Yogi Berra on Nature Photography

Watching 3Baseball legend Yogi Berra passed away on September 22. He was 90 years old. Even if you were not a baseball fan, you probably heard of Yogi because of his interesting way of talking! He could put together words in quite unique ways, such as, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it " and "Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical." (A great list of his quotes can be found from USA Today.)

My wife loved Yogi Berra for his quotes. She felt they were a kindred spirit. For example, after coming home from a frustrating meeting one time, my wife said, "I just wish they would stop and smell the big picture."

A well-known Berra quote is "You can observe a lot by watching." On first glance, that just seems obvious and another of his funny sayings. Thinking about it, though, I find it has a lot to say to us as nature photographers.

Photographers often talk about "seeing" and "having a good eye." This is a visual art, so obviously we do need to use our eyes and see our subjects and compositions.

Yet, as nature photographers, I think we are often called to go beyond simply seeing, simply observing what is in front of us. Sometimes we need to watch. Nature is never static and so constantly changes. Watching can slow us down long enough to truly see what nature has to offer us on a particular day. Watching can help us see new things because watching means being patient as time passes. That can bring us new and better images.

Watching also connects us better to nature. Simply observing nature—seeing it—and taking lots of pictures of what is "seen", doesn't automatically connect us to nature. Stopping to watch can make a day better even if the photos are not there, solely because it connects us to what is happening in the natural world. Watching nature can show us parts of the world that we might never see otherwise, such as the process of building an orb web by a spider. Watching a landscape can slow us down to see the details of a lichen.

Watching 1Spiny crablike orbweaver making web, rainforest, Costa Rica
Today's world is filled with demands for our time. I know that for sure! I can tell you how easy it is to get caught up in all the things I have to get done. Yet, even just going into my native plants garden to watch what is happening there changes my perspective and slows me down to earth speed rather than cultural speed.

So, Yogi Berra had it right! "You can observe a lot by watching."


Posted in Nature photography | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Seasons of Life

Photo industry 1As we go through life, we change in how we see the world. The seasons of life is a cliche, but it is also a good way of looking at life. As these seasons change, we change, hopefully always better for who we are.

I left Outdoor Photographer magazine as editor about eight years ago. I wanted to pursue my own work more. I am also glad I left the publishing industry because that industry has come under a huge amount of stress. I don't know of any print magazine that has not struggled at least to a degree in this different world of how people get information.

For a while I still kept up with all the latest gear and software. That had been a big part of my life with OP and the other Werner Publications photo magazines. Going through the transition to digital had been fascinating because I had had a front row seat to the photo industry.

Today, digital photography is strongly established as a very important part of photography. But I have become less and less interested in all of the gyrations of the photo industry and more interested in spending time with things that, for me, really matter, including nature, my wife and kids, and friends.

Photo industry 4This has given me a rather different outlook on the photo industry, I think, because it does not fit the popular things going on about photo gear. I am no longer excited to simply gawk at the latest, most exciting shiny objects, and wonder how I can buy the stuff. When I was with the magazines, we were constantly seeing the latest and the best gear. Many people criticize all photo magazines for being too soft on photo gear companies.

I understand that, but that criticism shows a lack of understanding of how people work. We all connect with our environments, good or bad. And when there are exciting, new things constantly part of our environment, we tend to get caught up in that excitement and newness. That's not about magazines paying too much attention to advertisers, but about real people in an environment that is about thinking about exciting new products. This is also what happens, to a degree, to pros who are sponsored by companies. They are not necessarily "prostituting" themselves (as some people say) to those companies, they are simply cocooned in an environment that saturates them with the gear of such companies. So, as human beings, they are affected by that environment.

Now, I still pay attention to some of the trends in the photo industry, but I am a lot less interested in the crazy gyrations companies will do to try to keep people continuously buying their stuff. A good example of this is megapixels. The idea that we need more megapixels is absurd. Very few photographers even need the megapixels available on cameras today. A huge number of photographs are used on the web, and that doesn't require more than a couple of megapixels at most. For publications, 10 megapixels is enough (though it doesn't hurt to have a bit more).

But now what we all see are photographs using the latest supermegapixel cameras, the actual photo shown small (as if it were not important), then a small cropped area displayed to show how much detail is there. Okay, real world, folks. No one in the real world cares. They care about what a photo looks like, how it connects with them, what emotional content it carries and so forth. No normal person wants to know how many megapixels were used. If the only reason a viewer is interested in one of our photos is so that he/she can stick their nose against the image to see tiny detail, then for me, we have failed as photographers.

That also misses a very important point about photography as something separate from shiny objects that attract our attention. I want my gear to be tools that help me do a better job creating images that are important to me, not gear that impresses others because of some new "great advancement." A great advancement in sensors would be a higher dynamic range, not simply adding pixels, but the manufacturers are not so interested in that. Pixels are easy to sell, dynamic range is not, yet the latter is a far more important tool for us as photographers trying to render the world the best we can.

My perspective today is that digital photography has given us some phenomenal tools, and it is the tools that can help us create great photos. But I don't understand the need to create photos to show off the technology. Sure, you can "prove" a camera renders smaller detail than someone else at the camera club, that that is really not about photography. That is about technological one-upmanship.

I admit it, the photo industry is a lot less interesting to me today. That doesn't mean I don't care about the tools. I just saw a new item about Canon working on some special camera that can give ISOs in the millions. The camera will cost something like $30,000, but over time, that will change. For me, that is exciting because of my bat project trying to get better photos of bats. That would be an amazing tool. For me. Not necessarily the average photographer.

But also for me, that is how I think we need to look at gear. What can it do for me? For you? The answer will be specific to each of us. That will make your work better and easier as a photographer. Unfortunately, there is so much hype and marketing noise about photo gear that sometimes that very simple need is drowned out.

Photo industry 2

Posted in Gear | Tagged , , , , | 20 Comments

Simplified Exposure Choices

Exposure choices simplified 1I have been working with a photographer to help him simplify his work in the field. We talked about exposure the way I approach it, and he found that it simplified his choices quite effectively. So I thought I would share it with you. This is not about exposure for beginners or dummies (though it could help beginners, too). It is about exposure choices simplified to make the field experience less camera intensive and more nature connected.

(Look, there are a lot of ways to choose settings for exposure, and they will all work. I am not suggesting that this way is best or only. I am offering it as a way of simplifying how one looks at exposure choices, and a way that works.)

There are three things to work with and in the following order:

  1. Choose Aperture Priority exposure
  2. Set one of three apertures to control depth of field and shutter speed
  3. Adjust ISO as needed for needed shutter speed

That's it! Now some specifics:

Aperture Priority is a simple and quick way of getting good exposure. Modern cameras with their multi-pattern metering (which generally only work with autoexposure) do a great job. Not all exposures will be perfect – a camera metering system will think a dark scene is just not enough light and give it too much exposure; and it will think a bright scene is just too much light and give it too little exposure. Compensate for that with the exposure compensation button/dial.

Those three apertures:

  1. Maximum aperture
  2. f/8 (or f/11)
  3. f/16

Choose your maximum aperture (such as f/2.8 or f/4 or f/5.6, depending on the lens) for minimum depth of field (selective focus effects) and highest possible shutter speed for the conditions. Many sports photographers use Aperture Priority and the maximum f-stop because it guarantees the camera will always choose the fastest possible shutter speed for the conditions (at that ISO). This thistle was shot with the lens wide-open.

Exposure choices simplified 3I'm going to skip to f/16. When you need depth of field, choose f/16. For most conditions, that will give you adequate depth of field and will minimize two problems with smaller f/stops – slower shutter speeds (causing camera movement and not stopping subject movement, such as blowing flowers) and a drop in sharpness due to diffraction effects. Also, when you need a slow shutter speed for a blur effect, try f/16, which was used on the Minnesota River Valley Refuge scene below.

Simply exposure 2I do use f/22 on occasion when my depth of field needs are extreme (e.g., very close subject or I need the slowest shutter speed). But I also have had lenses that have a significant drop in sharpness when you go smaller than f/16 (that is easy to test), making anything other than f/16 a bad choice. With f/16, I know I am getting good, sharp results and gaining a little faster shutter speed.

f/8 is always one of the sharpest f-stops on a lens, so if you don't need depth of field effects or a certain shutter speed, it is a great option. It is sharper than shooting wide-open or at f/16, plus it usually gives reasonable shutter speeds. f/8 was used for this image of the Minnesota River.

Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Carver Rapids, MinnesotaOften I have found students choosing f/16 when they are shooting landscapes because they think they need the depth of field. If your scene is at a distance from you, everything will be in focus no matter what f-stop you use, because you will be focusing at infinity. If you are shooting with a wide-angle lens at distances beyond 8-10 feet (depending on focal length), f/16 offers you nothing but problems. At that distance, everything will be in focus at moderate f-stops. f/8 is simple and effective. (About that f/11 – I do typically use f/11 instead of f/8 when shooting lenses other than wide-angles like this.)

Once you have done these things, the camera will adjust exposure for you based on the conditions. Now you have to watch your exposure when your subject or your shooting warrants it. If you are handholding your camera, you must use a fast shutter speed to minimize camera movement or shake during exposure. If you are shooting from a tripod, then you will need a shutter speed that will affect how movement in the scene is portrayed – slow shutter speeds for blurs, fast shutter speeds for sharpness. (Quick tip: At slow shutter speeds, use Live View for better sharpness. It locks up the mirror so you get no mirror bounce vibration, yet you can still see what you are photographing.)

Now you adjust your shutter speed by changing your ISO: Higher ISO for faster shutter speed, lower ISO for slower shutter speed. Today's cameras do a great job with ISOs as high as 1600 and above, so use them. These Mexican free-tailed bats were flying well after sunset and they are one of the fastest bats. ISO 1600 and the widest aperture were used to ensure a fast shutter speed (1/1600)

Exposure choices simplified 5That's it. It takes more time to explain this than to actually use the three choices:

  1. Choose Aperture Priority exposure
  2. Set one of three apertures to control depth of field and shutter speed
  3. Adjust ISO as needed for needed shutter speed

Special note on formats: The middle and small f-stop choices can be affected by format. All of these were shot with Micro Four Thirds which use a shorter focal length for any given angle of view. That means I inherently get more depth of field. 35mm-full-frame needs a much longer focal length for the same angle of view (2X), so it will have inherently less depth of field. I would use f/11 as my middle f-stop and consider f/22 for more depth of field. The ideas about shutter speed apply to any format.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

The Magic of the Black Line Border

Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Carver Rapids, MinnesotaMinnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Carver Rapids, MinnesotaYou may or may not notice that I always add a thin black line for a border on my images (called a stroke in Photoshop). I consider this a very important part of displaying a photo.

By adding a thin black line around the image, you help the viewer better perceive the photo as a photo as well as keeping them looking at the image. There is always a tendency for the viewer's eye to go off of the image, especially when it is surrounded by white background as it is on most photo blogs and on Facebook. The black line helps keep the viewer's eye within "bounds" (you are literally creating a boundary). This is also one reason why Lightroom, from the start, had a dark background.

For any images that have light or bright areas around the edges, and this could include cloud-filled skies, snow, and so forth, this black line becomes a necessity. Without it, the photo blends with the background so that it is hard to see where the photo ends and background begins.

Black border 3Black border 3 withAnd this little black line gives images a classic, classy finished look.

Black border 1-2The easiest way to do this border is in Photoshop (there is a way to do it in Photoshop Elements, too). I do it by working on the image in Lightroom, then using the Edit In command (from right-clicking the photo) to send the image to Photoshop. There is a way to send the image to Photoshop as a layer, but if your photo does not come in as a layer, then simply duplicate the image to create a layer (Command or Control + J).

Next, I double-click on the gray layer band in the Layers window (do not double-click the name of the layer) to get the Layer Style dialog box. In it, I use Stroke with a size of 1 pixel (unless I were doing a large print), Position: Inside, Blend Mode: Normal, Opacity: 100%, Fill Type: Color, then make sure the small box is black (if it is a color, double-click it to get the color picker).

Black border 4aI have set up an action to allow me to apply a stroke/border with a single click (Google Photoshop actions if you want to know how to do that).

Here's another way to do a simple border with either Photoshop or Photoshop Elements. (Photoshop Elements does not have a Layer Style option like Photoshop.) Open your photo in the program, then duplicate the image so there is a layer. Now go to the Image menu and find Canvas Size. In it, change the dimensions to pixels, then increase the canvas size by 2 pixels wider and 2 pixels taller (that gives a pixel on each side) while checking the Relative box, and use black as the color. Flatten the image and save.

Black border 5b

Posted in Photoshop | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Challenge of Night Photography

Night nature 2Digital cameras are absolutely amazing in their ability to handle night photography. If you never shot film at night, you won't know how truly remarkable digital cameras are today for night photography. Film could be a pain to use after dark.

This has led to a real explosion in photographs of the night sky, and many of them are very, very cool. The camera can actually pick out and reveal details that we can't see with the naked eye.

But as I have gotten interested in the challenge of photographing bats, I realized that a lot of night nature is not photographed by the average person. I have found it interesting to start exploring night nature more now because cameras are so much better suited to it. I have photographed toads looking for insects attracted to night lights, I have shot spiders building their night webs, and I have started photographing bats. There is still so much more to photograph at night.

Night nature 6Night nature 1

I know that some subjects, such as bats, are really difficult. In a way, photographing them is like underwater photography because of the stuff you need to have beyond the camera, which in the case of bats includes flash (usually more than one), sync cords, remote triggers, stuff to hold all that in place in the field, and more.

However, Mexican free-tailed bats are one type of bat that anyone can photograph and get a taste of the night. They typically leave their roosts right at sunset when there is still some light. With the great ability of digital cameras to handle high ISO, you can even photograph them as the light drops. These are also bats that roost in very large numbers, even into the millions.

Recently I had the chance to photograph the evening exodus of these bats from their day roost in the Yolo Basin up in Sacramento. These bats roost in the I-80 long bridge over the lowlands there. If you are ever near Sacramento in the summer through early fall, check out this possibility for a relatively easy start for night photography of wildlife. About 200,000 bats live under the bridge and emerge in waves of bats heading out to catch bugs over the agricultural fields nearby.

Night nature 4Night nature 5The next shot is one of those really challenging night photos. I love the challenge! These are Mexican free-tailed bats coming into roost before dawn after hunting bugs in the night. The Yolo Basin folks don't do a lot of these morning programs because the return flight is not so dramatic, plus once the bats get under the bridge, they are really, really hard to see, plus they are super fast. Photography becomes a bit of a guess. You focus on the underside of the bridge where you expect bats to be (using a flashlight), frame an interesting composition of bridge, then you just start shooting flash shots. Then you have to do some work in Lightroom (or other program) to even out the light. The flash falloff causes a big problem that way, but modern cameras have a lot of detail that can be revealed with a little work in Lightroom (or Camera Raw).

Night nature 3

Another really great and easy location is the Congress Avenue bridge in Austin. This bridge is famous for the largest urban bat colony in the world. There are over 2 million Mexican free-tailed bats there. They are definitely worth checking out. They have become a popular evening spot for people in Austin. There is a nice park below the bridge that allows a good view of the emerging bats against the sky.

South of Austin is Bracken Cave where over 12 million free-tailed bats call home in the summer. I have not been there yet, but hope to spend some time in Austin next year.

Mexican free-tailed bats roost in some of the largest numbers of bats anywhere. Not all bats like such friendly roosting. Some roost alone or with just a few other bats. They can be much harder to find, obviously!

The Mexican free-tailed bats are cave and crevice dwellers, which is why they have often adapted to bridges. They like crevices about one inch wide, which is a common spacing of girders and expansion joints of certain types of bridges. They prefer concrete bridges because the mass of concrete keeps temperatures from fluctuating wildly (like a cave), and of course, they need concrete that is rough enough to grab with their feet.

Posted in Nature photography, Night photography | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

Life and Death in the Garden

Spider + beetle 1Spend a little time in any garden and sooner or later you will see some dramatic scenes of wildlife action that can rival that of Africa. I am always on alert as I go through my garden to see what action might be happening there. It is like taking a mini-safari almost every day!

This day I saw this green fruit beetle struggling in a spider's web. This is a big, fat beetle, but it was caught. The web was a tangle web, a type of web that certain spiders make, including this one, a brown widow spider. A tangle web literally entangles the prey rather than using a sticky web to snare dinner.

I grabbed my camera and lens quickly and started taking pictures. It was really interesting to see the spider come down to the beetle, then move away, back, then away. That is not unusual when the captured animal is bigger than the spider. There is a real danger to the spider that it could get hurt or even tangled in its own web. So the spider was cautious.

Still, it wasn't sure what to do. Maybe it was thinking of still trying to take this beetle down. The venom of a brown widow spider is capable of doing that, but the challenge was getting close enough to bite the beetle without getting hurt. Or it might have been thinking how it might cut this monster out of its web. Spiders will also do that to protect themselves.

Spider + beetle 2 Spider + beetle 3 Spider + beetle 4After a little while, the beetle broke free of enough web strands that it dropped to a bag of wood chips under the web. This web was built from a flower pot over that bag. Both brown and black widow spiders tend to build webs that are very low to the ground. Their tangle webs have a distinctive unruly look to them. The spider had, by this time, gone back under the lip of the flower pot to hide. Brown widow spiders are very shy spiders.

Spider + beetle 5 Spider + beetle 6 Spider + beetle 7

The beetle got free of the web but now it had a new problem. It could not stand properly because its feet were literally tied with spider silk. I felt that this valiant surviver deserved to head off in flight (these beetles look like they shouldn't be able to fly, but they do). I tried to gently separate its legs, but the back two legs were locked solidly together with spider silk. This gives you an idea of how strong spider silk it. I had to get some scissors and cut it in order to free the insect.

It dropped to the grass, gathered its senses, then took off for new adventures. The photography, for me, gave me a chance to really see and focus in on this life-and-death struggle and to share it with you!

Posted in Insects, Nature photography, Storytelling | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments