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 Photographers Eyes

I’ve always been intrigued by cameras and composition. I trained as a fine artist and focused on life drawing and painting with a side of ceramics. In college photography was a discipline I had to study for a year to satisfy the requirements of my BFA. I did really enjoy it, but it was not my “go-to” discipline. I learned the mechanics and even did a few professional shoots here and there. A camera was a tool in my designers toolbox. This all changed for me in 2006, but to tell the whole story I need to go back a little further.
When I was 17 I wrecked the family car. I was coming out of a construction zone and just when traffic started to speed up the car in front of me stopped for a dog crossing the road and I plowed right into it. I didn’t realize that I was so close. Afterward my mom decided to get my eyes checked out. It turns out that I had a slight crossed eye that could have interfered with my depth perception. Along with this the doctor discovered that I had cataracts. I was born with them. They were unusual in shape and not very common. I had 20/20 vision, and really didn’t notice anything. The doctor said that they might never be an issue.

Every time I moved to a new city and got a new eye doctor, they would ask it if was OK to bring in all their staff to see my cataracts, they were very unusual, something you might only see a couple of times in a career. One doctor even asked to photograph them – I finally got to see what the fuss was about. They looked like tiny galaxies, circular with swirls radiating from the center.

Now spring forward to 2006, my eye doctor had advised me that I could really benefit from cataract surgery. He suggested that once I began to lose the ability to focus (we all start to experience this in our 40’s) that I seriously should consider it. By this time I was living in a rural area and I was having difficulty driving at night. It never occurred to me that the culprit might be my cataracts, I assumed it was the lack of street lights. I had the surgery one eye at a time. I was the youngest person in the office by about 30 years. None of my fellow patients could imagine me having cataracts. The surgery only took a couple of minutes, and for those seconds between when they remove your old lens and when they replace it with a new one, my field of vision was filled with swirling rainbows through liquid – it was vivid and beautiful.

The next morning when I went out into the sunlight I was stunned by what I saw. I had always had 20/20 vision. I could see details and contrast just fine. In those first moments that morning I realized that I had never really seen color before. I never knew that a lawn was filled with thousands of shades of green and that each blade of grass both cast a shadow and caught a touch of sunlight. I never knew that the parking lot at work was made up of hundreds of greys and browns – I had always seen it as just kinda black. Before my surgery I had taken photos of mostly still life and everyday objects. I loved finding a new way to see something ordinary, but now my eyes were overwhelmed with the vividness of the world around me. I upgraded my camera kit to better capture the color and began to take my camera everywhere.

After work and on weekends I began to seek out color. Autumn leaves, sunsets, spring flowers, songbirds. The first time I had a show locally, a reporter asked me what inspired me and seemed surprised when I said color, since I had so many wildlife shots and landscapes. The subjects of my beloved still lives became more colorful. Color is the unifying theme of almost everything I shoot.

Today, I cannot even imagine the dullness of the world I lived in for so long without knowing it. I live for color and in the spring time when the Ozarks are alive with color. Currently I have a show up here in Eureka Springs called Harbingers – I collected works shot between February and April to represent those things that usher in a glorious spring after a long cold winter. I’ve mounted each on canvas over hard board and fixed then onto stretcher bars exposing the wood sides. I wanted to try to take the technical photography and give it a warmer hand-crafted feel. As spring has blossomed here I continue to add to my Harbinger library – and it’s no surprise that the images are filled with color. The images used in the show are in the slideshow below. Scroll through to see the images larger and to see camera settings.

Shutterbug notes – I chose my current camera set up partly because of its dynamic range. Moving to manual really give you a lot more control over color. Moving off auto gives you access to all the features of your camera and let’s you get the most out of it. Try seeing things in a new light, you might never want to go back to your old ways of seeing the world around you!

The Third Rule of Photography

There are plenty of blogs to give you the exposure triangle and cheat sheets about setting aperture and shutter speeds – that’s not me. I love to talk tech, but I find that most people get the most out of the basics. You know I am just making up these rules as I go, and they are in the order I choose. This is my blog so I guess I get to make the rules.

Here are the rules so far:

Rule #1 – You need to take that camera everywhere – you will always miss the shot when you are on an adventure and your camera is not.

Rule #2 – Understand light – light is the language of photography, you need to understand it in order to translate it into art.

Rule #3 – Keep it Steady

Today almost all systems offer Image Stabilization (IS) either in the body or in the lens. For most photography there is no reason not to utilize IS, it can make a huge difference in the sharpness of most shots. IS is not a magic bullet though – it won’t hold your camera still while you take a long exposure, or shoot a super tight macro shot. For sharpness in these situations, nothing beats a tripod.

I know – tripods are not convenient, compact, or cool – but they are indispensable. Some shots are not even possible without one. One of my favorite things to shoot is the moon. You don’t get enough stability trying to shoot the moon by leaning on a fence or car. If you want craters you need three things – a long zoom, a tripod, and a remote shutter release.

Shutterbug Notes:

A full moon is often too bright to get the best detail. Shoot the night before or the night after the full moon to get maximum detail. For even more detail shoot the phases of the moon, a half-moon on a clear night will give you tons of craters and surface detail. Go for the lowest ISO and shoot above f11. I use live view and dial in my shutter speed for maximum detail and contrast. Make sure not to over expose, because you can bring out the detail you captured in editing as long as you don’t blow out the light areas. For special moons like the Honey Moon or a Blood Moon I will shoot with the aperture wider so that I capture the color, but this costs me detail.

Scroll through each gallery to see camera settings – every shot in this post was taken in Manual Mode for better control of the exposure.

Shooting the moon is pretty straightforward and a tripod makes sense, but what about capturing movement? I know you have seen those night cityscapes with lights in motion. I like these best when some detail – architecture or foliage, for example – are perfectly sharp.

Shutterbug Notes:

On a recent trip to Atlanta I was fortunate to stay in a hotel overlooking Centennial Park. I set up my tripod on a balcony and took aim at the ferris wheel. The faster the shutter speed the more color and detail in the surrounding light was retained in the final image. As I slowed down the shutter speed the motion became more apparent. I shot with a medium aperture – between f5 and f8 and experimented with shutter speeds varying from 1/3 second to 6 seconds. My favorite image is the last with all the fine detail of the park and a complete blur of the ferris wheel. The next time you go to a carnival or fair, take your tripod along and give this a try. 

I know there are breathing and gripping techniques that let you get the most out of a handheld shot, but reasonably this is not effective beyond a about a 30th of a second. So many wonderful things are out there for you to try with longer exposures.  Over the 4th of July I decided to try to capture one of those amazing fireworks shots you see in magazines. I couldn’t get a view of the big show, so I shot these down on the lakeshore.

Shutterbug Notes:

I just found a spot where I could shoot both the sky and the fireworks on the beach. I shot all three of these shots at f11. The sunset shots are 1/2 second, the sky shot is the classic 4 second fireworks shot – that long exposure lets your frame fill with explosions – but the trick is you have no idea what will enter your frame when you click the shutter. You just watch the show and make your best guess. 

Have you ever considered shooting people with a long exposure? Well, people move a lot and that doesn’t sound like it makes sense – but what if that didn’t matter? Still thinking about the fireworks I decided to try to shoot people shooting off fireworks. This is an area where you can get really creative. I took these shots in a driveway in the dark.

Shutterbug Notes:

I decided to just try to focus on the sparklers and let the people move in and out of focus. Some of the kids were very young and their enthusiasm was palpable. It was hard for them to understand that we wanted them to hold their faces still – but I’m glad they worked out this way. The joy and movement in their faces punctuates their experience. I sat in a chair so that I saw them at eye level. I shot all of these images wide open at f2.8 for 2 seconds

One of my favorite subjects is a sunset – and I have been shooting them regularly for years. Recently I started getting out the tripod to shoot them. It slows me down and opens me up to more experimentation.

Shutterbug Notes:

Sunsets are a great subject to experiment with bracketed exposures or HDR. This is only possible on a tripod. Your camera takes multiple exposures at different shutter speeds and you later stack them and retain the both highlights, mid tones, and shadows. This is easy to overdo so it’s important to not push it so far that the image looks fake. A tripod will also let you shoot after most of the light is gone – a longer exposure can enhance the color that is there even after the sun has set. 

The bottom line is that none of the shots in this post could have been successfully taken without supporting the camera. It may feel clunky at first to lug that tripod around, but the results are worth it. One thing to note, you really do get what you pay for in a tripod. The cheap one at Stuffmart will hold your camera, but it will be stiff and heavy and you won’t enjoy using as much as one with a ball head and more adjustment options. If you are watching your budget, look for an entry-level of a good brand like Manfrotto. It will be worth the extra $20-30 for the feel and stability. I recently moved to an economic carbon fiber model, the reduced weight has made me more likely to carry it.

Now – I will confess, there is one shot that was taken leaning on a fence post and not on a tripod – can you guess which one?

My Photographic Roots

My interest in photography came from watching my mother take photos. She had an old Rolleiflex that only she understood. It was square and boxy with two lenses on the front and some knobs on the sides. The magical thing about this camera is that you had to look down into a prism to take the photo – before an LCD screen even existed, many photographers had grown to love the experience of framing their shots in that lovely square box – it was like watching a TV screen.

This camera is substantial in your hands. That texture on the sides is actually leather.

This camera is substantial in your hands. That texture on the sides is actually leather.

Mom’s camera was just a bit newer than this one – it was probably from the 1950s. One day in my early teens we were on a trip with some other girls and their moms when she decided to show me how it worked. It wasn’t something she trusted me to take off with it, but that day I saw photography differently – somehow in my mind it shifted from capturing snapshots to making something look great on that screen. With the Rollei you had to move – there was no zoom or macro settings – you moved until the object you wanted to highlight was in focus. I think that early experience is why I love to shoot primes today. When I studied photography in college, mom entrusted me with not only her Rollei, but her new Pentax to use in my classes. I think it was at this time that I really understood photography as art – not just in the shooting of images, but in the processing and developing of film – the making of images.

Now my mom was a super-talented woman who never saw herself as an exceptional. She was a master pattern cutter, seamstress, and tailor. I would show her two dresses I liked – I would like the bodice on one and the skirt on the other – we would go home and she would make me a dress that was the perfect combination of the two. Her doodles on the phone book looked like the sketches you see designers make when developing fashion concepts. She was an amazing cook. She would try something new and then go home and figure out how to make it. She was exceptional in so many creative ways. If I were to call her a photographer she would probably cringe – but I look at her shots and I know that she had some skills. These aren’t etherial landscapes or anything like that – just shots of family and friends.

This Mother’s Day, like all days I miss her. She left us far too soon, but her mark on our lives was indelible.

She’s always with you. She’s the sound of bacon crackling in a skillet on Saturday morning. She’s the aroma of the lilacs and magnolias in the spring. She’s your breath in the air on a cold winter’s day. She’s the sound of the rain on the roof that lulls you to sleep, the colors of the rainbow; she is Christmas morning. She is the place where you came from, your first home, and she’s the map you follow with every step you take. She’s your first love, your first friend, even your first enemy, but nothing on earth can separate you – not time, not space, not even death. 

Shutterbug Notes:

You can learn a lot from looking at old photos. As your skill grows you can appreciate the skill it took to make them work. You can also learn a lot about shooting from the heart – to not so much try to capture what something looks like, but what it feels like. It’s more that skill that makes a great image – it needs heart.

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. 

Winter Weary

Old Man Winter has been giving us all he’s got this year. He started in Autumn and it looks like it’s doing his best to drag things out into Spring. Here in the Ozarks, we typically get a light snow before Christmas and we have a cold and sometimes snowy January. This year we’ve been pounded by storm after storm. I’m tired of shoveling and I miss the sunshine. It’s hard on us humans, but I have to tell you that the birds at the Stonehouse are over it. Yesterday when  forecasted “light afternoon flurries” turned into 7 inches of wet sticky snow, I did what I always do. I took out my camera. My friends at the feeders have lost their sweet Christmassy look – gone are the noble poses with perfectly coiffed tufts and wings. Haggard cards and finches continue to feed, but clearly they are over this whole “polar vortex” thing. Don’t worry, my little feathered friends, Spring is on the way – it’s supposed to arrive on Thursday, but don’t count your chicks before they’re hatched.

Click through to see what the diners at the Stonehouse Buffet have to say about Winter 2014:

 

Shutterbug Notes:

I have a weather sealed camera, but my bird lens is not sealed – I use a sandwich bag to give it a bit of protection, while still allowing me to focus in the weather. Shooting birds in falling snow is tricky, your AF will try to lock onto snowflakes so try focussing first on something at the same distance as your subject – I find that nearby branches work well – this makes it easier to fine tune your focus on your subject. When shooting birds I always focus on their eyes and I use the smallest AF target box that by camera has. I think the eyes help to capture their personalities. A motion blur on a wing can add to a shot, but a face out of focus is not a keeper for me. 

The First Rule of Photography

Always take your camera!

I know I say this a lot. I take my camera everywhere. It is in my car when I go to the store. I carry it to work everyday. It is always by my side.

The case has been made that the best camera is the one that you have with you. In this day when there is an iPhone or Galaxy in almost every pocket, most of us always have a camera for those spontaneous shots. But if you have a good camera, a real camera, why settle for serviceable when you can have amazing. Your iPhone can’t stop a hummingbird in mid-flight or reveal the inverted image in a water drop. It can’t show you the structure of a snowflake. There are a few rare shutterbugs (like Allan) that squeeze every once of performance out of that phone, but the truth is that what most of us capture with our iPhones could best be classified as “snapshots”. You spent good money on that camera – why let it gather dust waiting for that next excursion. If you don’t shoot it often you are likely to miss the big shot because you are trying to remember how to use it.

Sometimes it’s not the rare creature or amazing sunset, sometimes the beauty in the mundane calls out to me. When you see something that clicks, you need to be ready to click.

I was ready to click earlier this week at the car wash…

As I sat in the carwash, I was frustrated that I had lost the connection to my satellite radio. I started to check my Facebook feed and looked up to see a sea of foam rubber orange and yellow sponges with soap engulfing me. I took a shot with my iPhone – it was in my hand after all, but the shot was noisy and couldn’t capture what I was seeing. I grabbed my fast 50 and started shooting. I did no color correction on these shots – you are seeing what I saw. The color of a sunset out my driver’s side window.

Shutterbug Notes:

For a split second I considered getting out the flash, but decided that the window would just bounce the light back at me. I shot in aperture mode and opened the shutter all the way. I had to turn off the focus assist to keep from getting a red reflection on the glass. I focused on the bubbles and hoped for the best. I only took 7 shots. All but one were keepers. Because I was very familiar with my camera I could make quick changes to capture something spontaneous without having to pay for a second run through the car wash.