What We See vs. What the Camera Sees

Kern River Morning 3The image from the camera is often different than the scene we see. This is because  we have a different "sensor" than the camera does. Knowing this, how do we do our best to represent nature fairly and directly?

This really came home to me as I looked at images from a recent trip to the Kern River Valley northeast of Bakersfield, California. This is a really cool area, not well known, and the lower valley below Lake Isabella is really difficult to photograph because of high hills all around it that block sunrise and sunset, plus a lot of early and late light.

However, there is a time in the morning when the light is low enough to create texture and form as well as backlight vegetation. If you visit then, the contrast of the green trees by the river and the brown, dry hills of the high desert around it is beautiful and striking. I wanted to capture something that expressed the light and color contrasts.

In finding a good spot with some nice water, I found the scene hard to expose for because proper exposure of the trees would overexpose the white water. I ended up exposing so that the water remained white but had detail. The image on my LCD looked interesting, but not really what I was seeing in front of me. (I should have taken two exposures, one for the water and one for the green trees, then combined them in Photoshop, but I didn't! HDR would not work because of the movement of the water, plus it would dull down parts of the photo and give less of a feeling of light.)

Back in my office at my computer, I was confronted with a bunch of interesting images from this spot, but none of them gave any good color or light on the green trees. They showed little of the reality of the scene as experienced by being there. That was disappointing.

Kern River Morning 2So I went to work on the images. I tried a number of things in Lightroom, including multiple uses of adjustment brushes. I tried some work in Photoshop with a black-and-white layer and some other layer work. But none of it seemed to give me the look I wanted. One problem that many photographers don't know about is that underexposure causes problems for colors, so in this case, the underexposure of the trees (done to expose the water properly) gave me poorer color to work with. This has nothing to do with a RAW file. It is all about how a sensor deals with tonalities and how all sensors have trouble with colors as they get darker (this is a big difference between sensors and our eyes which is not often discussed).

But all of that work did give me some ideas of what worked and what didn't. So I started over and reprocessed the image to get to what you see here. This is all Lightroom using the overall controls plus adjustment brushes, a little radial filter and a little graduated filter controls.

Kern River Morning 5I am not completely satisfied with the results in that it still doesn't quite express the color of the trees in that light and contrasting with the dry hills. But it is much better than what the camera captured (what you see here is a normally processed RAW file with only general or "global" controls). I do think I would have been better off combining two exposures because I could have exposed properly for the water in one shot and properly for the trees in the other, which would have overcome the sensor's color challenges with underexposure.

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Labels and Photography, Labels and Nature

Just a rabbit? Or a desert cottontail showing off its cooling system?

Just a rabbit? Or a desert cottontail showing off its cooling system?

The old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” is largely not true. Education researchers have found that how a child is “labeled” has a big influence on how he or she is treated in school by teachers, other students and even themselves.

There have been research projects done where papers are given to teachers for grading, for example, but some papers are said to come from “smart kids” and others from “slow learners.” The “smart kid” papers consistently get better grades, feedback and praise than the “slow learner” papers, even though all the papers randomly get the smart and slow labels, which are also randomly changed as different teachers do the study. Labels often imply a negative judgement.

This influences all of us. Any club will show this, including camera clubs. The “star” at the camera club will often get more favorable critiques than people who just “don’t have an eye for it.” Or photos are "too this or that" without considering what the photo is really doing (besides not meeting someone's personal and restrictive standard). Or the subject matter is "just ______." Even simply saying this photography is good and this other photography is bad can have unintended consequences if there is no explanation of what a person means by "good" or "bad." As Shakespeare said, "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so." This is really true about photography – a photograph is only "good" or "bad" in a specific context.

I want to be clear – I am not suggesting we never do critiques. Critiques can be an important way of learning. However, critiques that simply label with an implied negative judgement are not, such as those based on arbitrary rules ("this photo just doesn't work because it doesn't fit the rule of thirds"), shallow views of nature ("oh, that's an unimportant flower"), arbitrary standards that don't fit the photo ("I can see the noise" – implying the noise of the photo is more important than the content, composition, etc.), and so forth. When I do critiques, I don't like to use the words "good" or "bad" and prefer to look at how the photo is working to do what the photographer intended it to do.

I sat in on a workshop by a very well-known photographer who was talking about wildlife photography. He showed a small bird in a large composition and said this was “environmental photography – that’s just what we call it when we can’t get close enough or don’t have a long enough lens.”

That was so unhelpful. If someone important or a group considered to be "important" labels a certain type of photography with a demeaning term or phrase, such as “that’s just ________ photography that people do when they can’t ________ (fill in the blanks)", then few in the group will do that kind of photography (except the rebels).

Environmental photography is an important part of nature photography because it connects subject to its environment. If you consider the term a label for bad photography, then you will never get a good environmental photograph because you won’t try. And if someone important to you uses the term in this way, then you might never enjoy the possibilities and richness of good environmental photography.

Labels 2When we restrict our photography because of the labels we or others use to describe certain types of photography, “oh, we just call that __________ (fill in the term)”, this becomes very limiting. It means that sort of photography won’t be explored artistically, nor will that side of nature be revealed. It can also damage the thinking of creative photographers who might push the boundaries, but are afraid of the label. All of this results in duller, more common photography that everyone does because it is safe and won’t be labeled.

Nature deserves better because no one has the “one right way” of showing it off in photography, and you deserve better because you need to photograph in ways that make you happy, not to avoid labels. Be very careful of the labels you use to describe your or others photography. Labels 3

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Hiatus

Hiatus2I need to take a brief break in my Nature and Photography posts. I am working on some ideas for it as well as some other projects that are taking a lot of time. I will be back sometime in July. The photo above is Lake Isabella in California with the southern mountains of the Sierra Nevada in the background.

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Showing Nature Throughout the Day

Desert 4I have long thought about how we as nature photographers show nature. How we do this is important because we all become the "eyes" of the public, no matter where our photos are used, displayed or shown.

A challenge, though, is showing nature fully. A good example of this is landscapes and early and late light. Those are great times for landscape photography. I love being on location at the "magic hour" and seeing the light and shadow play out across the scene.

But nature doesn't just happen during those times. Unfortunately, getting interesting photos of nature at other times can be challenging. Night photography has gotten easier, but a lot of night life, such as bats, goes unseen by most people, including us photographers. Photographing during times of day away from sunrise and sunset often provides harsh, unappealing light, yet that's part of nature, too. Ansel Adams used to photograph throughout the day, and black-and-white can be one helpful approach to conditions that are poor for color. Still, I have seen places that are very interesting during the day, yet frustrating to photograph.

A good example is the desert. I have often traveled through the Mojave Desert in California on the way to someplace else, though I have spent a little time photographing in the wonderful Mojave National Preserve and in Death Valley. But a lot of the Mojave is very intimidating in its open, dry, hot spaces, especially to a guy who grew up in Minnesota.

Desert 1I was driving through the Mojave this week and when I stopped for a break, I also stopped and thought about what was around me. It was mid-afternoon, not a time nature photographers usually photograph a landscape (me included), yet here I was challenged by an expansive landscape that really said Mojave Desert to me.

Desert 3I had to try. So I found a spot that had an expansive view of the area. And at first, it was hard to make anything of it. It was just a big area of space at a hot time of day. I used a wide-angle lens to allow me to stretch the space and emphasize that space. I found that including more sky was helpful to add color but it also gave the feeling of big, empty space.

I tried working some distinctive plants into the shot to give the composition some structure. I tried including some telephone poles small to give a feeling of isolation. I even tried a little black-and-white.

Desert 5

Desert 2The photos aren't all "beautiful", but they do show how I felt about an intimidating, full of space desert. Sometimes I think it is worth stretching ourselves to show off nature that is not the "usual" in photography.

All of these were shot, by the way, with an iPhone and the Moment wide-angle lens.

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Night and Nature Photography

Portland, Oregon

Portland, Oregon

Night and low light photography has gotten easier and easier. With film, this type of photography was a challenge. Everything from color to color balance to "noise" (grain) to exposure problems due to reciprocity failure made night photography often unpredictable. Now with white balance control, excellent results at high ISOs and the ability to check exposure as you go, this is no longer such a problem. Digital photography makes night images accessible for any photographer.

That said, I can tell you that there are still a LOT of challenges for bat photography. I have set myself a goal of capturing images of bats on location, not captured and released for controlled photography. There is a reason photographers have not done that too often. It is hard!

Austin Bats 8Yet, for me, this represents another aspect of nature that is underrepresented in nature photography. Bats are a very important part of most ecosystems, yet when you see books about those ecosystems, you'll often find little to nothing about bats. Roughly 1/2 of each day, night, is consistently "under-reported" for nature. That is like trying to understand Mt. Rainier without considering its glaciers or Alaska without including its bears.

I get it, though, with photography of night life in nature. It is hard. Remote camera traps, including "trail cams" sold to hunters (and used by many naturalists), can record night life, but only when that life crosses in front of the camera. Bats are small, and with flight, they can go anywhere at anytime. Their flight makes bats neither contained or as predictable as terrestrial night animals (which makes the latter good subjects for trail cams).

One thing that is somewhat predictable for bats is their emergence from large colonies at dusk. Not all bats live in such aggregations, but when they do, their emergence can offer a wonderful experience of night life.

We had to privilege to experience some amazing Mexican free-tailed bat emergences in Austin over the Memorial Day weekend. The bat colony under the Congress Ave. bridge just south of downtown Austin is well known. Hundreds of people show up to watch every night, and on busy nights, that can be thousands. You will see every age, sex, culture and race there to see the bats. They have become a popular destination for folks coming to Austin. Over two million bats live in that bridge, the largest urban bat colony in the world.

We were there on a busy Saturday night – the park and lake below the bridge were filled with people. At this time of year when female bats typically have young, the Mexican free-tails often emerge earlier than sunset so they can get out and start feeding. There had been a lot of heavy rain in the area in the days before, so the bats would not have gone out much to feed, if at all.

But they did not start coming out until nearly 9 pm, about 30 minutes after sunset. It was definitely night and dark.

Austin Bats 2The bats became very hard to see. I had to use a flash to get anything, and only when the image showed on my LCD did I really see the bats. There could be no composing of bats or waiting until a certain number were in the frame because I could not see them before taking the picture. The photo opps were not good. A dad and his son near us were having trouble seeing the bats, so I showed them my LCD and that made their experience more real (and my work worthwhile, even if not that great). The local folks said that a hawk had been hanging around the bridge of late and that probably caused the bats to delay emerging until it was dark.

A friend who lives in the area, Ted Keller, had suggested we check out the I-35 bridge over McNeil Rd. in Round Rock (just north of Austin). He said that bridge also had millions of bats using it as a bat "house." We went there on Sunday night. The evening was sunny with hardly a cloud. The bats started coming out a little before official sunset and this was an amazing nature experience. My wife loves nature, but does not have the love of bats I do, but she was in awe and loved it. The bats swirled under the bridge, then came out in large groups out of the southeast end of the bridge.

Austin Bats 3The groups went into the sky and you could watch them go. The mass of bats and their group flight in the air reminded me of the starling flights going to roost in England (I have only seen videos of them). There were not many people there to watch, but they all just stood and watched with great attention as these bats came out in waves over the next half hour (they actually kept going longer, but when it was dark and getting hard to see them, the people left).

Austin Bats 4Easy to photograph? Yes and no. Easy to show bats with the urban location. Hard to give a feeling of the clouds of bats and show the bats, too (like most U.S. bats, Mexican free-tails are very small). I tried doing a variety of things, near and far, changing my position, etc. I was glad I was coming back the next day because I would know better what to do. Still, the experience was amazing.

Next day, Monday, sunset came. No bats. The bats did not start coming out until nearly 9 pm, like the Congress Ave. bats. I had seen a hawk fly through the flying bats on Sunday night, and it seemed like it caught a bat, though it was hard to tell at the distance.

Austin Bats 5I get it. These little bats are very vulnerable when it is light, so they delay emergence to make it harder for hawks to get them, even though that means going out for food later (bats have a very high metabolism, especially with young to feed, so that does matter).

This made the photography very, very challenging. I had to keep increasing my ISO in order to get a shutter speed fast enough to stop the action of the wings enough to recognize the bats as bats.

Austin Bats 6But it quickly got too dark for that, so I started using my flash (which I had put fresh batteries into so that it would recycle quickly).

Now came a whole new challenge. How to focus! It was not bright enough to focus easily focus where the bats were. Lights from the street gave enough light on the bridge to focus there, but I was shooting with a long telephoto with limited depth of field, so the bats would be out of focus. They were moving too fast to focus on, even with a light. So I used the bridge focus as a starting point and gradually changed my focus manually until I started getting some in focus.

Austin Bats 7Since bats fly, they don't follow a narrow path, so sometimes I would get them in focus, sometimes not. I kept tweaking my focus, which sometimes helped, sometimes hurt. I am thinking about trying a laser measurer for bats so that I can measure a distance and use that for focus.

Still, it was fun and I learned a lot.

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The World of Animal Life

Barnes bookOne of my favorite nature authors is Simon Barnes, a British nature writer. I am just reading one of his latest books, Ten Million Aliens. If you love learning about the whole range of possibilities of life in nature, this is the book for you. I love it!

Barnes is also a sports writer for the London Times and this shows in his lively, engaging text. He makes the animal kingdom fun, even tiny creatures most of us have never heard of.

The book has a few line drawings, but not much in the way of images otherwise. Still, if you are interested in nature beyond photographing it, and I suspect you are, check this book out.

He has another book that you might find of interest, How to Be a Bad Birdwatcher. I read this a few years ago when it came out. It is about connecting with nature through birds by seeing birds as more than something on a checklist to check off. Definitely fits my way of thinking about nature.

Also, I am working to complete an on-line course that I had hoped to have available by June. Obviously, that isn't happening, but I am hopeful for the end of June. I will let you know when it is available.

MyCourse

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