Winter [Photography] is Here

Cold1Growing up as a photographer in Minnesota meant dealing with winter. Actually, Minnesota has four seasons: pre-winter, winter, post-winter, and springsummerfall. No matter how you look at it, Minnesota has a long winter, and if you were going to be a nature photographer there, you had to deal with winter photography.

This winter, I have an article on photographing snow and ice coming out in Outdoor Photographer. But seeing as it is winter now through much of the country, I thought I would offer some ideas on dealing with the cold.

Years ago, cameras had to be taken apart and prepared for cold weather or they would fail. That is no longer true. All cameras today can function just fine to temperatures well below zero, except …

  • The battery. Batteries quit working as the temperatures drop. They will work fine again once they warm up. I keep extra batteries in a pocket in my jacket with a handwarmer. You could keep an extra battery in a pocket next to your body, but then exchanging batteries is going to be painful.
  • Condensation is a big problem with cameras so never keep it next to your body. Even in winter, your body is putting off a lot of moisture which will condense on a cold camera body. Also, never bring an exposed cold camera inside a house or a warm car because serious condensation can happen that can mean camera failure and shipment to a repair location. Put your camera away inside a sealed camera bag or a plastic garbage bag until it warms up.
  • A cold camera is a good thing when it is snowing because the snow can be brushed off without it melting. But never blow the snow off with your breath or you will add a layer of condensation, which is really a problem if that happens to be on your lens.
  • Warm clothes in layers are key, along with good, insulated boots, flexible gloves, and a warm hat. Warm, insulted boots are very important because as a photographer, you are going to be standing around a lot as you set up shots and wait for the light. Cold feet will send you home quickly.
  • Warm fingers. For gloves, check out hunting stores. Think about it, a hunter needs gloves that are both warm and flexible, plus they usually have some sort of gripping material to allow you to grip things (such as a camera and its controls) with gloves still on. Growing up in Minnesota, I never found “half” gloves or mittens that exposed fingers useful. Cold camera bodies and tripods were way too brutal for bare skin.
Posted in Nature photography, Winter | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Monopod for Close-Ups and Macro

Lebanon Hills Park, MinnesotaDo you remember Hannibal from the campy TV show, The A-Team? He always used to say, "I love it when a plan comes together."

I love it when some gear comes together to help me do something that I has having trouble doing. For me, the best way to deal with gear has always been to look at what I want to do and what is keeping me from doing that. I want gear that fits my needs.

A need I had was dealing with close-up work when shooting in dense vegetation, with any sort of telephoto focal length, and especially when following insects and other small critters around.

Lebanon Hills Park, MinnesotaI use a tripod all the time, but a tripod can be a distinct problem for this type of work for several reasons:

  1. The three legs can be very difficult to set up properly when in dense vegetation.
  2. Even if you do move the tripod, you have increased possibilities of hitting and disturbing the plant that can change the position of the subject, such as a grouping of flowers.
  3. If you bump a plant the insect is on, the insect often leaves or drops off the plant.
  4. With moving flowers (blowing in the wind), you often have to quickly reposition the camera to get the focus and the shot (not easy with a tripod).
  5. It is not easy to move to follow an insect.

You might wonder, why not then shoot handheld? Sometimes I do, but there are problems with that, especially with telephotos:

  1. Telephotos are increasingly sensitive to camera movement during exposure when shot up close, even at fast shutter speeds.
  2. It is tiring to constantly hold a camera and lens at the ready. This is especially a problem the bigger your camera and lens get (which is another reason why I love my Micro Four Thirds gear). This also hurts my back.
  3. When you get tired holding a camera at the ready, you have trouble holding it steady.
  4. With moving insects, you often have to shoot multiple shots and wait and watch as the insect does its thing on a flower, for example, another "holding" challenge.

I have a monopod that works pretty well for this. A monopod means you gain support for the camera and lens, but with only one leg to deal with, you have less of a problem moving it, getting into tight locations and so forth. A monopod allows you to move quickly and easily simply by leaning over and keeping the monopod on the ground.

Lebanon Hills Park, Minnesota

However, I ran into a problem at times. Because I would sometimes have to lean the monopod over quite a bit for lower angle shots, the tip of the monopod leg would often slip. This is especially a problem on harder surfaces.

Then I discovered that you could get a "tripod foot" that could be attached to the bottom of your monopod (I first saw this on I got one from I needed to then epoxy this to the base of a monopod. I did not want to damage my very light, carbon-fiber Gitzo monopod, so I decided to get a new one. I got a MeFoto tripod from Paul's Photo – these are nicely made aluminum tripods at a good price. I wanted a better head that included a clamp for a camera plate, so I then ordered a BH-25 ultralight ballhead from Really Right Stuff. You need a good head because of the odd positions the monopod can end up in as you move around.

Monpod 1I have now been using this set-up since mid-summer. "I love it when a plan comes together." And it did! Yes, I know you can buy monopods with these little tripod feet, but I wanted something that I made for my purposes and the cost was reasonable (yes, I know the BH-25 was expensive, but it has been worth it, and it was a reason to keep other costs low).

I admit that at times it can be challenging to use in thick brush because the tripod foot (even when folded) can catch on bushes, but overall, it has been a very successful addition to my gear that helps with all of the issues outlined above. The bumblebee on the wild bergamot, the tiny tree frog, and the coneflowers were all shot using a long telephoto lens with this monopod while moving through a dense bit of prairie in Minnesota this past summer.

Posted in Close Up Photography, Gear, Nature photography | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Fresh Looks for Your Photos and Subjects

FRESH 1This past week week I found some little green sweat bees working the flowers of a newer plant in my garden. They were on the yellow flowers of a perennial bush marigold. I love these little bees so I had to get out my camera and photograph them. They can be a challenge because they tend to be constantly in motion and very reactive to your movement as you move into photograph them.

But as I looked at what I was getting, I saw green sweat bees on yellow flowers. I have pictures of green sweat bees on yellow flowers. Maybe not the same flower species, blood the pictures are similar enough. It made me think a little bit about how I could find something different, something unique that could honor these bees in a new way In my photographs. I’m still working on that.

It reminded me of something written probably about 15 years ago by Bill McKibben, the nature and environmental writer. He said  essentially that we have enough wildlife photos. We don’t need anymore while life pictures of animals that already have lots of pictures of them because they  didn’t add anything to our knowledge of these animals and taking pictures of them could increase pressures on the animals and their habitats. We had enough pictures, for example, of elephants.

At the time, I was editor of Outdoor Photographer and a number of photographers told me we had to do something to counteract this bad idea from McKibbon. While I agreed that he was a bit shortsighted, I felt there was no point for us to engage in this argument because it would actually give it more prominence than it really deserved.

McKibben missed a number of important things about nature and photography, but he had a point that is worth thinking about, that we have enough pictures of nature. We really don’t need any more photographs of elephants, or for that matter, green sweat bees, Yellowstone geysers or giant redwoods in order to identify them or to show other people that they exist. We have enough pictures that we can find on the Internet, in books and so forth, that clearly show off these animals and other parts of nature.

What McKibben missed and a reason for thinking about this is that we don’t have enough attention put on many parts of nature that need our protection and care. If people don’t see it in today’s visual world, they literally don’t pay attention. But the problem of simply having more pictures of any given subject is that people don’t pay attention to them either. Another photograph of an elephant doesn’t impress anyone or get them to pay more attention to the challenges that elephants face today. And another picture of a bee on a yellow flower is just so much more  visual noise that blends in with all the thousands of pictures we see everyday.


Or a marmot like in these photos. It is easy to get photos of these animals in places where they are used to people. But another picture of a marmot is just another picture. But by getting low to her height (just changing your height to any subject can make a huge difference in getting a fresh image because most photographers simply don't) and waiting for something new to happen, in this case a baby arrives in the light, the image changes.

FRESH 5We don’t simply need better pictures of natural subjects. There are great photographs that can be found of all sorts of subjects in books, magazines, and all over the Internet. Just  do a Google search for images of any natural subject and you will find tons of photographs, some not so good, but a lot are really excellent. “Better” photographs are great and we should always be striving to make our work better, but simply making pictures better doesn’t mean that anyone is going to pay attention to them.

If you care about nature as much as I do, then we have to start thinking about how to create fresh and unique images that people will pay attention to. Nature deserves  that attention! So for me, I am always going to be looking for ways that I can create photographs that are not the same as I have always done or that I have seen other people doing. (A caution: We do need to be respectful of  nature and be careful that we are not threatening, disturbing or damaging the nature that we love as we are photographing it in unique ways.)

FRESH 2For example, this weevil. There is nothing wrong with the first photo, but it is fits all the "rules" and so doesn't offer much of a fresh look. Another bug on some plants. So as I worked this subject, I found a more dynamic and unique look (next) that goes against the rules and that gives it more of an edge.

FRESH 3And you know something? You and I as photographers deserve to find fresh images, too. If all we do is point a camera at a great natural subject and take a “pretty”  picture that is like what we have done before or we have seen others do before, we’re doing ourselves a disservice. Photography is a creative medium which means making creative choices. Our work improves in terms of its creativity when we push ourselves to be more creative. Finding unique and fresh images for any subject that  we are photographing is one sure way of helping us do exactly that.

We also deserve it in another way. A lot of research is now being done about aging because this very large population of baby boomers, of which I am a part, is aging! And one thing that is consistently being found is that when people’s minds are stimulated as they age, their brains continue to function well and at a high level. When our brains are not as stimulated, we start to have cognitive challenges. So simply by trying to find ways of photographing a subject in new and fresh ways will also help keep our brains new and fresh!

FRESH 6This is a fine sunrise image near Great Basin National Park in Nevada. There is no really strong reason to find another shot. But I wanted to see if I could find something more, maybe something a little less common. That little push was more than simply going after "the best shot" or some other inane way of describing it. It was about encouraging myself to use my mind the best I could, to stay with a developing scene just to discover its possibilities. And some cool things did happen.

FRESH 7So while I don’t have the unique and fresh pictures of green sweat bees that I want … yet …  I certainly am going to keep trying. Those little native bees deserve it – and so do I!

Posted in Craft of photography, Nature photography | 4 Comments

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 , , , | 15 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 , , , , | 8 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