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!

What does the Fox Say?

One of my favorite things about life in the Ozarks are the random encounters with wildlife. These encounters happen often up on my mountain – songbirds, squirrels, hawks, and deer all circle around the Stonehouse, careful to steer clear of the patrolling terriers in the lawn. A few years ago we had bear sightings up the road. I spotted a black mountain lion passing through one time. These occurrences are alway magical, but not unexpected anymore.

My friend Candy lives about a mile and a half from me on a golf course community called Holiday Island. You may have seen Eric Estrada pitching lots on late night infomercials a few years back. It’s beautiful spot carved out of the wilds of the Ozarks – but it’s considerably less wild than my mountain. They have restaurants, grocery stores, and a club house. One night Candy and I were driving from her house to mine. We were passing the clubhouse when we spotted some visitors. There on the parking lot next to the putting green were three little faces looking back at us. Candy maneuvered the car to give me some light while I took photos with my flash – oddly enough they were not at all bothered by the car, the flash, or me. At one point I was shooting two of them grooming each other when I glanced back and caught sight of the third one sneaking up behind me. Their curiosity overwhelmed any fear they had.

Their manner reminded me a lot of my shy pup Kirby. They were cautious but curious. I almost wanted to just sit on the ground and let them come to me – but we were in the middle of a street in the dark in the middle of the night. After about 20 minutes they tired of us and moved on across the putting green. Something more interesting awaited them in the dark of the golf course.

Since that night I have seen them several times. I spent some time with them at the bank parking lot one evening, but without Candy there to point the car headlights at them I didn’t have enough light to photograph them. I saw them sleeping in a driveway the other day – soaking up the last of the warmth of our Indian Summer.

 

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. 

2013 – Ten shots that I love

Editing is crucial for me and I often put myself through the process of narrowing my shots to find the ones that really work – my blog helps with that. I take about 10,000 photos every year. I shared about a thousand with you in 2013.  As the old year closes, I thought I would take a minute to post the shots that stood out for me.

10. Orange Stairs Orange Stairs

I shot this in an architectural salvage store in Chicago. The color captivated me. It was a great day of shooting and shopping, but this is my favorite shot of my time in the Windy City.

9. One Way20130513-163959.jpgI actually shot this on my last evening in Chicago. I used my fast 50 and it let me get lots of detail even late at night. This year I challenged myself to try things to find the limits of my equipment.

8. The Friendly Yearling20130324-103214.jpgThis is probably not one of my better photos, but it was an amazing moment for me. As I looked at this young buck looking back at me I realized he was the friendly fawn I had met the year before. I was Freshly Pressed for that post, and while that was great, the moment I recognized him was something I will never forget.

7. The Fly In20130119-111408.jpgThis was one of those shots I didn’t know I captured until I reviewed the shots. I thought there was no shot with the chickadee flying in – but it is one that I just love. This shot is one that encouraged me to keep shooting even when the scene looks pretty boring. After all, if I had decided to put my camera away because all I saw was a couple of finches eating, I would have missed this shot.

6. A Frosty Windshield

The payoff, sunrise out my driver's side window.

I took this shot waiting for my jeep to warm up one morning. I was so glad to have my macro lens with me. Macro shooting makes you look deeper into an unexplored world.

5. The Dancing Elk

Blitzen

I love shooting the elk during the rut, but this day was magical. The ground was frosty and there was a full on bull-fight. This bull was the victor and danced his way across the valley letting everyone know.

4. Stop Action Hummer

20130917-122612.jpg

After trying every shutter speed and lighting combination to try to capture a shot of a hummer in flight I decided to try a flash. This was taken right before sunset and I was running out of light – the flash was a gamble, but it worked so well that I began to use it in the daylight to stop action.

3. Tilt Shift Ben

This is my friend Ben. He lives across the road from me and sometimes visits with me while I get my mail. I never noticed how close in color he is to the road before. I shot him as he moved towards me and lucked out on the focus.

This is an experimental shot I took with a tilt shift set up. It was manually focused right after sunset. I was pleased with how it turned out, but this really feels like Ben to me – he is a neighbor dog that drops by to make sure I make it home OK.

2. The Swimming Dog

Speed

This shot of my brother’s dog in the swimming pool took a grand champion ribbon at the county fair – but even if no one appreciated the technical process of stopping the action, I love how that spit second of bliss shows in her expression. The color of the pool in the sunlight made for a great setting.

1. The Blue Jay

Eat and glare

This is my favorite photo I took this year – the attitude of the blue jay, the color of the bokeh, the late afternoon lighting. The funny thing is that I was trying to stop action and this guy just stopped to pose for me.

I’ll admit it, as soon as I got to 10, I wished I had made a top 20 list. Are there any you think should have made the cut? What did you post in 2013 that you are especially happy with? Happy New Year!

Shutterbug Notes:

If I could offer any advice, it would be to try new things. Your camera is capable of so much more than you imagine. Shoot the shots you want in Auto and then try the other modes. Push the ISO. Try that lens that is sitting around gathering dust. You’ll be a better photographer. 8 of these 10 shots would not have happened if I had stayed in my comfort zone. 

Out on a Limb

Winter Storm Cleon has moved east and it’s finally possible to get out of the Stone House and get back to work. It’s still unseasonably cold, and today I got my first mail delivery in almost a week. During the storm I worked from home and stayed warm and mostly dry by the fire. By day two the symptoms of cabin fever were starting to set in. I was getting up every thirty minutes and walking up and down my hallway several times. I constantly stocked the indoor firewood pile. I starting to feel restless and cooped up. I decided that to clear my head that I would take a walk outside over my “lunch hour”.

I put on my Carharts and tucked my weatherproof camera and lens inside my jacket. The activity around the house was extraordinary. Cardinals were hanging onto the branches of the crepe myrtle for dear life. A fallen tree limb over the pergola was a lifeline to a small woodpecker as winds blew snow almost sideways. Birds that typically dart away held fast in hopes of spotting fallen seed below on the patio.

I came in almost soaked through and freezing, but invigorated and ready to focus – on work.

Shutterbug notes:

Shooting birds in the snow can be tricky. Your camera’s autofocus wants to focus on the nearest object in your field of view – I found that if I made my focus point as small as possible and tried to get it to lock onto a bird’s eyes or beak that I could eventually get a focus between flakes. I took all of these shots in shutter mode at 1/400 second and an ISO of 1000. The white of the snow added ambient light that made a moderate ISO setting sufficient. A slower shutter speed would make the flakes look more like streaks – a faster one would require a higher ISO and would create unnecessary noise in a limited light situation.