Archive for the ‘nature’ Tag

Rural America: Desert SW Road-trips ~ Death Valley to Zion   11 comments

The morning sun hits Death Valley’s salt flats.

The series on rural America continues.  The goal is to give you ideas for how to make your trips into the various regions of this huge country about more than ticking off scenic wonders and tourist hot spots.  Although America’s rich rural character has been in many areas replaced by suburban sprawl, it remains in more places than you might expect.

This and one or two succeeding posts begins a look at select road trips in the amazing region of the U.S. called the desert southwest (DSW).  Check out the last post for an introduction to the DSW.  Each time I travel here I find new detours and variations.  Some lead to interesting but relatively unknown scenic splendors.  But the best thing about these routes is they all reveal rural charms that are easy to miss if you stick to the main highways.  So let’s dive right in, starting in the west and moving east.

Death Valley to Zion

Of course any trip through the Desert SW is going to focus at least as much on nature as it does on rural areas.  This one is no exception.  For the obvious reason of its harshly dry climate, ranching is more important than farming in most areas along this route.  Cattle ranching in Nevada and SW Utah takes place largely on public lands.  Once in SW Utah you are in an area of the state called Dixie.  The town of St. George is large and bustling, but there are plenty of scenic small towns in the area to explore.

Scotty’s Castle is at the center of many of Death Valley’s best stories.

Ghost Towns of Death Valley

Start by traveling (if you fly in, from Los Angeles or Las Vegas) to Death Valley National Park in California.  It’s one of my favorite places in the world.  Here you can alternate rambles across sand dunes at sunrise and hikes through stunning canyons with a visit to a ghost town or two.  They are what remains of the gold mining that took place here in the 1800s and early 1900s.

The best known example is Rhyolite, which is not in the park but very accessible just across the Nevada border.  Beatty, the town nearby, will give you a glimpse of small-town life in the Great Basin of Nevada.  If you’d visited Rhyolite in the 1990s you would have seen an operating mine, and you will see the remnants of this more modern open-pit gold mine in the Bullfrog Hills above the ghost town.

Feral burros, left over from the days of gold and silver prospecting, roam the Mojave Desert of Death Valley National Park.

A spectacular pair of ghost towns lie on the opposite, western side of Death Valley, in the Panamint Valley.  You can drive right to the first, Ballarat.  But if you’re in hiking shape I highly recommend heading up nearby Surprise Canyon, parking at the obvious end of the passable part of the dirt road and continuing on foot.

While it is a spectacular area, realize you will be trekking 10 fairly rugged canyon miles roundtrip.  But if you bring a water filter you can carry much less weight in water than usual in these parts.  You might even see waterfalls along the way depending on recent storms.  Be prepared for thick brush in the canyon bottom.  Arriving at Panamint City with its scenic brick smokestack, you’ll experience the real deal.  It has a true lonely ghost-town feel.

One of the surviving buildings of Ballarat Ghost Town, the snow-capped Panamint Range soaring beyond.

One more cool “ghost town” to visit in the Death Valley area is Gold Point, Nevada.  It is actually north of the park, but if you’re up there to visit Scotty’s Castle anyway, it’s not all that much further.  I put ghost town in quotations because a half dozen or so souls live there with the ghosts year-round.  You can not only see a historic old-west saloon, you can go in and have a beer!

The Great Basin of Southern Nevada.

Rural Southern Nevada

Traveling east across southern Nevada you’ll pass the glitz of Las Vegas.  If you stay on the freeway it is a relatively short high-speed cruise along Interstate 15 to St. George, Utah.  But consider a short detour north into the rural southern Great Basin.  So turn north on U.S. Highway 93 toward the little town of Caliente.  Turn south on State Hwy. 317 to make a loop back to Hwy. 93.

Take your time and you’re sure to see a sparsely populated part of Nevada that will make you forget all about the neon phenomenon of Las Vegas.  It’s what the Great Basin is all about, what nobody speeding along I-15 could imagine.  You can extend your detour north to Cathedral Gorge State Park, an area of badlands with cool little slot canyons.  Some of the valleys where cattle roam are surprisingly green and grassy.  Others are arid, treeless expanses, with the Great Basin’s characteristic long ranges shimmering in the distance.

On a detour through rural southern Nevada, some areas don’t look very desert-like.

And others do: badlands of Cathedral Gorge, NV.

Dixie in Utah

Not long after crossing out of Nevada you arrive in bustling St. George, southern Utah’s largest town.  St. George is still dominated by its founders the Mormons, but nowadays it’s perhaps best known as a retirement haven.  For outsiders, the town is most notable as gateway to southern Utah’s world-famous scenic wonders.  Of course you can’t miss Zion National Park once you’re this close.  But a destination much nearer to town is the compact but stunning Snow Canyon State Park.  In this part of America it’s impossible to miss nature.  But remember this series is about where the people of rural America live.

Small-scale farming & ranching survives in small towns along the Virgin River bottom: Rockdale, Utah.

There are several towns surrounding St. George that retain the rural character of Dixie.  A drive north to Pine Valley features lovely scenery and the rural charm of this part of Utah.   And even in towns just off Interstate 15, places like Leeds and Toquerville, rural character remains.  If you get off at Leeds, wander over to the west side of the freeway and up the hill to historic Silver Reef, an old mining town.  Also nearby is spectacular Red Cliffs Recreation Area.  A very worthwhile canyon hike with a pretty little campground at the trailhead. If you drive to Toquerville, turn north on Spring Rd. to visit Toquerville Falls.

On the way to Zion most visitors race in eager anticipation past the scenic little towns of Virgin and Rockdale.  The roadside scenery between Rockdale and Springdale is lovely, especially in autumn (image below).  But once in Springdale you’ve entered the chaos of a uniquely American phenomenon: the National Park gateway town.

Valley of the Virgin River near Zion National Park, Utah.

Polygamy & Canyon Hiking

You can see where some of the Mormon Church’s most devout families live if you drive south of Hurricane (on the way to Zion) on Hwy. 59 to Colorado City on the Arizona border.  Keep going and this is an excellent way to travel to the north rim of the Grand Canyon or to Kanab, Utah.  Drive around the small town, which is called Hilldale on the Utah side, and you’ll see women in very traditional dress.  Polygamy is still widely practiced in these parts.  And as Forest Gump said, “that’s all I’m going to say about that.”

If you want to stretch your legs while you’re in the Hilldale/Colo. City area, there is a great canyon hike nearby.  Are you detecting a pattern?  A nice canyon hike is never far away when you’re traveling in these parts.  Drive north of town to the Water Canyon Trailhead.  You can get directions on Google Maps, but don’t think that means this is a popular place.  It’s more of a local’s hike.  The road becomes quite sandy and rutted, but you should be able to make it in a sedan if you go slow.

Water Canyon lies south of Zion Park, Utah.

After parking continue hiking up-canyon to pretty narrows and a small falls, where as the name suggests water usually flows (image above). A short scramble up the left side of the stream takes you past the apparent blockage and on up the canyon.  The trail eventually ascends steeply out of the canyon and up onto the mesa above.  Looking north you can see the southernmost temples of Zion.  Extending the hike this far is for lovers of longer, more rugged hikes.

Thanks for reading this rather long post!  This road-trip is definitely one I highly recommend.  Plan about two weeks to do it.  I’ve met people who have raced through in one week, and that’s including Bryce Canyon!  I have trouble getting out of Death Valley in less than a week.  Have a great weekend and happy shooting everyone!

The desert mountains along Death Valley’s eastern Nevada boundary light up at sunset.

 

Friday Foto Talk: Drought Blues   4 comments

Hello everyone and Happy Friday!!  I’m in the midst of a significant shooting drought.  A number of things all combined are preventing me from shooting, but most of it is down to a simple lack of desire to shoot the subjects around me.  I am currently working full-time and in an area not typically known for its nature photography.  But don’t get me wrong.  I’m not offering any excuses whatsoever, and freely admit that I’m not taking advantage of the time and opportunities that I’m getting.

I believe very strongly that it is never a good thing to force yourself into something if you’re not “feeling it”.  I figure it this way:  if you are going out to shoot things that don’t particularly interest you, in light that does not get your photographer pulse going, then the results are most likely going to be bland.  And why do bland photography?  It makes little sense to me.

Now I realize that you may worry that your skills are going to erode while waiting for the subjects to appear and the motivation to return.  If you are still a novice and very much learning, this may be a valid concern.  But for the most part it is a non-issue.  You’ll get it back soon after you start shooting again.  Besides, you can always read books on photography, whether instructional or illustrating the works of other photographers.  You can also keep your observational senses sharp by remembering to be a keen observer – of things, people & animals, and of light, whether you have a camera or not.

So I’m going to post a couple images I stumbled upon that I didn’t process until now.  They’re from a few years ago, in the Medicine Bow Mountains of Colorado.  What a view the builders of this cabin had!  Have a wonderful weekend and happy shooting!

Friday Foto Talk: Alternate Versions III – Review   Leave a comment

Looking south toward Mt. Jefferson from iconic Timberline Lodge, Oregon.

Looking south toward Mt. Jefferson from iconic Timberline Lodge, Oregon.

At the end of a winter’s day skiing, this is looking south toward Mt. Jefferson from iconic Timberline Lodge, Oregon.

This is the 3rd and final part of my little series on shooting alternate versions of the same basic subject.  Check out Part I and Part II for the nuts and bolts of varying composition and other factors just enough to create alternates without completely changing the image.  Today I want to discuss a very important part of alternate versions: the review.  This is where a lot of novice photographers tend to become frustrated, so this post includes some basic advice designed to help you use precious review time wisely.

Last time I mentioned how it’s important at first to be aware of why you are shooting an alternate of the same subject.  It could be as simple as grabbing a quick vertical.  Or it could be a version that concentrates attention on one particularly strong subject by using a large aperture, thus throwing the background out of focus.  Or you can change multiple things about the image, getting low and close while rotating to horizontal, zooming out a bit, and including less sky.

An old pile dike along the Columbia River in Oregon.

Review on the LCD

It’s a good idea to think about why you shot different versions when you review the images later, whether on your camera’s LCD screen or on the computer monitor.  Speaking of the LCD, I see plenty of photographers checking out their photos during the shoot.  That is fine if you’re checking things like focus and exposure; in other words, making sure you don’t need to re-shoot.  Or if you want to get a human subject more interested in the shoot.  But don’t take too much time looking at the back of the camera.  Avoid the trap of getting too caught up in review when you should be concentrating on your subject and the light.

I try to review the images on my camera’s LCD very soon after shooting.  I do this not only to delete images with obvious problems right away, in order to make more room on the card.  But I also like doing a quick inventory of my alternate versions while the shoot is still fresh.  It is easier than you think to delete images you should have kept.  Unlike a computer, your camera doesn’t have a trashcan where you can recover deleted images.  It’s forever!

For example, you might think you have useless repeats of the shot when you actually had in mind at the time good reasons to capture an alternate version.  Maybe your reasoning was unconscious and maybe it wasn’t.  But if it was, reviewing on your LCD soon after the shoot has the effect of bringing it right up to the surface of your mind.  I don’t always keep alternates at this stage.  Sometimes I realize my reason for the alternate was rather superficial.

Despite a significant difference in composition, the light and atmosphere are similar enough to call this vertical of the above image an alternate version.

Review on the Computer

No matter how conscious you are while out shooting, when you’re viewing and rating the different versions on the computer later, deciding which to keep, it’s helpful to note what sets each alternate version apart.  The differences are often subtle but important for what you’re trying to get across in an image.  Were you trying to emphasize an interesting foreground with an alternate version?  Next time out will you get low and close while the light is at its best instead of doing that as an afterthought?

While it’s perfectly natural and appropriate to prefer one version over another, be careful about your judgments.  For example you may prefer the vertical version of a scene you just shot in dramatic sidelight.  But that doesn’t mean you should always photograph scenes like it vertically.  Say you return in softer, more subtle light.  The horizontal may turn out to be the better choice.

Another reason to avoid overemphasizing personal preference is the existence of considerations that have nothing to do with whether one version is better than another.  A horizontal version, for example, may obviously look better because of layering or other characteristics of the scene.  But what if someone loves the image and wants to frame and hang it in a place that will fit a vertical but not a horizontal?  Or what if a magazine likes it but needs one that has more negative space?  That’s yet another way to shoot an alternate, by the way.  By zooming out and/or flipping the camera to include more blank sky, water, or other similarly plain space, you allow room for type, mastheads and the like.

The vertical of the opening image includes the weather vane atop the lodge.

Using Review to Grow 

As you review more and more shoots you’ll naturally learn which kinds of images you like better for which kinds of subject and light.  You might notice yourself gradually shooting slightly fewer alternate versions.  But the idea behind doing alternate versions is to increase not decrease your options.

Although learning your preferences is a good thing, don’t over-generalize and end up missing opportunities.  It’s important to realize that every scene and every moment’s light and mood is unique.  Also unique is the message you want to get across in the image.  Alternate versions can help you accomplish this most important of photography goals, but only if you do them.

The rocky coastline of the northern Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

One thing I’ve learned over time is not to force myself to judge when I’m reviewing images on the computer.  Of course I do mostly prefer one shot over others, and one version of that shot over alternate versions.  But when there’s no clear winner I don’t spend a lot of time forcing myself to decide.  I just give the two an equal number of stars, label them both with copy names (a field in Lightroom just below the filename), and move on.

Most important is to keep an open mind.  Open to other possibilities while you’re out there shooting, and open to different ways of evaluating images on the computer.  As with all thoughtful post-shot review, considering your reasons for creating alternate versions can inform your next shooting session in interesting ways.  It can also force you to grow as a photographer.  For example you might find yourself better defining your style.  Shooting and then reviewing different versions could lead you to explore a certain way of shooting in more depth.  Thanks so much for reading and I hope your weekend is a fun one.  Happy shooting!

