Archive for the ‘Friday Foto Talk’ Tag

Friday Foto Talk: Macro Photography “in Flow”   5 comments

Morning dew in a Montana mountain meadow creates dazzling jewels in the light of the rising sun.

This series on flow and photography has taken on a life of its own; but don’t worry, it’s almost over!  If you haven’t been following along, flow is that state of intense focus where we lose track of time.  Check out Part I and Part II for tips on how to apply it to photography in general.  The rest of this series has applied flow to various genres (landscape, travel, etc.).  This week it’s macro and close-up photography.

Macro is probably the easiest kind of photography in which to experience flow.  There is something about focusing on the small that helps to capture and hold our attention, often for hours.  Macro can also require a lot of trial and error, at least for me it can!  If you don’t become frustrated too easily this can bring about intense engagement with the process.

Pasqueflower is a unique part of the alpine bloom every summer on Mt. Rainier, Washington.

Pasqueflower is a unique part of the alpine bloom every summer on Mt. Rainier, Washington.

Awhile back I did a series on macro photography, so check those posts out for a much more comprehensive tutorial.  The tips below are specific to achieving a state of flow during your macro shoots:

  • Look and Think Small.  It’s hard while on a walk to concentrate exclusively on finding macro subjects.  It would take hours to cover a mile!  But you will find macro opportunities if when you’re hiking along you look out for the odd bit of color, a contrasting shape or texture, or a little movement in the corner of your eye.  Both thinking about and looking for small subjects brings you into the present, and that facilitates flow, even before you take a single shot.
This brown basilisk in a Guatemalan forest almost escaped my attention.

This brown basilisk in a Guatemalan forest almost escaped my attention.

  • Work it.  When you do find something interesting, stick with it for awhile.  That is, work the subject.  Change settings and camera position to vary depth of field.  Vary angle and distance to get different backgrounds and compositions.  And don’t stop there.  Once you’re in “macro mode”, it’s easier to find other subjects, or as with flowers, other examples of the same subject.  Stay on your hands and knees, keep the macro lens on, and don’t worry about time.  Enjoy the flow.
After a few shots of this frog's whole body, I moved in closer and closer until I got a shot that empasized his watchful eye.

After a few shots of this frog’s whole body, I moved in closer and closer until I got a shot that empasized his watchful eye.

  • See the (small-scale) Light.  As photographers we are constant observers of the light.  But when you’re shooting close-up the patterns we are used to change.  All of a sudden you’re able to take advantage of the fact that your field of view is greatly reduced.  This makes it easier to get effective shots in light that would be difficult when shooting larger scenes.  So be a student of light on a small scale too.  Watch how it plays across confined spaces, and how larger elements like trees can help shade or spotlight your subject.  As with the first point above, this will help keep you in the present and accentuate flow.

 

A water lily in the middle of the Okavango Delta caught the light beautifully as we passed in our mokoro (dugout canoe).

A water lily in the middle of the Okavango Delta caught the light beautifully as we passed in our mokoro (dugout canoe).

  • Be Patient.  To one degree or another, patience is a requirement of all photography.  But when you’re waiting out the wind in a field of flowers or approaching an insect or other small creature inch by inch, you learn the real meaning of patience in photography.  Mastering patience is a key part of making flow a more frequent experience.

This was a recent shot.  I sat patiently waiting for one of the dragonflies buzzing around to land in this natural spotlight.

Macro photography is such a natural when it comes to flow that, even if you don’t normally do macro you’d do well to try it.  That’s because the practices that lead to successful macro photos will help you with the kinds of photography you do enjoy.  And because flow is relatively easy to experience with macro, you can more readily get into it next time you’re out, whatever kind of shooting you do.  Thanks for reading and have a happy weekend!

One of many desert five-spots in Death Valley, part of the so-called super-bloom of last spring.

One of many desert five-spots in Death Valley, part of the so-called super-bloom of last spring.

 

Foto Talk: Flow & Photographing People   4 comments

One of my favorite portraits, from Cambodia.

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.

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.

This young Mayan girl from the Guatemalan Highlands was easy to approach.

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.

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.

Friday Foto Talk: Photo Flow in Practice (Landscape & Architecture)   5 comments

Early mornings in beautiful places like Pintler Pass, Montana are tailor made for flow.

I’m liking this series on flow in photography.  Hope you are too!  Flow, or being ‘in the zone’, is a state of intense focus where you often lose the sense of time passing.  Check out the first two posts in the series for a background primer.  This and succeeding posts will go through particular examples to show how flow can help you get the best images whether you’re shooting a grand landscape or ducks in the park.

Landscape Flow

I’m not surprised that I more easily enter flow while alone and shooting landscapes.  I love being in nature and almost always feel relaxed away from civilization.  I don’t think we can assume, however, that flow in nature photography is always a piece of cake.  Often it’s when we’re alone in a beautiful setting that those oddly irrelevant thoughts enter in and distract us, taking us right out of the moment.  And being in the moment, fully engaged with your subject, is the entry point to experiencing photo flow.  External factors may get in the way of flow too, as the following example shows.

Though I'm not as much into shooting the stars as I used to be (too popular), I still love stargazing: Snow Canyon, Utah.

Though I’m not as much into shooting the stars as I used to be (too popular), I still love stargazing: Snow Canyon, Utah.

EXAMPLE – Rain at Panther Creek Falls:  Here’s an occasion where I got into flow despite challenges related to weather & terrain.  Although it’s a bit overexposed and popular with photogs., I’d been wanting to shoot at Panther Creek Falls in SW Washington.  To my surprise I was alone.  The fact it was rainy may have had something to do with that, but I wanted to shoot it in a rainy period, for the atmosphere and green of the vegetation.  I spent a lot of time wiping water from my lens, as much from the spray as from rain.

I wacked through wet brush on a very steep slope, approaching from the opposite side of the canyon than the viewpoint and trail is on.  This waterfall gets its unique character from a large spring that floods out of the steep hillside, and I wanted to see that up close.  As I always do with popular spots, I was going for completely different points of view than most every other shot at Panther.  I stayed for nearly three hours, working the subject mercilessly.  Getting to interesting viewpoints in that terrain was slow going, and all the lens-wiping took time too.

Panther Creek Falls, Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Washington.

Panther Creek Falls, Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Washington.

Despite all the distractions of weather and terrain, once I was soaked and didn’t need to worry about getting any wetter, I entered a state of flow.  The image above wasn’t the best of the shoot.  The horizontal version probably is, but I’ve posted that before.  I squatted very close to the water and under the log.  The main falls is in the background.  There are two lessons here:  First, only on a misty rainy day is a shot like this possible; you can’t really simulate it very well with software.  Second, flow by its nature means ignoring discomfort and overcoming challenges.

At Monument Valley, Utah, sand and the light at dusk create a peaceful scene.

 

Architecture Flow

To me landscape and architecture are similar in many ways.  By the way, I plan to post soon on the different types of photography and how to use their commonalities to more effectively “cross-train” your shooting.  You are much more likely to be around other people when shooting architecture, but flow still feels similar to landscape.  Capturing the character of a building, as with mountains, is more likely when you are in the moment; when you carefully observe the subject, its surroundings and the changing light.

A building on Portland's industrial eastside.

A building on Portland’s industrial eastside.

EXAMPLE – Portland Eastside:  I was just walking along on the east side of Portland, Oregon, close to the river.  Many of the older warehouses and other unremarkable buildings in this area have been spiffed up in recent years, and are now occupied by various upscale tenants.  It was dusk, my favorite time to shoot architecture.  I forgot about judgments and started noticing the more subtle features of the buildings.  This is what flow can do, allow you to notice everything around you.

A big challenge for this image was one that is common with architecture: point of view.  In order to get the right angle and show off the gentle curve of the building as it follows the curving street and sidewalk, I needed to stand in the middle of the street.  Because of the low light, I also needed to be on a tripod.  After several unsuccessful tries where I was chased back to the sidewalk by traffic, I was able to get the shot during a lull.  I don’t think I was in flow while running for my life.  But I was for the important part; that is, finding the subject & composition.

Thanks for reading and have a great weekend!

Grand Canyon’s North Rim Lodge reflects warm light from the setting sun at Bright Angel Point.

Friday Foto Talk: Meditation & Photo Flow   10 comments

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.

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.

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.

Foto Talk: Letting it Flow   4 comments

 

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 historic building all by itself along the Santa Fe Trail in New Mexico.

A rock formation called the Lighthouse in Palo Duro Canyon, Texas.

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?

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.

A recent sunset somewhere in New Mexico.

Friday Foto Talk: Photography in National Parks, Part III   6 comments

Sunrise over Lake Powell at Lone Rock.

This is a follow-up to the recent series on photography in national parks.  For these mini-series, they just seem to naturally make up the nice round number of three parts.

Closures & Budget

In one of those posts I listed some of my likes and dislikes on shooting in national parks.  Here is one more pair:

Like:  National parks are open all the time.  Unlike state parks and some other protected areas, which are often closed from dusk to dawn, national parks are generally open 24/7/365.  That means you can go out with your flashlight and hike down a trail to an overlook to gaze at stars (and photograph them).  There are some exceptions, and because of the near universality of this always-open policy, it can be a rude surprise to learn after you’ve arrived to a park that it doesn’t really apply there.  Make sure to check their website before heading out.  A few of these exceptions are described below.

Dislike:  The Park Service has an extremely limited budget and yet in many cases does not seem to know how to spend it wisely.  They are constantly under threat of either being shut down or privatized.  Politically it’s the right-wingers & anti-government tea party types who push this agenda.   While I believe strongly that parks should remain public and that they’re too commercial as it is, I do notice the NPS wasting their limited funding.

For example, I think too much money is spent at Yellowstone and other popular parks on a police force that seems much more well-staffed than it needs to be.  A law-enforcement ranger in an SUV costs a lot of money, much more than an educational ranger who spends a lot of time outside, on foot.

Several decades back the NPS committed strongly to ramping up their law enforcement, replacing real rangers with police in ranger outfits.  I believe strongly that this was wrong, primarily because it took resources away from education and interpretation, the traditional role of a ranger.  It’s not that I disagree with having cops around; crime takes place in parks just like it does anywhere.  It’s just that in most cases the numbers of police is overkill.  There are neighborhoods in many cities that would love to have half the police presence that Yellowstone has.

Orange lichen and sandstone in the Grand Staircase, southern Utah.

Exception 1:  Chaco Canyon.  

This former center of the Ancestral Puebloan (aka Anasazi) culture in New Mexico has a scenic loop road that is the only way to access most of the ruins and trails in this national historic park.  In order to control potential poaching of archaeological resources, the park closes that road at dusk.  I can personally attest to their strict enforcement at Chaco; they want you out before the sun disappears below the horizon.  I had to talk to the superintendent to get a (spendy!) ticket dismissed because I was shooting at sunset and assumed a small grace period.

The supernova pictograph in Chaco Canyon is only accessible by hiking.

The supernova pictograph in Chaco Canyon is only accessible by hiking.

 

Exception 2:  Mesa Verde.  

Mesa Verde in Colorado is similar to Chaco.  That is, there is no access to the cliff dwellings after sunset.  The reason, as always, is to protect resources.  While that is certainly understandable, resources need protection all the time.  The real reason is the usual lack of staffing, a budget issue.

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Utah.

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Utah.

Exception 3:  White Sands National Monument.

This place in New Mexico has an unusual policy where they close the entrance gate from about dusk to dawn, with hours varying by season.  It’s very much like a state park or wildlife refuge.  The reason given is the adjacent missile range, so it’s a safety issue.  But it’s also because they don’t have money to patrol at night.  They are happy to open early for sunrise or stay late if you pay them $50 per extra hour, which is actually a pretty good deal if you have a group.  But really: the military doesn’t have money to patrol their own boundaries?

Early morning at White Sands, New Mexico.

Early morning at White Sands, New Mexico.

DUSK TO DAWN CLOSURES 

When protected areas are closed at night it can create a problem for landscape & nature photographers, even those who don’t want to shoot the stars.  Because of the need to concentrate our shooting at dawn and dusk, it can be quite difficult to properly shoot at sunset and get out by nightfall.  No good photographer packs up right after the sun dips below the horizon, for one thing.  The best light often comes after that.

I’ve found that many state parks will give you a decent grace period; you’re okay until it is fully dark.  Even so, when you hike a fair distance to a sunset spot, it’s well and truly dark when you return to the car.  A grace period won’t help in that case.

Another recent image from the Grand Staircase, Utah.

Another recent image from the Grand Staircase, Utah.

Although (some) state and other parks may show some flexibility, things are different at national and state wildlife refuges.  These sites are managed for wildlife not people, so don’t expect much if any consideration.  Some areas, in fact, are closed to entry day and night.  And it’s common to close areas seasonally for breeding birds.  I’ve heard of people being jailed for entering wildlife refuges, even those without firearms.  Poaching is a big problem at many refuges, so it’s perfectly understandable.

But I often wish for a world without so many rules.  Most are made and enforced because of a very small minority of people who can’t seem to figure out how to behave.  But it’s all of us who have to suffer for it.  I suppose it’s one of those things that can’t be helped, so why stress about it?

That’s it for this week.  I may have come off as a bit of a grump, but that’s not really me at all.  I’m actually very happy having all these fantastic places to shoot and play.  But the main reason for my appreciation is that it’s unlike so much of what humans do, which is the result of rather selfish, short-term thinking.  But parks and preserves are set aside for future generations and thus arise from more enlightened long-term thinking.  Have a great weekend and happy shooting!

Sunset at Coral Pink Sand Dunes, a state park near the much more famous Zion National Park, Utah.

Sunset at Coral Pink Sand Dunes, a state park near the much more famous Zion National Park, Utah.

Friday Foto Talk: Ethics & Photography in National Parks   6 comments

Chaco Canyon from Penasco Blanco, an out-of-the-way ruin requiring a hike to get to.  Being here at sunset means risking a ticket (see text below)

Last week I listed a few likes and dislikes of visiting and photographing in national parks.  All subjective of course.  When I say I dislike something, it means I dislike only the one thing.  Please don’t try to read anything more into it.  For example, in general I dislike crowds.  Not at ballgames, rock concerts, etc.; they’re a part of the experience at such places.  I certainly don’t begrudge the many people who love our parks and visit them.  I recognize that if crowds at parks are a problem then I’m a part of that problem.  It’s just that I can’t enjoy any natural area if it’s too crowded.

The Yellowstone River meanders through Hayden Valley. While the road through here is very busy, you can hike short distances cross-country for different views.

The Yellowstone River meanders through Hayden Valley. While the road through here is very busy, you can hike cross-country for different views and few people.

Pet Peeve #1: Littering

And speaking of crowds in parks, it can lead to other problems.  One of them, a big pet peeve of mine, is littering.  Strangely, the Park Service seems to do little to combat this problem.  For example the publication you get upon entering any park spends a lot of time warning of the dangers of bears, falling rocks or whatever hazards exist naturally (and obviously) in parks.  Especially bears, they seem completely fixated on bears.  But they say nothing about littering.  The park newsletter is the obvious place to mention the fact that littering is illegal and subject to a fine.

I believe the Park Service thinks the problem was beaten years ago.  Through the 1970s Americans began to litter a lot less.  We became much more environmentally aware in that era.  And increasing fines for littering didn’t hurt either.  But those days are gone now.  The younger generations tend to be less environmentally conscious than their parents.  In other words parents have dropped the ball in this way like so many others.

In addition (warning: this is going to sound politically incorrect), the immigrant population has been increasing.  While that isn’t a bad thing of course, many of them come from places where littering is socially acceptable (though that is now changing in certain parts of the world).  These people simply need to be educated, and for those of us who already know, we need to be reminded.  If anyone doesn’t get the message, break out the fines.  Money talks, in any language.  But the NPS isn’t doing any of this.  As a result we all get to see plastic water bottles and toilet paper strewn about in our national parks.

If Death Valley gets busy you can always head over to adjacent Panamint Valley, a great place to look for feral burros.

If Death Valley gets busy you can always head over to adjacent Panamint Valley.  Also within the park, it’s a great place to look for feral burros.

Sometimes it pays to be short: A small passageway in Lehman Caves, Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

Sometimes it pays to be short: A small passageway in Lehman Caves, Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

Pet Peeve #2: The Ugly Photographer

Notice I haven’t mentioned the sorts of behaviours that get spread all over social media these days: the idiots (let’s be honest) who approach dangerous animals or enter environmentally sensitive areas to get selfies.  While these kinds of things are certainly damaging (not least to our collective self-respect!), I think they are still pretty rare.  So I don’t join in the public shaming on social media.  But the desire to document everything shows no signs of slowing, resulting in problems more subtle and insidious than charging buffalo.

WILDLIFE & THE GOLDEN RULE

I’d like to throw light on something I’ve observed with increasing frequency in parks.  While not as outright stupid as the tourist who wants a picture of his child next to a wild animal, it’s nevertheless very thoughtless and selfish.  First of all, despite our frequent cluelessness, the great majority of animals do not react to us aggressively at all.  The bad behaviour of photographers, whether they’re slinging a huge lens or holding up a cell phone, is almost always ignored.  But think about it.  We can still make life very difficult for the beings who call our parks home.

Every single day in the parks, wild animals are forced to endure a never-ending procession of tourists who think it’s okay to completely disrupt their lives to get photos.  For example, when bison or elk try to cross the road at Yellowstone, usually to access water or food, tourists routinely block the way in order to get photos.  I’ve seen the same thing done to black bears at the Great Smokies.  I’ve tried to get people to see what they’re doing, but have only gotten angry retorts.  Nobody likes to be called out no matter how diplomatic you try to be.

I spent quite awhile near this young bull elk, letting him get comfortable with me. He was laying down, resting in the forest just a few yards from the road but invisible to all the passing people.

I spent quite awhile near this young bull elk, letting him get comfortable with me. He was laying down, resting in the forest just a few yards from the road but invisible to all the passing people.

I know the good people who read this blog wouldn’t dream of doing this, but it’s easy to get caught up in the moment.  Put yourself in the animals’ places and consider how you’d respond to a stranger barging into your home, blocking your way to the frig while you’re trying to get something to eat or drink.  And just to get a stupid picture.  I don’t mean to rant or lecture too much.  Most people are conscientious.  They just need to hit the pause button once in awhile and think about what they’re doing.

Next week we’ll conclude this little series on the two sides of national parks.  Take it easy out there and shoot mellow.

Grand Canyon is the 2nd most visited park in the country, but if you're willing to drive a long gravel road, the north rim's Toroweap area is much quieter.

Grand Canyon is the 2nd most visited park in the country, but if you’re willing to drive a long gravel road, the north rim’s Toroweap area is much quieter.

Friday Foto Talk: Likes & Dislikes ~ Shooting in National Parks, Part I   17 comments

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.

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.

LIKE

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.

DISLIKE

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:  Rocky Mtn. NP, Colorado.

Colorful rocks and the lichen that like them high up in Rocky Mtn. NP, Colorado.

LIKE

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.

DISLIKE

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.

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.

So-called cave shields in Lehman Caves, Great Basin NP, Nevada.

LIKE

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).

DISLIKE

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.

Friday Foto Talk: Point of View & Staying Safe   13 comments

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.

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.

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.

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.

SOLUTIONS    

  • 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.

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.

This large African elephant in the Okavango Delta gave us a fright when he bluff charged.

SOLUTIONS

  • 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.

ANIMALS

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.

I definitely avoided turning my back on this Komodo dragon on the island of Rinca, Indonesia.

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.

PEOPLE

  • 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!).

SOLUTION

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.

Summary

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 Deadhorse Point, Utah, a popular spot, I arrived pre-dawn & was able to shoot this gnarled juniper while another photog. who arrived after me circled around with his little flashlight.

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.

Friday Foto Talk: Point of View – Ethics & Legality   4 comments

For this swirling pool on Colorado's St. Vrain River, I went for a POV looking down on it.

For this recent shot of a granite-lined pool on Colorado’s St. Vrain River, I went for a downward-looking POV.

After the recent posts on point of view (POV), I realized I had been taking it for granted.  It’s the kind of thing that experienced photographers model naturally when shooting.  But they gloss over it and don’t talk about it enough when teaching.  Novices tend to be busy figuring out their cameras, exposure, where to focus, etc.  As a result they may not pick up on how important POV is until later on.

But here’s a simple fact: the sooner you learn to quickly and purposefully adjust your point of view, the faster your photography will improve.  Why is POV so important?  Because it’s all about finding the best compositions.  And in photography composition means everything.  So be sure to check out POV Part I and POV Part II.  This week let’s take a step back and look at some consequences of changing POV in the quest for the perfect shot.

Last post I showed the male mountain bluebird. Here is his mate near the nest at 11,800 feet elevation in Colorado.

Last Wednesday featured a male mountain bluebird. Here is his mate near their nest at 11,800 feet (3600 m.) up in the Colorado Rockies.

An image whose point of view is of another creature's point of view (note what the elk is looking at).

An image whose point of view is of another creature’s point of view (note what the elk is looking at).

Okay.  You got the message of the last two Foto Talks.  You’re moving around with purpose, shifting POV in all directions, shooting away.  You’re well on your way to better photos.  And maybe on your way to trouble as well.  Here are some quandaries common to photography, along with ideas on how to handle them.

