing, I’ve been to the park before in summer and have driven over the pass. Also, because of the closure, not too many people were there, even though it was Memorial Day weekend. Best of all, I found out that Logan Pass wasn’t actually inaccessible after all. You can bicycle up from the closure gate! Bike rentals are available at the store in Apgar Village, the main hub of activity in the west part of the park.
You can also walk of course, but it’s a longish hike. Granted, once on top you’ll be walking around on huge snow drifts. But it will most likely be compact enough to not sink in too far. And you’ll be sharing it with just a few or no other people.
Weather moves in over Two Medicine Lake.
High-country hikes were snowed in during my visit, but that left plenty of hiking to do. Opened up for consideration were out of the way places I’ve never before explored, and probably wouldn’t if I was busy doing the more popular stuff you see in pictures on the web (over-shot Triple Falls or St. Mary Lake from Sun Point for example).
If you go in wintertime, cross-country skiing or snowshoeing is not only magical, you’ll get pictures very unlike the mainstream. You can even go by rail in winter and stay at the historic Izaak Walton Inn, which has wonderful groomed cross-country ski trails. The Inn is just outside the south boundary of the park. You can rent a vehicle to explore (with XC skis or snowshoes) those parts of the park open to traffic.
A doe, a deer, a female deer…
You see, there are always ways to make a trip worthwhile, no matter what time of year you go. So when you read about the “best” time to go someplace, you should at least take it with a grain of salt. For one thing, “best” times are usually also the most crowded and expensive times. Also, any pictures you get will end up looking more similar to what’s been done before. That’s because each season brings its own unique light and weather conditions.
Next time I will offer some ideas for things to do if you decide to break with the crowd and visit in Glacier’s spring season. I’ll also cover ideas for photography there in spring. So stay tuned!
Light from the setting sun illuminates the peaks along Lake Sherburne.
If you want to see desert bighorn sheep, you can’t do much better than east Zion National Park in Utah. Not the canyon itself so much; that can be a zoo in the warmer months. If you travel east, through a couple spectacular tunnels, you come out in a wonderland of sandstone monoliths. The bighorn sheep here are doing quite well.
I drove through my favorite part of Zion a couple days ago, stopping to take a short hike. I saw two sheep browsing the spring growth and slowly pursued them, hoping they’d get comfortable with me. They crossed the road and I crossed behind them. Then I saw the babies & another female.
Mom was understandably shy about letting me get close to them, so I just watched as they climbed the steep sandstone. Mom reached a viewpoint, but the kids were more careful. They took their time, making sure each step was placed right.
Now they were very visible from the road and a few other cars stopped. But since I had been with them for awhile, I ended up with a nice series, not just the one with them surveying their domain. Stories and behavior are what I always hope for with wildlife. I used my newish 600 mm. lens. Enjoy!
Wait up mom, we’re coming!
Try and reach us now, haha!
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.
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