The rocky coastline of the northern Baja Peninsula in Mexico is a peaceful place to be at dusk.

For this alternate version of the above image I waited until deep dusk (which allowed a longer exposure).  I also got lower and closer to the foreground rocks and relied on artificial lights from a hotel to illuminate them.

Foto Talk: Alternate Versions, Part II   2 comments

I've posted this image before: dawn at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

I’ve posted this image before: dawn at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

This is the second of three parts on creating alternate versions of the same basic image.  Definitely check out Part I; these are meant to go together.  Alternate versions are not totally different compositions, or one shot looking one direction and one the other.  They are those images you may group together on the screen to review and compare.

Creating alternate versions can be as simple as shooting one horizontal and one vertical.  Or it could be as complicated as shooting a dozen versions all with different combinations of variables.  And speaking of those variables, let’s pick up where we left off last time and look at more ways to vary a landscape image.

More Variables

  • Focal Length.  Changing focal length by a lot changes the whole image, by a lot.  But we’re talking about alternate versions of the same image, so think zooming in or out by only modest amounts.  The idea is to keep the main elements of the scene the same but perhaps include or exclude subsidiary elements.  It’s similar in some ways to moving toward or away from the foreground, but although it’s often mistakenly thought that the two are identical, they will yield a different look.
A wider, shorter focal-length version of the above scene, with the fence occupying a much more important position.

A wider version of the above scene.  In addition to shorter focal length, I lowered the point of view, putting the fence in a more prominent position and including more sky.  The light is different too, as it was captured after sunrise.

  • Depth of Field (DOF).  Varying how much of the scene is in focus is something many people don’t consider for landscapes.  Most of us always try for the maximum, sharp from front to back.  But sometimes it’s interesting to limit depth of field for a shot or two after you get the standard landscape.  If you are limiting DOF you may also vary the place where you are focusing.  For maximum DOF you really don’t have much choice for point of focus; that is, there is a ‘right’ place to focus (the hyperfocal distance).
  • Exposure Time.  Another under-appreciated variable.  For example most people get in the habit of shooting waterfalls in one way, using long exposure to smooth the water.  Even when shooting this way you can get quite different looks and textures if you vary that longer exposure.  Another example: changing shutter speed when there are moving clouds can totally change the look of the sky.  Whenever there are elements moving in your frame, changing exposure time will give a different look.
Because of a somewhat dangerous position, I only had time for two versions of this spring along Oregon's Hood River. This vertical has the longer exposure time. 28 mm., 6 sec. @ f/11, ISO 50.

Because of a somewhat dangerous position, I only had time for two versions of this spring along Oregon’s Hood River. This vertical has the longer exposure time. 28 mm., 6 sec. @ f/11, ISO 50.

For the horizontal I went with a relatively short exposure for more detail in the water. 24 mm., 0.8 sec. @ f/11, ISO 50.

For the horizontal I went with a relatively short exposure for more detail in the water. 24 mm., 0.8 sec. @ f/11, ISO 50.

  • Light.  This variable is a bit different than the others.  You don’t have nearly as much control on light as you do the others.  But you do have some.  The classic example is that photographer who shoots the sun as it’s setting.  Then after it disappears below the horizon you look over and they’re packing up, thus missing out on alternate shots under different light.  Another example:  you may like a composition so much that you go out to shoot it both at sunset and sunrise.  If it’s close to home you might shoot it in golden autumn light, crystalline winter light and bright spring or summer light.

There are two main points I want to make.  One is that there are always options and usually enough time to get at least a vertical if not other alternate versions of the same scene.  And so I recommend trying to do at least two versions of each landscape (a vertical and horizontal).  I also recommend that while you’re out shooting, at least initially, you think about which variables you changed and, more importantly, why.  As you become more experienced you’ll shoot alternate versions more or less unconsciously.

Next week we’ll conclude with some thoughts on post-shot review and processing of alternate versions.  Thanks very much for checking in this week.  Have a great weekend and happy shooting!

Sometimes you only have a few seconds to get a single shot. That was the case as I hurried to board a ferry. This is a traditional fishing vessel along the coast of Burma (Myanmar).

Sometimes you only have a few seconds to get a single shot. That was the case as I hurried to board a ferry. This is a traditional fishing vessel along the coast of Burma (Myanmar).

Friday Foto Talk: Alternate Compositions of the Same Image   2 comments

Dawn and part of a frozen waterfall in Zion National Park.

Dawn and part of a frozen waterfall in Zion National Park.  16 mm., 1.6 sec. @ f/11, ISO 100

Sometimes you have just one opportunity to get a shot.  You have to whip that camera up and shoot.  If you’re not ready the moment is gone.  But more often there is time to capture different versions of the same subject.  Since landscape photography is so applicable to this, and because I do a lot of it (I’m not alone!), I’m going to use landscape photography to illustrate ways to create alternate versions of an image.

There are several main ways to vary a landscape shot.  Let’s look at those that change the composition but keep the same main elements of the scene the same.

  • Format.  Changing between horizontal (or landscape) and vertical (portrait) formats is the easiest way to create alternate versions of an image.  Normally a vertical emphasizes the height of things like trees and mountains.  It can also give a greater sense of depth.  Horizontals emphasize a sense of space and can lend a serene feel to a landscape.  I usually try to get both unless the picture definitely lends itself to one or the other.
  • Point of View.  Point of view (POV) can be changed in many ways.  I did a mini-series on POV that explores this very important subject.  One of the most common ways to vary POV is by changing camera height.  Depending on how close the foreground is, changing height will also change the distance to that foreground, which can greatly change the look of an image.
Vertical of the image at top. I lowered POV, got closer to the foreground and thus emphasized the ice and sandstone while reducing the apparent size and importance of the background mountains and sky.

Vertical of the image at top. I lowered POV, got closer to the foreground and thus emphasized the ice and sandstone while reducing the apparent size and importance of the background mountains and sky.  16 mm., 1.3 sec. @ f/11, ISO 100.

  • Proportion of Sky vs. Land.  Changing POV in turn can change this variable.  It involves changing the relative amount of sky vs. land in the image, a very common thing for landscapers to do.  For example, simply tilting the camera down or shortening your tripod legs takes you from an image dominated by sky to one dominated by the landscape below.  The possible variants are nearly endless.  For example you can change from nearly fifty-fifty to almost all land with just a sliver of sky.  You could even shoot with the horizon in the middle, but that works well only in certain situations.
  • Distance from Subject/Foreground.  As long as you don’t exclude a main element (in which case it’s a different picture), you can change the feel by simply moving closer to or further from the closest element in the frame.  Try doing this without changing any of the variables above.  It’s hard to do, isn’t it?
Catching a rainbow at Vista House in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge.

A rainbow and a tall fir tree frame Vista House in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge.  35 mm., 0.4 sec. @ f/11, ISO 100.

As just mentioned it can be tough to change just a single variable when you’re taking multiple shots of the same thing.  Of course you don’t have to limit yourself to one variable.  And you shouldn’t.  We’re not doing science experiments, we’re shooting pictures.  But if you’re curious and want to see more clearly what the effects of changing a certain variable look like, go ahead and control the other variables.  Play scientist for awhile.

Next time we’ll look at a few other variables you can change to create alternate versions of your landscape images.  Thanks for reading.  Have a fun weekend, one filled with laughter and plenty of pictures!

Which version do you like, this horizontal or the vertical above?  By changing format & using a slightly longer focal length, the tree and top of the rainbow are cropped off.  The light has also changed slightly.  50 mm., 0.5 sec. @ f/13, ISO 100.

 

Friday Foto Talk: Video & Macro   2 comments

This series on casual video for the still photographer has mostly stuck to the basics.  I’ve done that to show how easy it is to start shooting video.  None of these videos have been edited either.  I want to head off the excuse that some people use, that they have no time to learn a whole new editing program.  Untold numbers of people shoot video with their phones.  My goal is to get my fellow still photographers to create videos when the mood strikes, but to do them with intention and care.

I’ve also stayed away from stuff like time-lapse and slow-motion.  These are rather faddish in my opinion, but speaking objectively, they are sub-areas of nature videography that require a specific focus.  Time-lapses, for instance, are actually a series of still shots.  While you do produce a video of sorts, the mood is often disjointed.  Also there is no real-time, native sound.  Creating a time-lapse is rather boring in practice, and it doesn’t really help you develop field video recording skills.

Of course there is nothing wrong with timelapse or any other type of video.  But I believe that when you’re first getting into video, or any genre within the photography realm, it’s best to start simply.  Go out and do it before you commit to creating a final (shareable) product.  So many of us love what we see online so much that we just have to go off and create that very thing.  Or something that looks just like it.  It’s a completely understandable impulse.

Consider taking a more organic approach.  See if you enjoy the process of creating it first before worrying about results.  This way you’ll slowly develop your own style, eventually creating something that is uniquely yours rather than imitative.  By the way, I don’t consider myself such a great artist.  But I do have a firm idea of the way to get there!

I know this is the era of instant gratification, but it’s important to be patient.  Learn to enjoy the process before you expect to create something you can be proud of.  High expectations are fine, but don’t impose too-short a timeline.  That will only cause unnecessary stress.  Even a mild amount of anxiety can sabotage the creative process.

Video & Focal Length

Now let’s get to it!  One of the best things about shooting video with a DSLR (or mirrorless) camera is the ability to use a variety of lenses.  As I mentioned in an earlier post on the basics, when you’re starting out it’s useful to stick with a medium focal length lens.  If you have a 50 mm. lens you’re in luck; it’s perfect for video.  Otherwise use a medium zoom and stay 10 or 15 mm of 50.  Reason is to avoid the distortion you get with wide angles, and the shakiness that can happen with long focal lengths.

Once you’re comfortable doing videos at medium focal lengths, you’ll naturally want to try different lenses.  But this post isn’t about using telephotos for wildlife or wide-angles for landscapes.  It’s about one of the most fun ways to shoot video: macro and close-up!  In order to view these videos click on the title at top-left first, then click the play button.

By the way, I didn’t mean to cut short the video of the dung beetles below.  A black rhino had suddenly appeared between my rental car and where I was lying on the ground.  So I had to stop and figure out how to avoid being charged!

Macro Video ~ Tips

  • Try to pick subjects that stay in one place.  You can expand on this once you get some practice.  Either way you should observe your subject for a time before you come up with a plan.  For example in the video above I watched those beetles in Africa roll a couple dung balls from point A to point B before I followed along shooting the clip.  That delay may have saved me, as I could have been regarded as a threat if I hadn’t been lying down!
  • Use a tripod.  Just as with macro still photography, a tripod is nearly essential.  For one thing, most macro lenses have fairly long effective focal lengths.  Hand-holding is hard to do without introducing jumpiness.  Also, whether you use a macro lens or attachments like extension tubes or close-up filters, depth of field will be quite narrow.  Provided you choose a suitable subject, you have a better chance of keeping things in focus when you’re on a tripod.
  • Speaking of focus, choose a point of view and composition that makes it easier to keep the subject in focus without having to twist the focus ring.  “Pulling” or “following” focus as it is called, is a skill that takes awhile to master.  A subject that moves across the frame, for example, is easier to keep in focus than one that moves toward or away from you.
  • Watch for repetitive or cyclical behaviour.  Many times, when observing nature, you’ll notice that a critter will keep repeating its actions, or it might circle back to where it has been before.  If you set up on a tripod focused in on that spot, all you need to do is watch and wait, ready to press record.  For the video below the dragon flies were zipping around much too quickly for me to follow.  So I simply watched one for awhile and noticed her returning to a nearby perch, spreading her wings like they do.  I focused on her first, using manual focus (which is best for video).  Then next time back, since she alighted in exactly the same spot, I shot the clip.

 

  • Limit motions.  By using the approach just mentioned, pointing at a spot and waiting for the critter to arrive, you’ll be forced to stay put.  Insects and other small critters tend to get used to your presence more quickly than bigger animals, but it’s still helpful to keep still.  Of course moving around is necessary for any good photography.  But macro shooting, still or video, goes much more smoothly when movement is limited, planned out and deliberate.
  • Look for subtle subjects too.  Macro video isn’t just about insects.  For example, flowers or other interesting macro subjects can be great targets for video when light is rapidly changing as clouds move quickly across the sky.   Movements from wind can also make videos worth a try.
  • Finally, don’t limit yourself to true macro.  Do close-up videos with other lenses.  If you have a lens that offers a “macro” setting, you may be able, depending on subject, to focus close enough to get that intimate feel of macro.  Do you know the closest that each of your lenses will focus?  You should.  Wide-angle lenses often focus quite closely.  They also enable you to hand-hold the camera with less chance of shakiness.  For the video below I had to get my feet wet to move smoothly through the scene.  At the end of the clip is a bonus: my little buddy Charl (RIP) watches from the bridge.  No way was he getting his little feet wet!

That’s all for now.  If you haven’t done so, try a macro video or two.  If you have, let us know what you thought.  Are there any tips I forgot?  Thanks for reading and have a fantastically fun weekend!

Friday Foto Talk: Video & Wildlife   8 comments

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.

Shy Shy

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.

STRATEGIES

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.

STRATEGIES

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.

Chatty Critters

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.

STRATEGIES

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.

 

Friday Foto Talk: Video ~ Sound, Part II   2 comments

The series on getting started in video is almost complete.  Last week’s post provided general tips on recording sound during video capture.  Let’s dive deeper into the subject of sound by looking at a few of the more subtle ways that it can mess up your video, and some solutions to help make sure that doesn’t happen.

The Ear vs. the Microphone

You’ll find that the way you process sound is different than what is recorded by a microphone.

  • Your ears are placed perfectly for detecting sound all about you.  But with those flaps they’re biased toward the front.  A mic. (or two for stereo) can be placed anywhere.  But if it’s a shotgun mic it will mostly pick up those sounds in the direction you point the mic.  Omnidirectional mics are the opposite (see below).  By the way, I saw a guy on the web who records sound using a stereo mic setup where the mics are worn like headphones and are even shaped somewhat like ears.  His goal is to record as close to what he hears as possible.  The rather funny-looking stereo mic setup was for sale, as long as you don’t mind some strange looks!
  • It’s not just your ears that cause microphones to record sounds differently than the way you hear them.  Your brain is involved too.  Thanks to evolution you can pick up distant sounds and magnify them.  And simultaneously in some cases, you have the ability to filter out loud, nearby sounds in order to better hear a faint, more important one.  These natural skills allowed our ancestors to hear the sounds of a predator while near a stream.  Of course mics don’t do any of this.  An omnidirectional mic, for example, captures everything around it without bias.  The louder the sound the more prominent it will be in the recording.
  • Why is there a significant difference between the way your eyes and your camera captures images?  The key difference maker is the brain.  Just as it does with your eyes, your brain works in concert with your ears to weight various sounds differently.  The brain also has the ability to make your head turn, like an antenna dish, to effectively corral those sounds you want to hear and at least partly block those you don’t.
  • Let’s take an example.  It took me awhile to realize that recording next to a stream is a mixed blessing.  If your goal is to record the sound of the water it’s usually fine.  But if you want ambient sound that includes birds, etc., the water can overwhelm everything else.  Even when you’re going for the sound of the water, being close can make it sound too loud and harsh.

Solutions

Just as you learned to pay attention to subtle features of the light, you should start tuning your ears to subtle differences in volume, tone, bass notes vs. treble, etc.  But at the same time you need to factor in the above:  your brain filters and evens things out while the microphone records actual sounds, without bias.  Here are a few tips:

  • Move closer to that interesting but not very loud sound even if you can hear it just fine.  The old piece of photography advice, “if your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” applies to sound as well.
  • But depending on what mic you’re using don’t get too close!  Using the example above, recording next to a loud stream (a waterfall perhaps), and if you’re using a shotgun mic, avoid pointing it right at the water.  Try pointing it an angle or even directly away from the sound.
  • Adjust position to minimize loud sounds when you’re seeking balance and want to pick up more subtle sounds in the background, even if your ear hears a good balance.  Simply putting a tree or rock outcrop between you and a sound source that is too loud can make all the difference.  You can also use landscape features, such as rock walls, curved hillsides, etc. to focus and magnify key parts of the soundscape.
  • If you get more involved with audio, field gear can help greatly with all of the above.  For distant &/or faint sounds, a high-quality shotgun mic, along with parabolic reflectors, can make a huge difference.
  • For the ability to adjust the balance of tones, bringing out the sounds you want and minimizing those you don’t, consider upgrading to a system that replaces your camera’s sound-recording.  Basically a portable soundboard that mounts beneath your camera, it will allow you to adjust and equalize tones.  These systems are often used along with headphones.  They allow you to monitor the way the sound is actually being recorded, as opposed to the way you hear it.
  • You could also choose separate sound recording using a portable digital recorder.  You’ll have to sync the sound to your video later, but it allows you to focus on video and audio separately, thus doing a good job on both.
  • Remember:  all of this extra gear will only add to, not replace, what you can do in the field by changing position and using natural features, along with choosing the appropriate mic to use.

That’s all for now.  I hope you are getting more comfortable with the idea of doing videos, even if you’re an unrepentant still photographer.  Don’t be shy about asking questions or giving your two cents.  Have a fantastic weekend and happy shooting!

 

Friday Foto Talk ~ Sound in Video   2 comments

Last week because of Christmas I skipped Foto Talk.  I hope the holiday was fun and festive for all.  The series on video is not done yet, so let’s jump back in with perhaps the most important (and challenging) aspects of video.  I’m assuming that you wish to catch native audio; that is, the sounds that you hear during your video clips.  Adding audio later, whether it’s music or something else, is certainly possible and in many way easier.  But my initial goal is always to capture interesting audio at the same time as the video.

Check out the previous posts in this series for tips on the visual half of video.  In order to view the videos in this post, click the title at top-left, or on the link.  You’ll shoot to my Vimeo page where you can click on the play button.

There are several pitfalls to watch out for when recording audio.  The main ones follow, along with solutions.   As you do with photography, tailor your solutions for sound-recording problems to the specific subject and situation.

  • Built-in Microphone.  Your camera’s microphone, while usable, is essentially a starter mic.  Depending on its quality, the sound can be tinny and harsh.  It also can’t easily be used with a windscreen.  But don’t forgo your internal mic entirely.  It can be a better recorder of ambient sound than the shotgun mic that you’ll likely purchase (see below).

  Solution:  An internal microphone is okay for starting out.  But sooner or later you’ll want to purchase a separate external mic (or two) that mounts on your hotshoe.  There are two basic types of microphone, and what you most like to record will determine whether you get one or the other (or both).  If you want to record discrete sound sources (bird calls, a person talking or singing, etc.) get a shotgun mic.  If you most often record diffuse soundscapes with the sources scattered around you (the video at top is an example), get an omnidirectional mic.  The shotgun mic (which comes in different types which vary in their degree of directionality) can cost a lot more than the omni mic.  But it’s useful in a far wider set of circumstances.  So I recommend buying a shotgun mic first.

  • Wind.  The wind often adds atmosphere to a setting (see link to video below).  So why not record it?  Not so fast!  Your ears are designed in a wonderfully organic way.  But when wind hits a microphone it doesn’t sound atmospheric.  It just sounds like somebody trying to annoy you by blowing into a mic.

  Solution:  There is a deceptively easy solution to wind noise.  If and when you buy an external mic, buy a windscreen for it and don’t take it off.  They come in foam or hairy (“deadcat”) versions, or you can make one yourself.  Depending on how strong the wind is they can be very effective in blocking out wind noise.  But they aren’t 100%, so you should take steps to shelter the mic further from strong winds.  Point down-wind and block with your body if at all possible.

Wind and Quaking Aspens: Colorado Rockies

  • Image Stabilizer & other Space-outs.  I hate to admit how many great soundscapes I’ve recorded that are immediate candidates for deletion.  Why?  Because I forgot to turn off the image stabilizer (IS on Canon, VR on Nikon).  That little motor you barely notice while shooting stills will sound like a generator, even if you use an external mic.  Another easy thing to forget is the sound setting itself.  If you turn off sound recording in the menu (say you plan to add sound later), you’ll feel as dumb as a post when you play back to dead silence.  You may think it’s hard to be this forgetful, but when you’re grabbing a quick video in the midst of shooting stills, believe me it’s easy to space out.  Finally, if you have an external mic it can be easy to forget to turn that on.

  Solution:  Get in the habit, every time you switch to video mode, of checking to make sure that IS or VR is turned off.  Also helpful is getting in the habit of reviewing and listening to at least portions of your clips.  And before you do any video make sure that the sound setting is turned on.  Then if you turn it off for a video or two, go in right after and turn it back on.  Make it your default setting.  Most external microphones have a little light that says it’s on.  But get used to turning your mic on (and off when you’re done) every time you record.

  • Planes.  Aircraft (planes, helicopters, and now drones) are a type of unwanted noise that deserves its own category.  Whether you’re recording the human voice or the sounds of nature, planes just seem to show up at the worst times.  Soon after you press the record button, you’ll hear one buzzing overhead.  It’s almost guaranteed.  I never fully appreciated the amount of air traffic in our world until I started shooting video and recording natural sounds.

  Solution:  Mostly patience is all that is required.  Planes don’t take too long to pass over, though while you’re waiting it can seem an eternity.  If you’re under a flight path it may take awhile to get a silent window.  If a helicopter is working in the area you’re stuck with it and should probably return another day.  If somebody has a drone and insists on flying it near you, well that’s what a slingshot or pellet gun is for (just kidding..I think).

There is more to sound than the above, and next time we’ll dive in a little deeper.  But if you can overcome these simple stumbling blocks, you’re well on your way to recording quality sound with your videos.  Thanks for reading, and have a happy and photographic New Year!

Mountain Monday: The Mogollons   20 comments

This post is one day late for International Mountain Day.  But right on time for Mountain Monday!  It highlights a relatively remote place in western New Mexico.  I’d been wanting to go to this part of the southern Rockies for a long time, and earlier this year I finally made it.  I drove up a dirt road that ended at a gate marking the boundary of the Gila Wilderness.  The road continued beyond the gate, growing worse and clinging to the side of a mountain.

I parked and began to hike along the rough jeep track, recognizing it as an old mining route.  I followed it toward the head of a canyon.  Poking around I found some weathered shacks, a couple adits and other remnants of the gold & silver boom of the late 1800s.  There is a ghost town not far from here called Mogollon.  On the way back, as the sun sank lower, the air cooled and fog began to form over the mountains to the west.  It made for a mystical scene.  The sunset that followed was nice, but this shot was my favorite because of its mysterious feel.

The Mogollon Mountains of New Mexico's Gila Wilderness march off into the distance.

The Mogollon Mountains of New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness march off into the distance.

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