Experience, Selfies and Nature

Experience 1In March of this year, a man visited a museum in Milan, Italy, and broke a 19th century statue. He essentially amputated the statue's leg. Now this would be something most people would consider pretty bad. Museums are special places.

Experience broken statueBut here's the full story. He was trying to take a selfie of himself in the statue's lap!

Selfies are the big thing in casual photography today. And I know they can be fun.

We were at a restaurant not too long ago with a lot of relatives and we decided we wanted to get a photograph of the group. We got ready and I was going to do the shot as a selfie. As we took the shot, a waiter came by and offered to take the photo for us. I said no. I have found that you get a certain energy in the photo of a family group when one of the group is doing the shot as a selfie, an energy you do not get from some stranger stepping back and taking the picture.

SheppardFamily Maine Group 1 bl brdrThe broken statue, though, is a cautionary tale that goes beyond simple selfies. Today, if you go anywhere where tourists go are, you will see lots of people taking selfies of themselves at the location. While they aren't breaking any statues, they are making the experience of being at a place about getting and posting a selfie rather than actually experiencing the place. The broken statue was more about how clever a person could be for a Facebook or other social media post of a selfie than actually experiencing the museum and its art. Showing you were there with that selfie becomes more important than actually connecting with anything "there."

You might think this is just about young people and camera phones. I think it goes beyond that and this is where it is more likely to affect you and I. Cameras are all too often used as a barrier between the photographer and the subject, not necessarily deliberately, but a barrier none-the-less. I know this is true because I have seen it happen in me and other photographers.

What happens is that we can get caught up in our gear. We start thinking, "Which one of my lenses is really best now?" or "I really wish I had a (full-frame, mirrorless, or any other camera you don't have)." Or we spend a lot of time setting up the tripod and gear, focusing mainly on it or we stand behind your camera on a tripod so that the camera in front of us now dominates the scene. Or we start thinking that the scene won't make a photograph that will impress the folks at the camera club or get enough likes on Facebook. None of which is about engaging with the actual moment in nature.

The point is that the experience of being in and connecting with nature can become secondary to the camera and the photography if we let it. I think we really have to be careful of that. Just as the young man who broke the statue was disrespecting both the statue and the museum, we also disrespect our subjects when the gear and its use becomes more important than our connection to nature.

Sometimes that can mean just putting the camera down and enjoying being alive in a beautiful place or connecting with some remarkable aspect of nature. Neither of those things demand being at some far away park or country. It is about slowing down and observing life in front of us, about truly seeing the wild around us, and using our cameras to capture some of that without having the photography become more important than the experience.

Experience 2

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Don’t Be Boring

DontBeBoring1Recently, I was listening to a podcast of the interview show On Point with Tom Ashbrook. He had designer Itzhak Mizrahi on because Mizrahi had a new retrospective exhibition of his work. It was an interesting show with lots of ideas about art and how one works as an artist.

One thing I found very interesting was his statement, "Don't be boring." He had a number of reasons for that, but for me, that really resonated with my work. I think this has been very important to me over the years because nature is that important. A lot of nature photography is, let's face it, pretty, but boring. When I was at Outdoor Photographer magazine, I got an awful lot of images that all were pretty, but all were safe and pretty much looked the same. You could have taken the names off of the images, mixed them in a bin, and put the names back on and no one would have known the difference.

DontBeBoring3The problem with that is a bad result for nature. When viewers see the same sorts of images over and over again, when they see boring images, they don't spend much time with the photos, they don't engage with the images and nature loses.

I don't want that to happen. I know I do a range of images, and not all are the opposite of boring, but I do work hard to try to find images that are truly mine and not simply repeating other's work (which can be boring). I really want to engage viewers in the nature I see.


I recently got a copy of a book by Michigan photographers, Brad and Todd Reed, that really represents this idea well. It is their Michigan, Wednesdays in the Mitten. A lot of travel books play it very conservative so that, while beautiful, much of the books border on the boring. This book is far from boring. The Reeds work really hard to find shots that both represent Michigan well and show us something fresh and new. The cover alone is a real risk for many photographers because it is not the typical travel or regional photo book cover at all. I give them a lot of credit for producing a stunning book that is lively and engaging. For them, Michigan and its nature are worth the effort.

Michigan_Wednesdays Cover 700wI hope you consider this, too. Nature is worth it.

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The Magic of Extension Tubes

Extension tubes1When I got serious about photography in college, I wanted to do better close-up work, something beyond the cheap close-up lenses or filters that attached to the front of a lens. But I could not afford a macro lens at the time, so that was not an option. What I could afford were extension tubes. They truly got me started exploring the amazing world of the macro and more intense close-up views.

My gear is more sophisticated and expensive today, but I still consider extension tubes an essential part of my gear. They have long done well for me and always go with me because they are small and light.

An extension tube is literally that, a tube. It has no optics in it. It fits between the lens and camera body, moving the lens away from the sensor, which allows the lens to focus closer, even to true 1:1 macro (that is dependent on both the size of the extension and the focal length used).

Extension tubes2Since the extension tube fits between camera and lens, it will fit any and all lenses you own. That offers some great creative possibilities. That said, extension tubes can be a problem for very wide-angle focal lengths because they literally cause the lens to focus inside itself.

Extension tubes often come in sets of two or three. While camera manufacturers often make them, they typically sell them individually and at a premium price. I have long had great results with Kenko extension tubes on the variety of gear I have worked with over the years. They are well made and reasonably priced.

Extension tubes work in relationship to the focal length of the lens. I am not going to get into macro math (you can find that on the internet if interested), but will give some simple examples that can be understood quickly. The longer the focal length of the lens, the more extension you need to get to a certain size of your subject. Conversely, the shorter (or wider) the focal length, the less extension you need.

Extension tubes3So if you had a 50mm lens and used a 25mm extension tube, you would be able to get closer than you could get with that 25mm extension tube on a 100mm lens. 25mm is half 50mm, but only 1/4 100mm, so the relationship changes. This is why you could put a 10mm extension tube on a 28mm and focus super close, yet that 10mm would have only a small effect on a 200mm lens. With a set of extension tubes, you can use them singly or together depending on the extension needed.

Zooms change in how they act when you use an extension tube because of this focal length relationship. Suppose you had a 50-200mm lens and put on a 25mm extension tube. That would mean a very different relationship between 25mm and 50mm compared to 25mm and 200mm, giving you different abilities to get close. The result is that as you zoom now, this relationship comes into play and your zoom will change focus because it is changing how it can deal with the close up. Use the zoom to change your focus and how close you can get, not to zoom in or out of your subject.

Extension tubes4With extension tubes, I can use a wide range of focal lengths. I often use extension tubes with telephoto lenses so I can get the big focusing distance of the focal length (you don't have to be so close to your subject), the change in how depth of field works, and the change in perspective.

Extension tubes5Two challenges to extension tubes: 1. You have to remove your lens to use it and 2. You have a limited range of close-focusing distance so you will have to take the extension tube on and off at times (that said, I will often just work with the range I have and find photos I can say yes to, rather than be frustrated by the "no" I get from the limited focusing range).

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My Experience with Mirrorless Cameras

Mirrorless CS 2Mirrorless CS 1I would never go back to a mirrored camera unless there were some feature that one had that truly allowed me to do something I could not do right now. I love my gear and I am very happy not to carry so much weight anymore. It does extremely well with images and is definitely in the same ballpark as any full frame camera for most use. Even at 16x20-inch prints, you cannot tell the difference from a full frame camera (I know, I have checked).

Mirrorless rev 4I happen to really like the Micro Four Thirds format (MFT). Everything is smaller, lighter and less expensive for the same or better quality than larger formats. MFT is also great because two manufacturers support it, Olympus and Panasonic, so that means you have an extensive set of lenses, flash and other gear to choose from. Everything from each manufacturer fits the other’s gear. I use Panasonic bodies because of their video capabilities (some of the best on the market from any camera) and the way they handle (GH-3 and GX-8). Panasonic designers really pay attention to usability (as compared to Sony — I had Sony mirrorless first but I hated how the cameras handled and how you accessed controls; also at the time, Sony did not have the range of lenses and lens quality I needed). But I have friends who swear by the Olympus cameras.

I have both Panasonic and Olympus lenses. They have a range of quality just like any camera brand. However, their “pro” lenses are truly among the best I have ever used. I have an Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 lens (35mm equivalent 80-300) with matched 1.4x tele-extender that is amazing. I have an outstanding Olympus 60mm macro, but if I am traveling light, I take extension tubes and the 40-150 and the results are nearly identical to the macro. I also have a Panasonic 12-35mm f/2.8 lens (35mm equivalent of 24-70) that is also stunning, though I tend mainly to use my Panasonic LX100 for that range. The LX100 has a MFT size sensor in a compact camera body with a non-interchangeable Leica designed lens with a 35mm equivalent focal length of 24-70 with f/1.7 at “24mm” and f/2.8 at “70mm.” The camera focuses to inches at the wide setting. It is set up like a traditional film camera in many ways because of the way the controls are laid out as dials on the camera and around the lens. 

Mirrorless rev 3On the other hand … my good friend Bill Fortney went to the Fuji mirrorless system and he absolutely loves it (billfortney.com).

One thing I warn people about with mirrorless cameras is that the experience of using the viewfinder is very different. People are used to seeing the world through an optical viewfinder that offers a look exactly like they see the world even though that is not how the camera sees the world. The electronic viewfinder of a mirrorless camera sees the world only as the sensor sees it, which gives a totally different look, which can even be disturbing at first. However, I love it now because it does show what the camera is seeing, from exposure to white balance, and that helps me be a better digital photographer. 

Mirrorless rev 2

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Bones of the Earth

imageI never wondered what the ground around me looked like growing up in Minnesota. The landscape did not encourage it. First, nearly all soil is covered by some sort of vegetation, forests and prairies or wetlands in natural areas, farmland in most of the rest. That can be pretty and an important part of what Minnesota looks like. But all that vegetation covers most variations in the structure of the ground.

Second, there is not much height variation there, so that vegetation often blocks you from viewing what the ground might look like even when you could see it. South of Minneapolis, there is a popular ski area with a maximum drop of ... wait for it ... 400 feet! As you drive in many areas, you can't see much past the forest at the edge of the roads.

Even when I started flying around the state for the Minnesota Department of Transportation as an information officer/photojournalist, I noticed nice rolling terrain softened by the vegetation, but not much more. Again, the lack of elevation made any details of the "bare" ground easily obscured by the plants.

The desert is a different story. Here, the ground is exposed and bare for anyone to see. Mountains in places like the Mojave Desert stick up from the ground as unadorned rock that I find a bit austere. Still, now you can see geology visualized in the ground. The desert easily reveals the bones of the earth.

Yet, I can't fully visualize these "bones" if I drive or move through the desert on the ground. The spaces through the Southwest are huge. I don't know about anyone else, but I find those spaces a little intimidating at times (maybe an aftereffect of growing up in Minnesota). I can more easily relate to a specific landform or small area.

imageFlying across the country changes all of that. I love to sit at the window and watch the land go by. I have photographed this aerial view many times, but with standard photography, I often concentrated on clouds (especially backlit clouds) because they looked good in photographs from the plane. The ground often didn't. From a commercial plane, you are limited in timing for the best light and so often you get haze that weakens color and contrast and so takes the life out of an image.

Not all that long ago, I returned to infrared (IR) photography (and wrote a bit about it in this blog), and it occurred to me that it might work for photos from the plane! It did! Though I made some mistakes (I learned you can't sit on the sun side of the plane because that causes all sorts of IR problems).

imageGoing to New York recently, the skies were mostly clear through the Southwest. We flew over through Southern California and across northern Arizona and New Mexico. I had my IR camera ready! And it was an amazing education in the bones of the earth. I saw the effects of erosion, especially water, on vast spaces, but from the air, you could understand. I saw some remarkable cliffs, canyons (including the Grand Canyon), desert mountains, old volcanoes, water flow patterns, river patterns and so much more. I had left my home early to catch an early flight. I had been tired, but I could not sleep with such amazing nature going by.

imageAll of the photos you see here are from that trip. They really do show the bones of the earth and offer to me a fascinating look at the wonder of geology, at how dramatic the ground can be when you can actually see it!

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Being Open to Nature Everywhere

I love national parks, wildlife refuges and other big areas of wild nature. Those places are dramatic and grab your attention.

imageBut for me, nature is much more than that. It has to be because I have to have my connection to nature, getting out into it, but I can't be in those big places all the time. I always look for nature everywhere I go, and because I expect to find it, I always find it. Sadly, many people in our country think nature is something you only find in big national parks and they miss the nature around them.

Whenever I go to New York City (which is not all that often anymore – it is an interesting place, but not a place I am comfortable in for very long), I try to go to Central Park. This changes everything about my visit. Central Park is filled with wonderful visions of nature, including some wild bits that truly connect with my soul. Because of the density of trees, you can find places that city sounds seem far away, and you mostly hear birds and people enjoying the park.

imageThe folks who decided to set this land aside for the park were so amazingly concerned for the future and something beyond short term profits. The landscape designer, Frederick Law Olmsted, did a brilliant job, too. The park has had its ups and downs over the years, but it is getting great care now and looks beautiful. And it is very safe (it is closed from 1:00 am to 6:00 am).

imageIn the many times I have visited Central Park over the years, I have never been through the entire park. It has an area of over 800 acres and has a six-mile perimeter. It is certainly possible to easily go through it (joggers and bikers do all the time), but that's not particularly interesting to me. I always find things that keep me connected to nature, and so I move slowly through the park, usually photographing it, too.

imageAll of the photos here were taken in Central Park last week. Spring nature is definitely there! Yes, there are places with lots of people – it is a busy place. But I can always find places where I can connect one-on-one with nature without really being disturbed.

imageSure, going to some location away from everyone is great, but when I can't, I will always find something of nature wherever I go. It is an attitude I cannot live without. Central Park is my "home" when I am in New York City!

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