Visual Exercise Is Good For You!

BW exercise 1 copyOne of the keys to always improving as a photographer is very simply …  to shoot! I don’t think this is something just for the beginning photographer, either. I consider  photographing that goes beyond simply getting a great shot is important for all of us. I had a workshop many years ago with the great photographer, Ernst Haas.

He said that it was important for all of us as photographers to keep doing the equivalent of the pianist’s finger exercises. He noted that no concert pianist only played when they expected to create a brilliant concert, but they were always honing their craft as a musician. That’s important to us as photographers as well. So by constantly doing exercises that push us a little and take us out of our normal way of doing things, we too can be doing visual exercises to keep us sharp.

For me, this is often setting my camera to shoot in black and white and forcing myself to only shoot black and white for a while. (I’ve talked about this concept before, but the way to do this is to shoot RAW + JPEG,  set your camera to black-and-white or monochrome, and start shooting. Everything you see in the LCD will be in black-and-white, plus your JPEG files will all be in black-and-white while your RAW files will be in color because RAW cannot be any other way.)

Another example: Whenever I get a new lens, I will go out with just that lens for an afternoon and only shoot with it. I don’t have any expectation of getting great shots, but I do have an expectation of honing my craft and better understanding what this lens can and cannot do.

Simply going out and taking a lot of pictures, pictures that you are experimenting with trying new things even though you don’t know if you’re going to be successful, will always help build your strength as a photographer and hone your craft.

Here are a few exercises that I have found over the years to be very useful both for myself and for students. I think they are great “finger exercises”  for photographers.

  • The telephoto and wide challenge: Put a zoom lens on your camera and go out with just the camera and that lens. Take a picture with the widest focal length setting of that lens. Then for your next picture,  zoom your lens all the way to its maximum telephoto position and take a picture. Force yourself to alternate the widest focal length with the maximum telephoto focal length as you shoot. Create each shot as something new for composition, i.e., don't simply zoom into your wide-angle shot. This will give you such a great feel for the craft of changing focal length. The two shots here were literally done this way with my Lumix 12-35mm zoom on my Panasonic GH3.

Lens exercise 3

Lens exercise 2

  • The close-focus challenge: Put a lens on your camera, and it doesn’t matter what lens this is, then set your camera to manual focus and the lens to its closest focusing distance. Now go out and photograph by only using this minimum focus distance. If you think you’re going to be tempted to change your focus distance, put a piece of duct tape over your lens to keep you from changing the focus point. This will give you an amazing feel for close-up work and the potential of any lens.
  • Know your aperture: I think every photographer should do this at least once because this will give you a better feel of the craft of choosing an f-stop than anything I know. Go out and find a close-up subject with a distinct background behind it. But your camera on a tripod and your lens at a single focal length, then focus on your subject and take a series of pictures starting with your maximum f-stop (such as f/2.8, f/4 or f/5.6, depending on the lens),  then change your f-stop one f-stop at a time as you go toward your smallest f-stop (such as f/16 or f/22). Then try this at a moderate distance and a far distance. Don’t be surprised if you see very little difference when your subject is far away. Also try this at different focal lengths. (An aside: One time when I was writing for a photography magazine many years ago, I wrote about changing your f-stop to affect the appearance of the background and how that even the change of a single f-stop could make a difference at close and moderate distances. The editor got in an angry letter from a reader that said I didn’t know what I was talking about because it was only if you changed from a very wide f-stop to a very small f-stop that you would actually see any difference. Obviously he had never done this exercise! Do this exercise, and you might be surprised at the results.)
  • The reality of white balance:  I have often talked about the importance of shooting a specific white balance and not using auto white balance when you’re shooting outdoors. I do care how many times people say that they can change this in the computer, the insidious thing about AWB is that it is often “almost” right so that your eye adjusts to seeing what is on the screen and you don’t make the needed change. The thing about white balance is that there is no international standard so that white balance settings on one camera are not exactly the same as white balance settings on another. The only way to really know what your camera is capable of is to do a series of shots where you change your white balance. Set up your camera on a tripod and try shooting a subject in sunlight, in shade, and on a cloudy day, each time going through a whole range of white balance settings, including ones that you don’t think will work. Sometimes you can find some really creative things going on through the use of the “wrong”  white balance setting.

These are just a few examples of some great little exercises that can help anyone grow as a photographer. You may have some other ideas. Please share them in the comment section of the blog!

I am also in the process of setting up a podcast that I am thinking of calling, Nature and Photography and Life. I’m hoping to have this online, so to speak, by the end of November. I will let you know when it is available.

Posted in Craft of photography, Nature photography | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments

Finding a Calling in Photography and Nature

Calling 2You'll hear a lot about finding your passion, your mission in life, your calling, and such, today. These can be important things. It is sad if you spend a lifetime living something you don't care about. I have been lucky to have been able to pursue photography and spend a lot of time in nature, both my passions, through my life.

But I think there is more to this than simply finding a passion, a mission, a calling. This can change through life, as Tara Sophia Mohr has talked about in her blog post, Nothing Was Wasted. I also heard Wayne Dwyer talk on a PBS special about having past lives and thought, "Uh-oh, he isn't going to talk about reincarnation." He wasn't. He was talking about how we change over time. The body we had at 5 was not the body we had at 16 which is not the body we have now. We change and our approach to life changes, too.

I think this is important to us as photographers. I have loved photography, nature and nature photography since I was a kid. I have always been interested in all aspects of nature photography and have "done it all" over the years.

But now I find I am a lot less interested in "doing it all." My experience with photography and nature has greatly affected me over the years and informs much of who I am. Yet, this changes.

This became really obvious to me when I saw the cover design for a book on close-up and macro photography I am doing now (which will be out in the spring). This is a book that will be published by Peachpit Press and I am hard at work on it now. They have to have covers done early because of the Internet. wants a cover very early, way before the book is published. The blurbs could change, but not the image.

MacroSnapshots_cover 9-2014 700p highI was really surprised that the folks at Peachpit chose the spider. I just didn't think they would go for a spider on the cover of a book like this, even though I really liked the photo (or I would not have submitted it). I have done a lot of books. My first book cover came a long time ago with a book about Northwoods Cooking back in Minnesota. That was exciting, but now, my relationship to the books have changed. They are less about what they can do for me and more about what they do for photographers and nature.

So to have a jumping spider on the cover of my book was so exciting. My work has more and more gravitated to landscapes and close-ups. That is not to say that other parts of nature are not important, just that I find I do my best work when I focus on these things rather than shotgunning all over the place photographing everything.

And these are not any pretty landscape or close-up. For me, the landscape needs to provide setting, context, place and environment. The close-ups need to show off the wonder of the detail, the small, the often overlooked. This seems to be my present "calling" and the more I focus here, the better my work seems to get, or at least, it becomes more satisfying at a deeper, soul-filling level.

Calling 4

Calling 5Spiders are often overlooked by people except when they want them killed or removed. ("Rob, there is a giant spider in the bathtub. Can you get rid of it?" from my lovely wife, and the spider is not particularly giant, just a lost wolf spider looking for something to eat, so I scoop it up and take it outside.) Jumping spiders are the "cutest" of spiders, but for me, having a spider on the cover of this book really helps me connect people to another part of nature, regardless if they buy the book or not. Just seeing the cover connects them to a jumping spider.

Calling 1 Calling 3Have you thought about what your passion, your calling is now in nature and photography? Photography, nature photography is fine, but that's a pretty broad category. I find that I feel that I have done more, that I feel more satisfied, when I connect with a more personal calling in my photography. I know, not everyone is going to love jumping spiders, let alone spiders, but that doesn't have to be "everyone's calling" as a photographer who loves nature.

I can tell you from personal experience that when you try to "do it all", you end up scattering your focus, your resources, your skills. I have long suffered from the "shiny object" syndrome, the idea that you get attracted by the shiny objects of life: "Wow! Photographing deer. I just need a different lens." "Wow! Photographing birds. I just need to go to a new location." "Wow! Photographing the salt flats at Badwater in Death Valley."

None of those things are bad, and I will still photograph birds, deer, and Badwater, but with a different mental lens than simply chasing shiny objects. I have no interest in doing the shots that everyone else does, not because they are wrong, but because they are wrong for me. I want a connection to my subject, to the landscape, to the close-up, that means something to me on a deeper level, something that fits my calling of connecting others to nature beyond the obvious, beyond the already photographed, beyond trying to spread myself thin by trying to "do it all" and yet not doing anything as well as I could.

I am going to be starting up a podcast later this fall. Stay tuned for more information! If you have any thoughts on what that podcast should include, let me know. As you can probably guess from this blog post, I want to tell you about things I am passionate about and I don't want to repeat what other people already are doing.

The photos, from the top, are a daddy-long legs (harvestman) on a crabapple tree branch in Maine, a jumping spider from Illinois, aspen and an ant on an aspen tree trunk at 10,000 feet in the Great Basin National Park, Nevada, California evening primrose in my native plants garden at night (they bloom at night), and a bumblebee on a purple coneflower in the amazing butterfly and hummingbird garden of Richard and Susan Day in Illinois.

Posted in Close Up Photography, Environment, Landscape photography | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Along a Fence Line – Finding Pictures

Fenceline 1I just returned from a trip to Florida where I did some presentations to the Orlando Camera Club (a terrific, active and energetic club worth checking out). Friday morning, my friends, Wayne Bennett and Ron Caimano, went out to do some photography starting just before sunrise.

We went out to an interesting rural area and set up looking at some interesting trees, hay bales and clouds to the east. The setting was pretty and the experience being there at sunrise great, but the sunrise was not all that photogenic. I started looking closer along the fence. There was not a lot of obvious things, not much in the way of flowers, for example, but still, I walked slowly and looked for things that contrasted with the manmade parts of the fence.

Fenceline 2And immediately I started finding photos.

Female regal jumping spiderOne of the really great things about close-up and macro work is that you can often find both striking photos and unique connections with nature almost anywhere, anytime. Even if the big scene is not working, the light is wrong, etc., you can always find something to discover when looking up close. As the poet Mary Oliver says in her "Instructions for Life":

  • Pay attention.
  • Be astonished.
  • Tell about it.

That's great advice for a nature photographer! All of the photos you see above and next were taken that morning along a short stretch of fence.

Fenceline 4 Fenceline 5 Fenceline 6 Fenceline 7 Fenceline 8And we found even more things to pay attention to and be astonished on the other side.

Fenceline 10 Fenceline 11 Fenceline 9

Posted in Close Up Photography, Locations, Nature photography | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Light Awareness

Light awareness 3Photography is all about light. The name itself comes from Greek words that mean light and drawing, or literally, drawing with light.

Yet, I find that light is something that trips up many photographers on the way to better photography. The light gets in the way. The problem comes from the difference in the way that we versus the camera in how each sees the world. We see subjects. The camera could care less about subjects. It only sees light and the effects of light on the world.

With our tendency to see subjects, we can quickly get into trouble when that is all we see and we miss the light and shadow that the camera is actually seeing. That may mean the subject, that we saw just fine, changes and even disappears in the photograph because of the way the camera sees the light. Plus, the camera will see all sorts of bright and dark distractions caused by light that we can miss because we are focusing so much on the subject.  This is, by the way, one reason why I quite like Live View, something I always have on my GH3, because you are seeing the light the sensor sees and not the "real world" subject your eye sees through an optical viewfinder.

I don't care how advanced a photographer is, that tendency to focus our minds on the subject always is there. That's what we do! We evolved to distinguish objects (subjects) in all sorts of conditions so we could hunt for food and avoid being hunted ourselves. Seeing light's effects on the world gave us no real benefit.

I used to spend a lot of time teaching classes to look at all sorts of ways of working with light. What are the differences between front and side, side and back, back and front lights? What are their strengths (and they all have strengths) and what are their problems? But while that can be helpful, it actually can make light seem like a technical exercise (which it sometimes is in a studio, but I often find that if I or any other photographer reduces light to technique, we lose something in our photos).

I found it very interesting to hear a podcast the other day of an interview with a physicist. He noted that technically we cannot actually see light, only the effects of light. Light going through a vacuum cannot be seen. It can only be seen when it interacts with something, such as air, a rock, a spider, a flower, etc.

That made me realize something. Effectively using light in a photograph is not about "seeing the light", but about seeing how light interacts with the world and how the camera deals with that interaction. As soon as you take the attitude of looking for light interactions, you will be surprised how much more you see of light and its effects.

Light awareness 1It is about awareness of light and its interactions. I realized that a flaw in one explanation I have used about how the camera sees only light and shadow is that this makes the subject less important, and often in nature photography, the subject is very important. That doesn't change the idea that the camera could care less about a subject, but when we start looking for interactions of light on our subject and everything else within the image area, we start expanding our ability to see better photographs.

Light awareness 4I recently returned from a trip to Maine. I visited Acadia National Park while I was there, including sunrise and sunset on the top of Cadillac Mountain (this is a legendary location for those events that everyone should visit if you are in Acadia). At sunrise, there were hundreds of people. The parking lot was full. This is the earliest sunrise you can see from the East Coast of the U.S.

Most people stood on top of the mountain and photographed the sunrise. They simply wanted to capture a subject. And for many people, that memory shot was enough.  But there were many serious photographers there, too, and from their positions, I could see they were only looking for the "subject", sunrise.

Do you know how overrun our world is with ordinary sunrises that look no different regardless of where they are shot? That is because the photographer is only thinking about the subject and is not thinking about how to use that sunrise and how its light interacts with the scene to create something unique to the area.

Light awareness 5I am not suggesting everyone is going to change their thoughts from subjects to light awareness and instantly get stunning photos that will impress everyone at the camera club or win a prize. That's not what this is about. What I am suggesting is that this is how to start finding unique photos, unique to both you and the location. That is important. I believe as nature photographers we owe nature more than snapshots of a sunrise or any other subject. With today's gear, and even cameras in phones, anyone can now do that.

But by stopping and looking for how light is interacting with the scene, with the subject, and then seeing how the camera is seeing that, you will find better photos, photos that will be true to you and the location.

Light awareness 2The photos seen here are all from Acadia National Park in Maine.

Posted in Craft of photography, Landscape photography, Nature photography | Tagged , , , , | 16 Comments

Lenses Affect How We See the World

Lenses again 5Not long ago, I wrote a bit about the importance of both moving your camera position and changing focal length in order to get different perspectives on your subject and its relationship to the surroundings. I got to thinking a bit about this and realized that there was something more important going on here than I had considered. Lenses and how we use them are not simply "photographic technique" or craft. They also literally and psychologically affect how we see the world.

Photographs have the potential for doing much more than recording a pretty scene or subject or even showing us a subject we have not seen before. Photographs allow us to deal with and visually structure the chaos of life all around us to emphasize something that we care about and share it with others.

Actually, just standing in one place and zooming starts to do that. A wide-angle focal length gives us a wide-angle view of the world, helping us see relationships of many elements of a scene.

Lenses again 7A telephoto focal length gives us a more focused and isolated view of the world, encouraging us to see details in new ways.

Lenses again 8

Both views are important and I think we can use these ideas from photography to better help us see and connect with the world around us on many levels. If you visit a friend's house, for example, the wide-angle view helps you see the connect of your friend to his or her environment. It truly is the "big picture" point of view. When you go into nature, this big picture point-of-view, regardless if you actually use your camera, helps you see connections and how things are interrelated if your mind has a wide-angle perspective.

On the other hand, the telephoto view with your friend helps you focus in just on them and what is important to them. You see details that are overlooked in the wide view. In nature, this is also important to help you discover more to a location than simply being in a big place. The telephoto point-of-view allows you to isolate details so that you can see them clearly in your mind even if you don't put a telephoto lens on your camera.

Now let's go back to the idea of moving your position as well as your wide or telephoto point-of-view. If you get in close to a subject with a wide-angle focal length, the subject gets very large compared to a shrinking background and environment. The surroundings are definitely there, but compared to a standard wide view where you stand back from the scene, they are reduced in size and change in their emphasis within the photo.

Lenses again 1 Lenses again 4Getting close to anything important to you and still staying aware of the bigger surroundings gives you a unique perspective on that "object", whether that is a person or a flower. This keeps the subject prime in your mind while allowing you to still see how the "big picture" influences that subject. The subject is absolutely the star of your attention (which is not always true if you simply watch or shoot from a distance with a wide-angle view), yet the environment is still there helping give perspective.

If you back up and shoot with a telephoto, perspective changes so that the background/surroundings become more natural in their size relationship to the subject. You can also better see how that subject relates to specific details nearby.

Lenses again 2 Lenses again 3While this is more "distant" emotionally, it can be a very important way of seeing a subject whether through a camera or in your mind. Sometimes the wide view is just too distracting and keeps you from really seeing true relationships of your subject, your center of attention with specific parts of their world.

In my wife's family, her mom loves to have a big party with all of the siblings, spouses and kids (which makes for a large, rather chaotic group). It can be great to get in close to someone and still keep an eye on the rest of the group. That tells you a lot about connections in the family. But sometimes you have to step back and focus on one part of the group, backing up enough to see how that one part is connecting with the rest. For example, a child who is feeling a little left out.

In nature, we have the same things. We can get right in the forest with a wide-angle point-of-view and gain some stunning perspectives of how a flower or tree fits into the larger setting. But sometimes we need to step back and refocus our attention on seeing a very specific relationship of one element of that place to something that affects it strongly. That can come from that backed off, telephoto perspective. The shot below is the backed off, telephoto perspective of the yucca relative, nolina, shown at the top of this blog. This is exactly the same plant, but look what a difference a focal length and distance change can make for how we see the plant.

Lenses again 6As I thought about these things, I realized why it has been so important to me to shoot with more than just one focal length up close. While I use and love working with a macro lens, that focal length can only offer me one point-of-view. I want to see nature as a bigger place than simply a series of locations to be used with my macro to "harvest" images of varied subjects. By using different wide-to-telephoto points-of-view, whether that is from my camera or just how I am using my mind, I see a different and more beautiful world.

I am trying something new for my how-to videos. A new video website,, is now offering courses for the very low price of $5 each, with the plan of getting lots of people to try them out. I have three courses there: Photo Success with Lightroom (about using Develop effectively and efficiently), Photo Organization with Lightroom (a little about how to organize photos as well as using Library effectively and efficiently), and Mastering Black-and-White.

And with all of these flower photos, I have to mention my class on photographing flowers, Flower Photography from Snapshot to Great Shot, at One thing that is great about is that you get lessons from pros plus assignments plus critiques of those assignments by the pros.

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

Respect in Photography (and Life)

Freeport, MaineI am going to do something a bit different this week because of an experience I had recently, related to people who suffer from Parkinson's disease. The photo above is of my dad. He passed away nearly three years ago. He had Parkinson's disease. While technically, Parkinson's did not "kill" him, it devastated his body so much that his body just could not deal with new challenges.

This blog will first relate to photography and how we look at subjects. Then, I want to speak out a bit about Parkinson's disease. This photo was taken a few years before my dad died, though the Parkinson's disease was really causing problems for him. Yet, when I saw him looking thoughtfully at his great grandchild at a family gathering, I saw a man who was still a strong man in spite of the disease. The light combined with a telephoto lens isolated him and provided me with a strong image that respected him. I really liked it in black-and-white because it strengthened the light and the moment.

The photo goes against all the "technical" rules. I shot it handheld with a 70-300mm lens at 1/25 sec. I did try to brace myself and do the best I could, plus I was using a lens with image stabilization. It has a lot of noise from a relatively high ISO for the time. It is not perfect technically. Yet I feel it is perfect in respect. I sometimes get the feeling that photographers get too tied to the technology and forget that the ultimate goal of photography is to create images that connect with others and/or express something important to the photographer.

I strongly believe that photography can and should respect the subject. I think that sometimes people trivialize subjects, from people to nature, by being more interested in the effects, the technology, than in the subject and showing it with honor and dignity. (That said, I do have to qualify this slightly. One of my inspirations as a photographer has been Arnold Newman. He was one who had great respect for his subjects, except for a well-known shot of Alfried Krupp. Krupp was an "important" industrialist during World War II whose family owned a key munitions plant for the Nazis and who deliberately used Jewish slave labor in the factory. Krupp served a minimal time in jail after the war for that. Newman was assigned by a news magazine to photograph Krupp in 1963. Newman was Jewish. Newman created an amazing portrait of Krupp that definitely made a statement. In this case, Newman still had a photograph of respect – this time respecting the Jews who had suffered because of this man.)

I think this image of my dad shows him as a person, not as a person being crippled by Parkinson's disease. Parkinson's is a difficult disease. It fights the muscles of the body. My sister also has Parkinson's and though hers is "controlled" by medication, that control is a relative term. Though you would never know it from watching her go through her day, my sister fights her body all of the time. She says that it can be like walking through a field with cement blocks on your feet.

That is why it both saddens and angers me when I hear of people who treat anyone with a debilitating disease with a lack of respect. I am certainly strongly aware of Parkinson's disease and its effects within my family. That probably makes me more sensitive. I will admit that.

Still, it is very hard for me when I learn of people who want someone who has Parkinson's disease to respond to the world the way that they do. They don't seem to have any idea what is like to be constantly fighting a battle with your body, especially someone who is elderly like my dad was. As if it weren't enough to be dealing with the usual challenges of aging to then have to fight the physically draining battle with Parkinson's. Sadly, I heard of a family from a mutual acquaintance that has an elderly person who is struggling with Parkinson's and seems to be getting little respect from others in the family. They say this sufferer is lazy and seem to be convinced this person is just doing this to annoy them. Where is the respect for a fellow human being, one who suffers a fate none of us would want?

Photography has the potential for showing the world with respect, a potential I believe in. I don't think every photograph has to be serious and deep, but I do think that photographs will reflect the photographer. If a photographer does not respect this or her subject, if he or she comes to that subject with thoughtless preconceptions, then the photograph will show that, regardless of what that subject may be.

It is worth looking at our own attitudes as we photograph. That can affect the quality of an image every bit as much as any new camera, lens or software. What is in our hearts does matter as we photograph.

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