Preaching to the Choir

Shawnee2You know the old saying, preaching to the choir. It refers to anyone who works hard to convince someone who is already convinced. It is usually thought of as a bad thing or at least that one is wasting their time.

I am not so sure.

Preaching to the choir is often used for folks like you and me who care deeply about nature and want to share it through our photography, but we often end up sharing to people who are already convinced. Like you. 

I have often said that nature photographers are the eyes of the public. Without our photos, very often others don't know about the aspects of nature we care about. That often includes a lot of people and nature these days because many people just don't feel feel they have time to spend in nature. There is no question that the world is a bit more pressured these days and simply earning a living can be difficult, especially when companies expect people to do more and more in their already full jobs.

Shawnee1Because being eyes in nature for others is important, I have often felt that given all of the challenges facing nature today that I needed to be able to do something that would create change, make those people who were doing wrong things see the better of their ways. Hah! That wasn't, isn't, and won't happen. It can be really difficult to change people's minds who don't care.

There are many reasons why people believe the way they do, even when solid, hard-core evidence says they should be thinking differently. That's just how people are, and to think a few "good photos" and some thoughtful text is going to change them is naive and dangerous. Dangerous because trying too hard to convince people who don't want to be convinced can actually harden someone else's position.

We are unlikely to change the way the world thinks with our work. While photography has a history of affecting people in many ways, much of that occurred in the past when photography was not so ubiquitous and filling our lives. Today, it is hard to break through and get attention even with the best of media (just look at how much Time magazine has declined in influence and readership as a good example – today's Time is nothing like the vibrant, thick publication that people talked a lot about).

But as nature photographers, we can "preach to the choir", i.e., get our work in front of people who care about nature, people who are already convinced. Why? So that they feel encouraged and even more confident in their understanding and support of nature. That can mean reaching people in camera clubs to churches to local civic and social groups to publishing work in everything from local to national venues, even if that means self-publishing with things like ebooks (Guy Kurasawki's book, A. P. E., is a good resource related to the latter).

If more and more people feel connected to nature because of your work, my work, our work, even though they already look favorably on nature (the "choir"), then that can be a force of positive action and attention. That can make a difference.

I know I am "preaching to the choir" in my new book, Macro Photography: from Snapshot to Great Shot, and I am proud of it! I want to support and encourage people to get out and get better photos of nature. You can find it at bookstores and at Amazon.com. And if you get a copy, please help me out by adding a review of the book on Amazon.com.

Also my new online class, Basics of Landscape Photography, is now available on craftsy.com. We shot this class this past February in the Santa Monica Mountains outside of LA. I think we really put together a great class that both celebrates the landscape and instructs how to get the best shots of it.

Both of the photos here were recently taken in the Shawnee National Forest in Illinois.

Posted in Close Up Photography, Landscape photography, Nature photography | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Photography as Communication

Communication1I have photographed since I was a kid, creating my first darkroom when I was thirteen. Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter and W. Eugene Smith were among my heroes.

And nature has been part of my life since I was little. Friends and I regularly rode our bicycles to a woods and stream near our housing development, and one time I buried a roadkill skunk, then dug it up later to use the bones for show and tell.

Things that we connect to when we were young and then stay with us as we get older are good signs of things that are key to who we are and how we interact with the world. Both nature and photography have been key parts of my career since I was a naturalist with a park system outside of Minneapolis out of college and then as a photojournalist with MnDOT. Since then, different aspects of each have played different roles and with varied relative importance. Today, both are important to who I am and what I do.

What has been a strong value for me in my work is communication, clear and direct communication. A photojournalism professor at the University of Washington had a lot to do with that, along with photo work on the Daily, even though there was no photojournalism major. And I always had a challenge: nature or photography? Nature won out at college and I returned to Minnesota to graduate with a degree in plant and soil science at the University of Minnesota.

Communication4And I continued my quest to be a better communicator as a photographer (and eventually writer, videographer, editor and designer). That included a solid study of Andreas Feininger's books such as Total Picture Control (he was a LIFE magazine photographer and wrote a ton of books about how important it was to control the image in order to communicate better).

Today represents a very new world that includes digital photography, the Internet, social media, and a very changed landscape for publications. I can't say I fully understand it all or use it optimally, but I keep working at it. A lot of what I had learned and expected of photography and publishing today is no longer relevant.

Except communication and good communication through photography, writing and more.

wild bee on huckleberry, NW North CarolinaThis is important because so many, many pros in the nature photography world have seen their business flip and flop madly, making it difficult to know what to do. And this includes most of the best known nature photographers.

One approach is to follow all of the changing trends and try to keep up. Many photographers have tried this with varied degrees of success, both pros and amateurs.

But what often happens, and I know this all too well from my own experience and that of folks I know well, is that you start to lose a little of yourself. When we try to do something “because you should” rather than because that connects with who we are, we limit ourselves to something less than who we really are. For example, when trying to impress people on Facebook to get lots of likes and "friends" becomes an overriding goal (because you should do what everyone else is doing), then something of the soul of the photographer and the photograph is lost.

In no way do I want to imply that social media is bad or wrong, though. In fact it gives a lot of us the great opportunity to connect with friends and new friends from around the world. That connection is important. The challenge comes when the social media becomes more important than who you are.

Good communication about nature through words and photography is important. I believe we can control the image to create beautiful photos that will connect with people and communicate well about nature without getting caught up in the superficiality that only looking for outside "validation", such as likes, can create. That ultimately empty, outside search for validation can happen even if you never go on any social media platform, or look to competitions (both local camera club and larger), or look to being published a certain way, or just strive too hard to get people "praising" your photos.

I believe this is very important for me to remember, but I also think it is worth considering for all of you following this blog. You are not just my audience. You are also a unique community that cares about nature and photography, with both being important. I believe nature is important and I know you do, too. Sometimes the hard work is not creating the superficially beautiful photo of nature, but making the strong image of some part of nature we care about that gains attention for the nature as much as the photo … and respects both.

For example, a strong image of a spider might not win any prizes (so many people don't like spiders, including judges!), but it might connect with someone in such a way to bring them closer to nature. I once had a woman come up to me after a talk, and tell me that while she hated spiders, she liked looking at my spider photos. That meant as much to me than any award.

Communication3Speaking of spiders (and how's that for a segue?), my new book, Macro Photography: from Snapshot to Great Shot, is out now and the cover features a jumping spider! You can find it at bookstores and at Amazon.com. If you buy a copy of this book, please put a review for it on Amazon.com. That helps me a lot!

Also (and I have no good segue here), my new online class, Basics of Landscape Photography, is now available on craftsy.com. It is 60% off right now. We shot this this past February in the Santa Monica Mountains outside of LA. I think we really put together a great class that both celebrates the landscape and instructs how to get the best shots of it. You can see a video introduction to the class here.

Photos are from top: Large-flowered trillium in the spring (East Coast), encelia sunflowers in the spring (West Coast), a native bee on huckleberry (East Coast), and a garden spider in the fall (Florida).

Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments

My New Wide-Angle POV

Note: I am gradually catching up after my mom passed away. I had started this before that happened, but never posted it, so this makes it easy to do now. I have actually used the camera described quite a lot and find it fits an important niche for me. 

24mm

I am really excited about this picture. This is of a bunch of giant coreopsis flowers in bloom on Pt. Dume near Malibu, California about a week ago (actually end of February). This gives me a perspective I have been trying to achieve for a while now.

I love wide-angle close-ups and have loved doing them for a long time. I have liked a number of things about my gear now for wide close-ups:

  • My 12-35mm focuses to just under 10 inches, not bad (especially at 35mm which acts like a 70mm for 35mm-full-frame), but not super close. I can add an achromatic close-up lens which helps, but still doesn't get me right in to a flower or up to a tolerant insect.
  • My 9-18mm also focuses to just under 10 inches, which gives a great wide view up close, but still not close enough for me.
  • My 7.5mm fisheye gets to four inches (one reason I bought it), which is very close, but still, I wanted to be closer with a very wide angle lens.

So I struggled to find a really good solution for a really wide super close-up kit. For some reason, this made me think back about my work with the old Canon G-series cameras. I loved those cameras. They were my first digital cameras. They all allowed very close work at the wide setting, closer than anything I was getting now. Hmmm.

So I started looking at compact digital cameras, including point-and-shoots. These typically focus super close at the widest setting of their zooms. The Panasonic LX7 caught my eye for its price and features. It had the equivalent of 24mm with a fast aperture and focusing to less than two inches.

But then I found the Panasonic LX100. This is a compact Micro Four Thirds (MFT) camera with a built-in lens equivalent to 24-75mm f/1.7-2.8. And it focuses to 3 cm, a little over an inch, at that 24mm equivalant (and focusing from infinity) – it is like a wide-angle macro. It was more than I wanted to spend, but it really offered a lot:

  • Super close focusing at wide focal length
  • Fast f/1.7-2.8 lens
  • Larger sensor (MFT)
  • Very small and compact

I looked hard at my budget and decided to sell some gear, plus I recently got a good check for some work I had done, so I bought a Panasonic LX100. When I went out and shot with it, I loved it, plus the camera is set up to be really easy to use. The way the controls are a bit retro in some ways, yet totally modern in others. But it was so cool to finally have a camera/lens of 24mm perspective that can focus from infinity to 3 cm. You just can’t get those perspectives any other way.

LX100 2I have long loved shooting 24mm up close. I shot many years ago (in the film days) with Nikon and a 24mm Nikkor lens with the thinnest extension tube Nikon offered (8mm, not automatic). 24mm gives a distinctly different focal length than 28mm and I love its perspective. I was really happy with the way the images looked. I did find a little chromatic aberration showing on some pink flowers (prickly phlox from the chaparral), though none on the yellow flowers (giant coreopsis blooming along coast), even when f-stops were the same. Not sure why that would be (maybe having something to do with wavelengths of color).

But the effect of getting close like this, plus the ease and overall image quality, is so great that I am not too worried about that.

Added note: I took the camera to Maine and it was fun and easy to use shooting in the winter conditions there. Everyone in Maine is sick of all of the snow they have had and still have. I went out shooting Monday of this week there when it was a beautiful sunny day – for January! It was 10 degrees with wind and very cold. The camera did not like it either and "failed" when it got really cold. That is not unusual because the batteries don't work well when cold. Unfortunately, I have not been able to get a second battery from my camera store yet (they are having trouble getting them), so I was not able to replace the battery with a warm one as I usually do. But I was getting very cold, too, so I didn't mind stopping.

LX100 1

Posted in Craft of photography, Gear | Tagged , | 6 Comments

What Really Matters

Mom2I had a blog post already for this week but then, "life happens" — my mom passed away last night. I head for Maine tomorrow. The photos here were taken recently by my sister (on the right in the selfie).

I won't burden you with a lot of details about my mom. I will miss her, but she had a good life. She was 87, and we were blessed that she had known her grandchildren well as well as three great-grandchildren.

Mom1But her sudden death is a big reminder to me of what it means to live and what really matters. When a parent dies, no matter how old they are or their health, it is difficult. Life does matter and what we pay attention to in our lives does matter. But I know all too well that sometimes we pay too much attention to things that really don't matter.

Nickelback has a great song, "If Today Was Your Last Day." Part of the lyrics go:

If today was your last day
If tomorrow was too late
Could you say goodbye to yesterday
Would you live each moment like your last
To shoot for the stars
Regardless of who you are
So do whatever it takes
Cause you can't rewind
A moment in this life
Let nothing stand in your way
Cause the hands of time
Are never on your side

I have known for a long time that nature and photography really matter in my life (besides my family who are/were very important to me). But often it is so easy to get caught up in petty details of life that really don't matter so much. What those details are will vary from person to person, but I know we all get caught up in things that if we just took time to think about them would not seem so important after all. I think a lot of us think this just refers to how we live our life (and it does), but I also think it influences our photography and our connection to nature. 

Sometimes I have gotten caught up in all of the "stuff" I "have to do" to deal with the craziness of the photo and publication industry today. Okay, that craziness is real and can be challenging, especially when so many publications are really struggling. It is tough when you feel you have reached a point in your life that you can really devote yourself to work that you had thought about all of your life, but then the world has changed so that what you had expected is gone. Sometimes I get so wound up in this "work" that I won't take time for myself with nature and my camera. Not a good thing

I know a well-known photographer who is all about how important he is, who is always doing "important work"; I'm not sure I would say he is arrogant, maybe more pompous. Maybe he feels he has to be that way in today's marketplace, yet what he too often demonstrates is a disregard for things that really matter, like how you treat people. I know another equally well-known photographer, Dewitt Jones, who is completely different. He truly loves life and shares it, celebrates it with everyone without worrying about how important he is or his work is (yet he has well-deserved confidence in it), yet I think his work is ultimately more important and more engaging with the world. He knows and demonstrates what is important. 

When 9/11 hit us all so rudely and abruptly, I went out and photographed in nature to settle my mind and remind me what was good. As my dad passed away, I had to spend some time photographing in nature near where he lived. A death of someone close to you can be a wake up call – it was and is for me. Heading for Maine, I will take my camera gear (and I am so glad it is small) though I don't expect much time to photograph. But even small moments outside with my camera will remind me to connect with nature, a place of great importance, peace and connection to me. 

Madrona Marsh, Torrance, CASo

Could you [can I] say goodbye to yesterday
Would you [would I] live each moment like your [my] last

I will work on that. My mom reminds me to do exactly that.

Posted in Uncategorized | 31 Comments

“I see you” as Nature Photography

I see you 3I have been reading a really outstanding book, Fully Alive, by Timothy Shriver. This is “about” the Special Olympics, but not really. It is more about how we see life and others. He talks about how we don’t always see folks with intellectual differences/disabilities. This has been truly eye-opening for me because when I grew up, "those people" were treated pretty badly. 

And it does relate to nature photography. First, I sometimes think I “should” (there’s that awful “should” again) do some socially conscious photography like helping Special Olympics or work for some other “cause.” People and their issues are considered “more important” causes than nature by a lot of people. 

But second, I think that is misguided. I start to think of nature and I start thinking about the small critters, the flowers, the life that calls to me, that “wants” to be recognized and respected just as people with intellectual differences do. This life, which is so emphasized to me by close-up and macro work, does need to be seen. Our photography does become the eyes of other people. 

Sometimes I think we who photograph in this different world are a bit subversive about introducing people to life they did not know. Our stories, our connection with the plants and animals up close can truly help people see differently. 

I see you 1In the movie, Avatar, the natives of the planet use the phrase, “I see you”, as a greeting. Director James Cameron he said that he chose that phrase that very deliberately because we often don’t see others, especially those who are “other” compared to us. That sure fits a lot of nature, even among people who photograph nature. I don't believe that to be true of you, my reader, or you wouldn't be reading a blog called, Nature and Photography. We use photography to connect with nature. People who photograph nature to just have a subject to harvest or collect in images often don't connect very deeply with their subjects. Often they are more interested in impressing everyone with crazy over-processed colors and light, spider “hats” (there is a strange trend to put water droplets on top of jumping spiders), and so forth, to get more likes on Facebook. 

I think you and I help people see the “other”, for them to say, “I see you”, in nature. That and a feeling of deeper connection to our world can be enough. 

I see you 2

The photos are from top, a syrphid or hover fly, giant coreopsis in bloom, and a honeybee visiting a California lilac (ceonothus).

Posted in Close Up Photography, Environment, Nature photography | 9 Comments

Inspiration for Lively and Effective Compositions from Children’s Books

I love children's books and that has nothing to do with buying them for kids. I buy them for me! And I buy them for the illustrator, not the author. There are children's picture books that have amazing, beautiful and highly creative compositions. That's what I look for and I find them inspiring. I believe that we grow as photographers, too, when we look at artwork beyond photography and think about how it applies to what we do. Here are some examples:

This book of the famous Robert Frost poem has illustrations by Susan Jeffers (there is a new version which I don't have yet). Her work is always remarkable. Immediately on the cover you see a striking composition. Notice the use of space, size relationships and emphasis, as well as pattern and texture. This also shows up in the spread below. These are great examples of what can be done visually with a vertical and a horizontal using similar elements. The third image, another spread, shows a remarkable interplay of close and far, using size relationships in unexpected ways. While we can't easily do things as extreme as snowflakes and people, we can work a close-up with a wide-angle lens and play with such visual elements.

Kids books 01

Kids books 02

Kids books 04

There are so many books I could pull from my collection of children's books. I will often pull one out just to be inspired by the art or even just the wonderful stories and creative approaches to communicating to an audience that they show. I find children's books also calming and uplifting as a whole as well. There is something very positive about them. Sometimes if I am feeling down, I will go to the bookstore and check out the children's picture books.

This next book, Red Fox Running, with paintings by Wendell Minor, also starts with a stunning cover. This in some ways is compositionally just the opposite of the Frost book. Here the setting is reduced to a small area of the background and the subject is dominant in the frame. Yet, both are important. The setting in the background is very important for story of place and is also visually important. The next spread is fascinating for its use of composition that is "against the rules" and a superb example of the power of getting the subject out of the middle. Notice that the fox is close to both the left edge of the picture as well as the spread and looking off the page. You will hear folks who get caught up in rules for composition say that you should never have a subject looking off the image like that, but notice how powerful it is and how it gives the fox a strong feeling of aliveness. The next spread is similar. Notice now how small the fox is in the composition, yet shows strongly because of contrast and its position in the frame. It is also "leaving" the frame, which again gives a strong energy to the image.
Kids books 17

Kids books 19

Kids books 20

The next set of pages comes from a remarkable book of images, The Yellow Train, with art by Francois Roca. Again, right away on the cover, you see some remarkable things. First is the use of space. This is an unusual use of the subject high at the top of the frame, though it has some things in common with the fox and grass page seen above. The composition is also very bold from its simplicity of forms and shapes. The next spread shows a remarkable use of design that creates an abstract use of shape and color while also communicating a sense of the trains and the location. The use of the boy and grandfather instantly gives us a sense of scale. They are very important to the photo even though very small and low in the frame. In the third spread, you see an amazing use of pattern and line that creates a complex composition that is still totally understandable. Look at the train at the lower right (you don't need much of it to understand), the lines of the bridges, then the dirigible at the upper left, then the city against the sky at the upper left. That small bit of sky creates a feeling of depth to the image that is very important (cover it with your hand to see what I mean) – this is something Eliot Porter used to do in many of his intimate landscape photos, put a small bit of sky at an upper corner (it has to be small or it will fight for attention). The building at the far left with people is also a remarkable use of a frame to the scene.

Kids books 05Kids books 06Kids books 07Finally, one of my favorite children's book author/illustrators, David Wiesner. I could have picked any number of his books. The Three Pigs is one of my favorites. In all of his books, he challenges us visually and uses few or even no words. His books all communicate on a visual level so strongly that we don't need words, a great inspiration for what is possible visually in any visual medium. This book plays with us in some unique visual ways, starting with the pig "escaping" his story in a conventional looking set of images. Notice the words and the look of the wolf at the right. This book is so much about how we perceive the world and breaking conventions. All of the pigs escapes the bounds of their stories. Now the composition becomes flowing and very simple. Wiesner is treating the "pages" of the old book as unique visual elements. For me, this encourages us to maybe look at scenes we see all the time with new eyes (Wiesner certainly is looking at this old fairy tale of the three pigs with new eyes).

Kids books 09Kids books 11Kids books 12

The next spread is really remarkable. This is it! Mostly space. The pigs made a paper airplane of their book pages and took off. This is so against the "rules" and really shows what is possible if we are willing to push the composition. It is powerful and effective with just the back of pigs and plane way up at the left. This is dramatic, bold and such a strong use of space. Kids books 14Kids books 16In the last spread here, the pigs have rescued a dragon from another book (they have been skipping in and out of other books) – check out the drawing of the page with the prince and the text. Notice in this image how the artist has used the entire picture area effectively from left to right. This is like a panoramic frame, and while there is an important interaction to the right of center, there are visual elements from far left to far right that carry our eye through the image. The image is highly structured as a composition, yet it still holds many little details that tell the story. I find that fascinating. It is that structure that holds these storytelling details together.

So, the next time you are at the library or bookstore, check out the children's picture book section. There are some amazing things there that can inspire us all as photographers. As you can tell, I am not one who believes photographers can only learn from photography. Art Wolfe talks about the influence of many classic painters on his photography in the book he and I did, The Art of the Photograph. Some of those painters have influenced me, too, but I have to admit that modern children's picture books are both an influence and a pleasure to look at for me.

Posted in Composition, Craft of photography | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments