Nature Night Life

Night 2This post is a little different than most because I have no photos of the actual subject. The nature photos you see here are of the locations. And you will see these strange screen shots.

I was just in Florida for the FotoFusion event at Palm Beach Photographic Centre in West Palm Beach (where I also have a couple of classes scheduled for mid-March – Finding Your Photographic Voice and Macro and Close-Up Photography). If you have been following these posts over the past year, you will know that bats have become an interesting challenge for me. I do want to be able to photograph them at night in the wild, a very big challenge considering they are small, don't make sounds we can hear, they come out at night, and they fly wherever they want!

One step has been to learn to find bats at night.

Night 1A bat detector uses specialized microphones to "hear" bats and then electronically modify the bat calls to a frequency we can hear. I got an Echo Meter Touch for the iPad from Wildlife Acoustics late this fall, but had not had a chance to use it. It is not cheap, but then this is a very specialized microphone and electronics module that is not like any other mic and preamp. But it is a really interesting technology that definitely opens up the night.Echo Meter Touch

This module plugs into the iPad or the iPhone and uses free software from Wildlife Acoustics to process the bat sounds. It creates a sonogram of the bat calls, modifies the calls so you can hear them, and it will try to identify the bat from the calls.

I tried this at a couple of locations in Southern Florida while I was there. One was at a bridge where I had learned bats had used for roosting in the past and another at Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. I tried the module on booth my iPhone and iPad, and it worked great on both. The iPhone is really easy to use and hold, while the iPad gives more display area to see the sonograms.

TABR FL 0116 editedAnd I found bats. This was so cool! I only saw a couple, but I heard a lot more. Mostly they were Mexican free-tailed bats – TABR is an abbreviation for the genus and species scientific name for them. I also got a few of the Lasiurus genus (the software did not actually include a bat common to Southern Florida, the seminole bat, in its library of sounds but it did "identify" a couple of Lasiurus species that are not common there) and the big brown bat (EPFU is the abbreviation for it, below). The Mexican free-tails were so common that I started knowing them from the sonogram before the program did!

EPFU FL 0116 editedThe numbers on the right side of these sonograms represent the frequency of the bat calls. The numbers are in 1000s of kilohertz. We can hear up to a little below 20,000 khz (kids can sometimes hear a little higher, and as we age, the highest frequency we can hear declines). The flat calls of the Mexican free-tails is typical. These are close to constant frequencies that they send out as they fly rapidly through the air (they are among the fastest of bats) and search for insects (mostly moths for this species).

The higher calls that have a curve are typical of big brown bats and many other bats (other bats are often even higher in frequency). That curve represents a frequency modulation, or changing frequency during the call, which helps these bats better discern the kind of insect in front of them. The blue "noise" below is just that, ground noise.

By the way, if you are interested in a great adventure nature book, check out Merlin Tuttle's autobiography, The Secret Lives of Bats. Tuttle has been an amazing researcher who has done more than anyone to promote bat awareness. He has also photographed most of the bats of the entire world. And he is more than a little crazy! If you think that the stories he tells are exaggerated for effect, he still has done some things in working to find and learn about bats that make him lucky to be alive. But these adventures do make for a lively book!

Posted in Nature photography, Night photography | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

WildJobs cover borderI spent a long time working on this project, Nature’s Jobs, my photo nature book for kids. I put together Nature's Jobs to work to connect young readers to nature by linking the idea of jobs that we humans do with jobs done in nature. There are about 90 photos in 74 pages, along with text to stimulate interest in nature.

I have wanted to explore a children’s book idea my own way, so I decided I to explore the ebook possibilities. Nature’s Jobs is now up on I also have a book page about it.

Then I need your help. is heavily driven by reviews of books. Reviews make a big difference in how books show up in searches. If you download and check out my ebook, please do a review for the book on, even if the review is short. That would be greatly appreciated!

Posted on by Rob Sheppard | Leave a comment

Being Me – Being You

Be me2It has taken me a long time, a lifetime in fact, to learn a very simple rule for getting the best from my photography. Be me.

Over the years, I have chased the looks of photographs made by well-known photographers I liked. It is one thing to be inspired by others, but truly, the only people who can do their work are those photographers themselves.

I have chased gear that others had, even have been envious. Instead of focusing on the gear that is most appropriate to me. Gear is obviously important because without it, we can't photograph. But thinking too much about the gear others have is a distraction from my own photography. Be me.

Be me1I have chased the latest techniques hoping that would lead to a breakthrough in my photography. Learning new techniques is always valuable, but not when they overwhelm who I am as a photographer. I really don't have to know everything about every new technique. Some really aren't for me. Be me.

I have chased the approval of people important to me, from other photographers to family. Sure, people close to me are important, but not as arbitrary evaluators/critics of what I do. I can desire to learn what people think, but only as one input of many and an input I can chose to use or not. Be me.

I have worked hard to produce work that no one can criticize. That is unrealistic and ultimately restrictive. It also guarantees mediocrity. If I try to please everyone, I end up pleasing no one, especially myself. Be me.

Really, the number one rule for better photography, for more satisfying photography, for more authentic images is to be me. And for you to be you.

Cannon Falls, MN

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

Noise? Get Over It and Use High ISOs!

Noise 1If you saw someone doing this at an art exhibit, what would you think? That they were nuts? Or maybe an obsessive photographer. The point is, normal people will be looking at the photograph...

Noise 2...not putting their nose to the image to see the "noise."

Noise is about the most "overrated" flaw there is for digital photography. The average person could care less about noise as long as the image is engaging and connects with them. And the average photographer has been sold a false story about the "problem" of noise.

Noise is the digital equivalent of film grain. So much of the classic and memorable black-and-white photography done for magazines like LIFE was shot with Tri-X film. Tri-X was well known for its "noise", its abundant and visible grain. Look back at images by LIFE photographers like Eisenstadt or W. Eugene Smith. The first thing you will notice is the photograph, not the grain. Only if you look closely, will you see the grain, and it is definitely there.

Today, the average person will never see noise until it is extremely obvious. If an image is posted on-line, most noise will never be visible. Even in a print, most people will not see the noise because they will be looking at the photograph from a distance, not up close to see the noise. One problem for photographers and noise is Lightroom. Lightroom does an outstanding job in reducing noise and will help reduce the appearance of any noise. That's not the problem. But because when you click on an image to see it 1:1 (the default), you are doing the equivalent of sticking your nose on an image in an art show. You are seeing noise in ways that no one will ever see except you and that obsessive photographer in the camera club ("It might be an okay image, but I can see the noise." – As if that were an arbitrary standard for how good an image is.)

But by allowing yourself to use high ISOs when needed, you open up your work to so many more possibilities. You can, for example,

  • Shoot handheld in more conditions.
  • Photograph scenes impossible to capture in any other way. Check out this amazing shot of bats and a Swainson's hawk here that was only possible with a very high ISO. (Note that the photographer qualifies the image "despite the flaws", of which there are none that are important. And on a nature note, this is a pretty common behavior for hawks around these bat colonies. However, the author isn’t quite right about the bats. Bats, including these free-tails, can see perfectly fine. Their eyes are directed forward like many mammals, including us, which gives us all a blind spot from behind.)
  • Gain deep depth of field AND a faster shutter speed to stop action. (Art Wolfe now loves this aspect of high ISOs and digital cameras.)
  • Gain a fast shutter speed when you need it even when the light is low.
  • Gain more "power" from a flash (it will have a greater reach).

This shot of a river otter was shot with a telephoto lens from a kayak which meant I had to have a fast enough shutter speed to keep the image sharp (the problem is the movement of the kayak in the water and handholding). 1/640 with ISO 800.

Noise 3This shot of Mexican free-tailed bats leaving their roost after sunset needed a fast shutter speed to freeze their wings, yet the light was dropping rapidly. This image is Four Thirds, the smallest of the key image formats, and was cropped, which will increase the appearance of noise. 1/2500 with ISO 1600.

Noise 4This does not mean you should automatically shoot at high ISOs. There are problems with that choice which can cause problems for you as the photographer, including:

  • High noise can reduce the sharpness of details and affect the color and contrast of an image.
  • Noise reduction for high noise will blur small details.
  • High ISOs limit your ability to shoot with wide apertures for shallow depth of field.
  • High ISOs limit your ability to shoot with slow shutter speeds for blur effects.
  • High noise will show up more in out-of-focus areas and large expanses of continuous tonality, such as sky.
  • High noise will limit how much you can post process an image.
  • High noise in the wrong place (and this is totally dependent on the individual image) will be noticed by a viewer.

For me, I tend to use ISO 400 as my go-to, regular ISO for all of the reasons shown here. I only use slower ISOs when I need a wider aperture in bright light. Then, when I need it, I will skip up to ISO 800 first, then ISO 1600, without worrying about noise. I might go higher if really needed (I would rather have a sharp photo with some noise than a blurry photo without noise, which is exactly why photographers used to use Tri-X). Many of the newest cameras allow you to easily shoot at higher shutter speeds, too.


Posted in Craft of photography, Exposure, Lightroom, Nature photography, Night photography | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Three E’s of Better Photography: 3. Experiment

Experiment1Sometimes the answers to getting better as a photographer are inside you. And the only way to find them is to experiment. The two photos here came one morning by the ocean in Southern California. These are not typical or expected images of this place. But I figured, "What the heck? I wonder what a photograph of these scenes would look like. So experiment and take the shots."

I have known photographers who were insecure about experimenting. What if my camera club did not like it? What if my spouse questions me on these photos? What if my client can't understand what I am doing?

I really don't believe you can expand and grow as a photographer without doing some experimenting. Sometimes that is very basic stuff, such as setting up your flash outdoors and just seeing what it could do for night nature. Or it can be less structured where you try some totally different composition techniques that you started thinking about.

Through experimenting, we learn what works and doesn't work for us. Sometimes what doesn't work is even more important than what does work because it can tell you what not to do. While trying to develop a lightbulb and finding nothing working, Thomas Edison said, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."

This is part of the effort from the last post and even about excellence from the post prior to that. Experimenting takes effort and it will help you find what excellence means for you.

Experimenting isn't about convincing anyone else about your results. You can do whatever you want just to see what happens in a photograph. I have often come across a location that I find interesting, but I am not convinced I can make it into an interesting photograph. Then I often try some different things, such as different angles, different lenses, to see what I might get, and to see what the location really looks like in a photograph. Then I learn.

Experiment2Never be afraid of experimenting. It costs nothing to take a couple of extra photos. Sometimes just making the effort to find something new can help jumpstart your creativity. And if you don't like your results, not only have you learned what doesn't work for you, but also you can delete the images and no one needs to know!

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Three E’s of Better Photography: 2. Effort

Effort 2When I am working with photographers at classes and workshops, I often hear a frustration that they can't do something. They can't figure out some part of the craft of photography or something like composition isn't coming easy or they don't understand perspective and focal length.

I think one problem with digital photography is that it has been "sold" as so easy. The camera "takes care" of so many things now on automatic that when things don't work out as expected, the photographer is disappointed. The camera should work as we want it to!

I think photographers have been sold something false. Photography is a craft that supports an art. Any craft requires practice and time. Few artists spring full-grown from the womb. While cameras have made it easy to get better quality images, they cannot substitute for the practice we all need in order to master camera gear, techniques and skills so that we can produce our art.

Effort 1There is a well-known story of a man visiting New York City who wanted to attend a concert at Carnegie Hall. If you have ever been to Manhattan, you know that Carnegie Hall looks like a lot of other buildings in the area. So the man got confused. He spotted another man on the street carrying a violin case and thought that he would surely know where Carnegie Hall was. So the visitor stopped the man with the violin case and asked, "Do you know how to get to Carnegie Hall?"

The violinist paused, then said, "Practice, practice, practice."

That is not just a silly joke. It is really quite true. To master any art or craft, it takes effort. Photography can be superficially pretty, but it will never connect deeply with you or with any audience without that effort.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote, "You need to have practiced, to have apprenticed, for 10,000 hours before you get good." (He has further explained that saying this is not a guarantee of success, but simply an expression of the need for practice in order to realize your talents.) Author Cal Newport says that what makes ridiculously successful people so successful is they're experts at practicing — they can push themselves to the limit of their skillset and thus expand their abilities day after day.

The Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney said about learning how to write poetry: "One should not expect it to be immediately good. The aspiring poet is constantly lowering a bucket only halfway down a well, coming up time and again with nothing but empty air. The frustration is immense. But you must keep doing it, anyway. After many years of practice, the chain draws unexpectedly tight and you have dipped into waters that will continue to entice you back."

That's all about effort. I know it can be tough to find the time to get out and photograph (even pros have that issue), plus you are not always motivated to go out and shoot, but truthfully, the only way to improve your photography and to get better motivated because you have improved is to make the effort. Effort is so important. No amount of expensive gear, great books, classes and workshops will make anyone a really good photographer if he or she does not make the effort to get out and shoot.

That said, I suggest that anyone who feels bad that they can't get better needs to have some self-compassion. No one studying the art and craft of something "gets it" without a lot of practice and some time. So enjoy your photography and your time in nature regardless of what you are getting in images. Remember that any photograph taken, good or bad, is always practice and worth the effort.

All of the photos here were taken one morning along the Southern California coast. It was not easy to get up for sunrise and get to this location, but worth the effort.

Effort 3

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