A Photographic Work Out

There is no better place to flex your photographic muscles than a visit to a National Park.   You get a chance to shoot amazing wildlife, grand vistas, tiny details, and history. Really capturing the essence of these remarkable places requires more than a single set up. I carry primes, zooms, fisheyes and more. You never want to miss a shot so make sure to pack a kit that’s ready for action!

For me the Parks are a treasure – never short on adventure or inspiration. Let me share some of my favorite spots with you.

Wildlife – Shoot long.

You see it everywhere – even in the city park sites. Make sure you have a lens with lots of reach so that you can make sure you get the shot. Years ago I was frustrated trying to get a sharp image of a robin outside a visitors center and it pushed me to focus on shooting birds every single day for a year – this experience not only helped me to learn the behaviors of birds and the best techniques for capturing them – it taught be to think fast, to learn to adjust my camera without taking my eye away from the viewfinder, to capture action. It changed my photography. It made me a wildlife photographer.

 

 

Vistas – Shoot wide.

Nothing is more American than getting out into the wide open spaces of nature. You need to make sure to carry a lens that will let you take in those big wonderful views – wide zooms or primes can capture it all. I recall thinking that landscapes were just not my thing, but each time I visited a spectacular place I longed to take something home with me to capture that moment of wonder. Landscape photography taught me to slow down, to use a tripod, to be a part of the vista even as an observer. Today I shoot some locations several times a year so that I can see all the opportunities that differing lighting conditions have to offer me creatively. It has opened my mind and my vision for my work.

 

 

Details – Shoot close.

I love seeing beautiful details in a park. This is where I take out the macro lens or something that lets me focus close. There is always opportunity to discover pattern and color that you just don’t notice when you pass by what you might think of as just “ordinary”. There is alway more to see when you get close. Shooting macro and details has taught me to investigate things and to be present in the moment.

 

 

History – Shoot the angles.

Everyone has seen a shot of the Lincoln Memorial – right? When you see something so grand and recognizable it is a challenge to make the shot your own. Sometimes it’s the lighting, sometimes it’s the angle, sometimes it’s taking another tool from the kit like a fisheye to bend history to your own vision. Shooting monuments and historical displays makes me feel wonder at being so close to things we all share. It makes me want to show what they mean to me. They are common images of places that have touched me in uncommon ways.

 

 

This summer – go out and see America! Be sure to take your camera with you!

 

Shutterbug Notes: I shoot mirrorless. I got into this format in about 2009 when the Olympus Pen first came out. I liked that it was compact and that I could easily use my old OM lenses with an adaptor. Mirrorless camera lenses are much smaller than standard cameras. I can get two cameras and 6-8 lenses in a backpack although I typically carry only 4-5 at a time. This kit has made it possible for me to have all the flexibility I like when I travel. It has allowed me the most possible creative freedoms when I shoot. No matter what you shoot, try to cover the bases. You need something long for wildlife, something wide for landscapes, something close focussing for details and something unique for shooting common scenes – this can be four lenses or maybe just one or two depending on what you have in your kit. Get to know your lenses capabilities and stretch yourself. 

 

 

 

The Second Rule of Photography

If the first rule of photography is to always have your camera with you, then the second rule must be about light. Light is everything to a photographer, without it there is no color, without enough of it you lose detail and sharpness.

Of course you can add light by using a flash, but that can create other issues – it can add too much light or create unwanted reflections. It’s essential to make some shots, but I wouldn’t use it just because your camera has one.

There is one kind of light that is almost magical – it is warm and soft and almost without glare. It’s that lovely light at the beginning or at the very end of the day – the golden hour. I’m not a morning person, so I prefer that soft light that starts about a half hour before the sun sets.

Over the course of the last week I have been practicing shooting sunsets at a local lookout point. On the way I travel through a residential neighborhood where the deer feed in the hollows and lots between houses. I find these local whitetails to be lovely and curious creatures. They are all about their dining, but any noise or movement from me gets them to look up at me. Sometimes they hold their gaze for several shots. They rarely flee.

Click through to see how expressive these whitetail can be:

After my first shot at these deer I began to give myself 10-15 minutes on my way to the lookout and I am never disappointed in these characters. In truth, it’s the light that makes these shots so intimate, you get a sense of the golden glow in their eyes, they emerge from the noisy backgrounds because there is enough light to get good focus. The details are mostly sharp because there is enough light for my camera to do the job I want it to do.

Shutterbug Notes:

I have found that your vehicle can be a good blind sometimes. Animals are often less threatened by a big box than they are of you approaching in spots where there is no place for cover. I have found that deer and antelope are naturally curious so sometimes a little movement makes them make eye contact with you – waving a bandana out the window or making clicking noises will often do the trick. When I do approach on foot I always respect the lines they set – if they huff or raise their tails I stop moving towards them. I want them to be curious and not frightened of me. 

The Little Bighorns of Boulder City

I love to see wildlife in unusual circumstances. I recently entertained a chickadee in my house for several hours while it decided to avoid the bitter cold. Of course that lead to a photo-op and possibly a future blog post.

Over the holidays I went to Las Vegas to see family. My brother Max has moved to the Fruity Chicken full-time and I often find photo ops with his menagerie, but his wife Karen and I took a run out to Boulder City one afternoon. We went in search of the bighorn sheep that live along the canyons that make up the shoreline of Lake Mead. In my mind I thought we would be headed out to the wilds to capture those amazing beasts out in the desert where I had spotted them in my youth. No, we went to a local park where the bighorns have taken over the baseball field. They come out each day to graze and on the day we visited only the smaller sheep came out from the mesquite thicket. I framed my shots carefully to avoid the playground equipment and the tennis courts.

When we first arrived they were below us in the field, over the course of about 45 minutes they walked right past us and into the playgrounds. I actually shot some of these shots with my portrait lens!

Bighorns fascinated me as a child. I used to draw them and worked really hard to get the horns just right. There was something about seeing them so near the playground that was pretty sentimental to me.

Shutterbug Notes:

I always carry at least three lenses. You never know what you will need, even when the plan is to shoot wildlife. My zoom would never have let me get those panoramic shots with the lake and mountains in the background – I was so glad to have my portrait lens in my bag. For me I need to have a minimum of a portrait lens, a macro, and a long zoom. When I travel I throw in a wide-angle. The variety gives me options and lets me make sure I get the shot I want. 

Shutter Speed Part 2 – Catching the Action = More Good Shots

In my last post I talked about my exploration of using Shutter Mode as a means of capturing action that was impossible when shooting in my beloved Aperture Mode. To make these shots I bumped up the ISO far outside of my own comfort level to make it possible to use faster shutter speeds in the available light. Since I am shooting a long lens, the aperture can never be exceptionally wide – there are no really fast zooms for the mirrorless platform yet. f6.7 is as fast as I can go at maximum zoom – so there are limits built in. In Aperture Mode I was shooting at around 1/250 second and I kept my ISO under 1000.

This set was shot with apertures between f6.7-f7.1 at 1/500 second and an ISO setting of 2500. Bluejays tend to be skittish, they bounce from tree to tree deciding whether or not to risk visiting the feeders.  I took these shots in the space of 10 seconds. There are 23 shots – I discarded three that were out of focus. As I mentioned in my previous post, I have disabled my preview so that I can keep shooting. If I had been shooting in Aperture Mode I would have gotten off about 6 shots hoping for one or two in focus, removing preview would have let me shoot more, but I am guessing my percentages would have been the same – 30% verses over 90%. Shooting in this mode gave me lots of options for that best shot.

I have also decided to leave my comfort zone in another way – my photos are in a gallery this time. I didn’t upload large size files because I am just using up too much storage space, but I think these work OK – on a future post I will use fewer images and try it larger. Click on the first image to see the images in the order in which they were shot – this feature shows the camera settings on the lower right of the screen for each image. If you click fast enough you will get a feel for what my encounter with the jay was like.

Why do Birds Suddenly Appear…

…Every time – I am near?

OK – I stole that from my friend Honie. It was in her comment on my recent post about seeing a Northern Flicker for the first time. She’s clever like that.

Anyway, I don’t think they appear when I am near, I think I have just learned to notice them. I lived at the Stone House for 9 years before I really paid attention. I only took note because I bought a bird identifying app for my iPhone. It plays the birds calls and I wanted to see if I could call birds with my phone. I took an old crate out into the woods and played the cardinal call and was thrilled when they started talking back to me. I tried taking their photos, but I just didn’t have the patience or focus to catch them. A little over a year ago I decided to really work on shooting birds with the thought that it would improve my ability to make quick decisions behind the lens. I thought I would try it for the remainder of the calendar year, but I was hooked. I find shooting birds to be the most relaxing thing and I do it several times a week. I have come to know some of them personally and I think it has made me a better photog in ways I never imagined it would. I have learned to shoot better in weather and low light situations, I do a better job of getting a sharp focus, I’m more patient about getting the best shot.

I notice birds absolutely everywhere now and I use that same app to identify and learn about them all along my way. On my recent trip to the Pacific Northwest I got a chance to see some amazing birds, and some ordinary ones too – as if any bird is really ordinary…

The Raven

Although ravens have an amazing ability to fly and soar with the eagles, they often seemed content to walk around on the roadsides. Watching them I can see where the Looney Tunes got that silly bird walk from.

Although I can soar with eagles, I prefer to stalk park visitors and con them out of Apricots

I loved seeing so many ravens, I had no idea that they were such characters and that they could be so playful. I recently read that they can fly upside down for great distances – why, well because they seem to like to show off.

The American Robin

Don't even think of letting your dog out of the car...

Don’t even think of letting your dog out of the car…

I see robins everywhere – I almost don’t think of them as birds who really live in the wild away from people, but this was shot in the Hoh rainforest.

Barn Swallows

I picked out this stick just for you honey - do you love it? It'll look great right above the mantle...

I picked out this stick just for you honey – do you love it? It’ll look great right above the mantle…

...sigh

…sigh

Do you like this stick better?

Do you like this stick better?

I felt for this guy – he showed her several sticks and even tried to put them into the nest to please her – she never gave him the time of day.

Rufus Hummingbird

Against the wind

Against the wind…and the ocean, and the barn swallows with sticks…

This hummer was perched on a limb overlooking the Pacific Ocean – he was singing his heart out as barn swallows swooped by – the wind was howling, the waves were crashing, still he sang.

Stellar’s Jay

Nothing more natural in a National Park than a plumbing vent.

Nothing more natural in a National Park than a plumbing vent.

These remind me a lot of blue jays here in the Ozarks but they are not nearly so shy and skittish. This park office in the rainforest has a little path that is meant for them to feed on, when they have had enough of the tourists they hop up on the roof.

Cliff Swallows

No Vacancy!

No Vacancy!

There were probably over a thousand cliff swallows swirling around the facade of this building making nests – it looked like birds had to stake their claim or face eviction – their mates continuously added to the complex as they sat and watched.

Brewer’s Blackbird

Pants off - dance off!

Pants off – dance off!

Eek!

Eek!

Mating dance? War dance? Rut? I have no idea – but these birds are posers. I recently spotted some of them near my home, sometimes you gotta travel to appreciate what’s in your own backyard.

Tree Swallows

I've found the perfect apartment!

I’ve found the perfect apartment!

Talking to her is like talking to a rock...

Talking to her is like talking to a rock…

This female made dozens of trips to that barrel with twigs as her man sat by on the rail above her talking to that rock instead of helping. That’s what you get when you fall for a pretty boy.

An aside – I think the swallows were confused. I saw barn swallows gathering mud and sticks off ocean cliffs, cliff swallows nesting on the facade of an old building, and tree swallows nesting in a barrel – no one knows their place these days.

Red Bellied Sapsucker

Time to get to work...

Time to get to work…

...always remember to punch in.

…always remember to punch in.

I saw red and had to shoot. Such an adorable bird, my favorite of the trip. He actually checked each hole to see if there was more sap or insects. A bird watcher told me that they check these holes every day or so instead of drilling new ones constantly.

Killdeer

Doing the deception dance...

Doing the deception dance…

...maybe she'll think these rocks are my eggs.

…I’ll lead her over this way…

...maybe she'll believe these rocks are my eggs.

…maybe she’ll believe these rocks are my eggs.

Such amazing camouflage – killdeer can blend into a pile of rocks or leaves or roadside gravel like this. The male actually walked away from the nest and stopped to lure me away. When I looked back the female put on this show to try to convince me her nest was a few feet from its actual location. I respected her show and never approached the real nest.

Osprey

I'm so blindingly handsome...

I’m so blindingly handsome…

...I bet she doesn't even notice my nest.

…I bet she doesn’t even notice my nest.

I got to see a bald eagle pull a fish out of the ocean when we were crossing a narrow bridge – it was an amazing moment I will always remember, but was unable to photograph. I hoped I might see another bird of prey and this Osprey almost went unnoticed. The nest is high in the air – they place these platforms for them atop power poles. It wasn’t until I got home and checked this shot on my computer that I noticed the bird’s mate is in the nest. I was shooting this at midday and the glare was awful so I struggled to get something besides a silhouette. I tried to walk past the pole and get the light behind me and he flew – he was stunning and huge. He flew to another pole to divert our attention from the nest. I didn’t understand that at the time, but clearly he was keeping us away from his family.

I read a post a while back about birds and their “like ability factor” and the author made the case that birds of prey are more desirable. Now I disagreed at the time because I love my cardinals and hummingbirds or even my titmice — but having seen and photographed that osprey, I think Lyle is onto something – it was amazing. I was unable to get a great shot of it in flight, but that is something I plan on working on this year.

I’m sure that just like I ignored the birds in my backyard for years, that people visit these places and never notice these birds too. Maybe someday they will wake up and feel like birds are suddenly appearing in their path too.

Coming into Focus

A couple of years ago I bought my first “bird” lens. There were a couple of options for my camera set up and budget played a big part in my decision. I read a lot of reviews and there were some who leaned towards the more expensive option as being a bit sharper, while others said that the small increase in sharpness was not worth twice the price. I went for the budget option and it served me well – until recently.

I began to have focus glitches – the lens didn’t seem to be communicating with the camera. So I sent the lens in to the manufacturer who cleaned it and told me it was fine and sent it back. Perhaps the glitch was always there and I just didn’t notice it – perhaps I just got a less than great version of the lens – these things happen. I have read of people returning a lens and buying the same model and seeing a major improvement. I decided it was time to make a change.

The higher end lens I opted not to buy has been discontinued – but they have come out with a quieter and thankfully much more economical version. I went through my bag and reviewed all of my lenses – anything I hadn’t used in a year was fair game. I put a list together and sold them to fund the purchase of that new bird lens.

My new lens arrived last weekend and I am seeing a significant change in sharpness – maybe I am the only one who sees it – but I like the look of what I’m seeing so far…

Bird on a wire

Bird on a wire

Goldfinch face off

Goldfinch face off

Posing sparrow

Posing sparrow

Cowgirl at the feeder

Cow girl at the feeder

A cardinal ignoring me

A cardinal ignoring me

Out on a limb

Out on a limb

Woody in the myrtle

Woody in the myrtle

Bringing home the bacon

Bringing home the bacon

Bluejay in the walnut tree

Bluejay in the walnut tree

Titmouse in the house!

Titmouse in the house!

Up on a roof

Up on a roof

The biggest difference I see is that I am getting more sharp shots in the trees – shooting in the trees has not always gotten me good results because of the distance. I am fascinated by feathers so seeing this detail really encourages me. I started shooting birds to teach myself to make faster decisions and I it has grown into a genuine interest in birds and their habits – this new lens looks to let me look deeper into the world just off my porch.

Max the Second

I’m only here because of a Fruity Chicken.

The esteemed author of the Fruity Chicken

The esteemed author of the Fruity Chicken

My brother Max started a blog about raising chickens and fruit trees in the arid desert of our native Las Vegas about a year ago. It’s a sweet, funny, and sometimes technical look at what it takes to make things grow in that hostile environment. I followed him via email until he migrated to WordPress and opened an account to make commenting here easier. Of course I was clueless about WordPress and accidentally started a blog and didn’t write anything. Max started leaving me snide remarks about the amazing content of my empty blog that sound startlingly like the stuff the spam bots send us with great regularity. After enough pushing I finally started a blog aimed squarely at sharing my photos with one person on the planet – Max.

Me and Max

Me and my “little” brother Max

I’m the oldest of my three siblings – Max came second. Max was named after our beloved Grandfather – Max the first. He has always worn the “II” in his name like a badge of honor.

I was thrilled at the idea of having a little brother, but Max has never been content in the role of the younger sibling. At about 14 he passed me by in stature, and his demeanor became that of an older brother. Sometimes teasing, sometimes bossing, sometimes protecting.

Snickering Siblings

Snickering Siblings

Max and I had lots of adventures growing up. He was my first playmate. We explored every inch of Isabelle Avenue on our bikes, we played cowboys and indians, and he and our neighbor Paul did their best to blow a few things up. When I was in high school I started working for the Stagehand’s Union – Max was right behind me.

Stylin' in the 80's

Stylin’ in the 80’s – backstage at the MGM

When our Union was locked out in 1984 he and I manned a food bank for union members and cruised the picket lines making sure everyone was OK – he had a hopped-up Ford Bronco that we zipped up and down the strip in checking on our brothers and sisters.

This is a drawing I did of Max using the stamps at the Stagehand's Union offices.

This is a drawing I did of Max using the stamps at the Stagehand’s Union offices.

As he grew into a man I saw in him the best parts of my mom and my Grandpa – loyalty, responsibility, wisdom, compassion, humor – he worked to make a stable home and family that was very different that the one we grew up in. My grandfather used to marvel at how hard he worked and what a good father he had become. I have always admired his earnestness and commitment to make a good life for his wife and his boys. They have all grown to be the kind of men any father could be proud of.

One of my favorite things to do with Max is to go out into the desert in a Jeep – there is no one I trust more behind the wheel. We have made a couple of trips to the northern Nevada site of a mining claim my grandparents worked in the 60s and 70s. The “Diggins” is located about 60 miles from the nearest paved road. I made this video for him after a trip we took with my nephew Brian summer before last. We both had a tough time after my father passed away, but this trip brought us back together in a very healing way. We listened to this song about a hundred times on the trip so it seemed the natural background for our experiences. I only wish I had been brave enough to record during the really deep water crossings. I loved the adventure, but I loved my camera just a little too much to risk it.

I call this “The best tank of gas ever” and it was. It was a blast to just be together in the wilds of the land we grew up in. We never got to the Diggins – the late spring snows in that year made it impossible, but we had an amazing trip. The song makes me laugh because we are only “southern” in the sense that we grew up in southern Nevada.

Me and Max

Me and Max

All this reminiscing to say that today is Max’s birthday. No one’s known me longer or better.

Thanks for pushing me into this blogging thing, thanks for always being there for me. You’re the best man I know – I love you.

Happy Birthday!