POV & Ethics

  • Be Kind to the Environment.  Moving closer to your foreground subject could mean trampling delicate vegetation or disturbing other living things (stirring up sediment in a sensitive aquatic environment, for example).  Just last night I saw a portrait photographer trampling flowers while shooting a family, and this was inside a national park.
  • Be Kind to Fellow Photographers.  In places with other photographers around, working a subject with many different POVs (normally laudable) could result in you selfishly “hogging” the subject (next post will have the counterpoint to this).

SOLUTIONS 

  • Strike a Balance.  While a strong commitment to getting the shot is necessary to get good images, it’s also important to avoid being insensitive or rude.
  • Be Aware of where you are and of those around you at all times.  I’m not saying to take your mind off the photography or to worry about what others think of you lying there on your belly.  But at the same time, be conscious about damaging sensitive habitats.  Think about the critters, including your fellow photographers.
The subalpine flower meadows of Mt. Rainier, Washington are a place where you should be careful where you step.

The subalpine flower meadows of Mt. Rainier, Washington are a place where you should be careful where you step.

POV, Legality & Permission

Are you going to hop that fence to get closer to your subject, grab a quick shot and get back before the property owner comes along?  What about entering a questionable area in some foreign country?  Laws are different there and enforced in different ways.  Do you really want the shot that badly?

  • Example 1:  Unexpected problem in a Foreign Land.  In a busy public area in Malawi I was shooting a cute little baby with big brown eyes, after asking her mom.  The unexpected result: a policeman became suspicious, approached me and wanted to take my camera away.  I had to do some quick talking, show them my pictures, and get the mom to back me up.
  • Example 2:  Dangerous & Illegal POV turns out OK.  Another example is the image below, which is a few years old.  I had driven past this spot with a fantastic view of Portland, Oregon many times.  But I could never see a safe way to shoot there.   For the same reason that makes the spot such a great POV:  it’s on a busy, curving freeway ramp that swings out over the Willamette River.

But one day I noticed a spot where the ramp widened, with just enough room to park.  It even had a curb for a bit of protection from traffic.  It required a quick maneuver in the heavy traffic.  The first time I did it was on my motorcycle, which made it quite easy.  But I knew it was illegal to be there so didn’t stay long.  I quickly set up my tripod and captured the shot I had been after.

Portland, Oregon is a town of bridges, like the Steele Bridge here spanning the Willamette River at dusk with a crescent moon.

Portland, Oregon is a town of bridges, like the Steele Bridge here spanning the Willamette River at dusk with a crescent moon.

SOLUTIONS:  Asking vs. Apologizing

You’ve probably heard the old expression “better to ask forgiveness than beg permission”.  Sounds good, right?  But in the real world you have to weigh risks and be able to handle things diplomatically if you get caught or challenged.    Here are a few examples:

  • In villages and on treks I’ve seen photographers surround some poor kid doing something cute, with no thought of whether it was okay with the parents.  That is horrible ugly tourist behavior.  With kids you should almost always ask the parents first.  Or be ready to be apologetic and honest about your motivations.
  • For sensitive areas (political or military), I would avoid them outright.  If you insist, always ask first.
  • Photographing someone’s property (including their bodies) also begs you to ask first.  But we’re entering a gray area.  If you make it a rule to always ask, you may not get many good shots.  You could miss the light, for example.  Then in reality you’re asking to return another time.
  • One more example: on a city street photographing people.  Unless you shoot first, you’ll probably miss that great candid shot.  For some subjects, however, it doesn’t matter, street performers for example.  So you may as well ask first.
One of my favorite child images, I didn't ask permission first in order to get this candid. But in an out of the way place, people are more chill, and I smiled a lot. Mom invited me in for tea.

One of my favorite child images, a Sherpa boy waiting for his dad to come home.  I didn’t ask permission first, but in a part of Nepal away from tourists, I was willing to risk it.  I smiled a lot and his mom invited me in for tea.

SOLUTIONS:  The Quandary

The last two points above illustrate a quandary unique to photography.  Do you forego the quick shot and engage first, or do you strike while the iron is hot and talk later?  Each of us have to handle it in our own way, realizing that each situation is different.  Ultimately we need to accept responsibility for our actions.  It’s safest to ask permission first, especially if there is the slightest doubt.  But whatever happens, it’s important to be honest and pleasant.

Okay that’s it for now.  Next week we’ll look at other issues to be aware of when actively changing your point of view.  Happy shooting and have a wonderful weekend!

Sunset over the high tundra of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

 

%d bloggers like this: