Environmental Portraits in Nature

environment-re-7For me, the environment of a natural subject can be very important. It can tell a lot about the subject, which in turn, means a photograph that includes that environment can tell a lot about that subject for the viewer, too. I have done this a lot with flowers and small critters, and now, I am becoming increasingly interested in the larger parts of nature and how they fit into a larger whole.

In this photo, you see a Minnesota winter landscape. Look a little closer, and you will see this is the environment of a muskrat and its home in winter. environment-re-5You don't have to know anything about the muskrat or the landscape before seeing this photo, yet you learn some things very quickly from the photo. First, you know this is an animal that builds its home in shallow water and with cattails. You can see the animal probably does not live in colonies of homes. It also appears to like the edge of deeper water as you can see a line of cattails right where the home is. This includes a forest of deciduous trees and the lake is in a depression surrounded by the forest. From this environmental image, you learn about a muskrat and where it lives, and indeed, a bit about its ecology!

environment-re-6This image is a bit unusual in that it does not simply feature a waterfall, but also gives you an idea of its environment. The trick to environmental photos is in how context figures into the composition and how you use technique to make sure the subject is clear. This image was shot with a wide-angle lens to allow me to emphasize the dark water which leads the eye aback to the waterfall. The wide-angle emphasizes the change in perspective from foreground to background which strengthens that dark water. The tree at the left, the trees along the top, and the trees at the right all help define the place and give context and contrast for the waterfall.

The top photo shows a group of oak trees growing at the edge of a prairie. In this case, I used a telephoto to compress distance slightly so that the trees would have a clear relationship to each other and give context to the low, central tree.

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Creating Depth in Photos Part 2

depth-9Late in November, I started this series on creating depth in photographs. Here is part two.

  • Focus contrast – Whenever you can create a contrast in focus from subject to background or key part of image compared to other areas, you quickly create a feeling of depth. The stronger the contrast, the stronger the impression of depth, though if the out-of-focus areas are totally unrecognizable, this creates a different effect (though cool in itself).depth-6
  • Size relationships – Whenever you can show recognizable objects in an image changing in size, you imply distance. In the real, 3-D world, objects get smaller as they go out into the distance, so emphasizing that in a photo allows you to create that feeling of depth.depth-7
  • Depth of field – Related to focus contrast and size relationships, depth of field for depth impression comes when you combine deep depth of field in a scene with distinct differences in size from foreground to background. The change in size of objects encourages the viewer to compare foreground to background, but depth of field allows them to better do that.depth-8
  • Focal length – You can stretch or shrink perspective by changing your focal length. Perspective has a major effect on the look of an image as it affects depth. Wide-angle focal lengths stretch perspective and give an impression of a deepness to the depth of a scene. Telephoto lenses flatten perspective and give an impression of flatness to the depth of a scene. (A little more for the technically minded: The use of a focal length by itself does not actually change perspective. It is the distance to your subject matter combined with a focal length to reveal the scene that changes perspective.)depth-10
  • Combine depth techniques – None of the techniques I have mentioned in either post have to be used alone. Use them together to clearly show your viewer what you want them to see. Plus, these techniques can be used both to create an impression of depth or, if you use the opposite, to remove any feeling of depth.
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Nature Photography Rocks!


Southern Sierra Nevada Mountains near Lake Isabella, CA.

It is sometimes hard for me to keep up a steady pace of blogs, so I am going to revise and repost older blogs, including all new photos. Here's one:

I believe nature is worth the effort to make better nature photographs. And nature is definitely worth the effort to spend time there. Some of the most memorable times in my life outside of my incredible wife and kids come from time in nature.


Florida Everglades. Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.

Since I travel quite a bit, I often get asked, what is my favorite place to photograph. I am not being facetious when I say it is the place I am in at the moment. I love places like Acadia National Park and the Everglades (more than just the national park), but I can't go there all the time, so I am just as happy to be in the Santa Monica Mountains (low mountains northwest of Los Angeles) where I can be in less than an hour photographing the chaparral there. One spring, I spent a couple of days videotaping digger bees there –non-aggressive bees, but what an amazing experience to be with them. If you think there is adrenaline flowing when you are photographing big animals in Africa, try holding a video camera as you move it among swarming female bees above their nests! And no, I never got stung. They are not like honey bees.

Solitary or ground bees (Diadasia tuberculata), Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, Los Angeles, California

Solitary or ground bees (Diadasia tuberculata), Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, Los Angeles, California

I have to say that one of the most impressive places I ever visited was the front of a cave near Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. I was there during a gray bat swarm (a mating behavior of many cave bats), and the experience along with the photography, literally being in a bat swarm, was amazing.


Gray bats swarming in early fall, Kentucky.

Even closer to home – when the terrible events of 9/11 occurred, I spent the afternoon connecting with nature by photographing in a local natural area. I did close ups of a native sunflower. That was so helpful and really helped me understand that there was still much beauty in our world.

Even closer. I planted most of my yard to native plants. This is an incredible place for me. Since I am in the Los Angeles area, the garden has something in bloom all year round, plus it attracts a lot of interesting insects (including butterflies and native bees) and birds (especially bushtits and hummingbirds). Not only do I have terrific subject matter right outside my door, but also, I feel a real connection to the natural world of California. So many yards and gardens are planted to exotic species that may be pretty, but they keep people separated from nature, rather than connected. Plus, they require a lot of water in an area that is naturally dry, so my garden is also drought tolerant.


Tiny thrip on San Diego sunflower (a small sunflower).

Finally, last spring, my wife and I got a small place up in the mountains near Lake Isabella, California. This is in the Southern Sierra Nevada. I am loving being able to observe one large and beautiful natural area constantly over the year.


Rocks at edge of desert, east side Lake Isabella.

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Creating Depth in Photographs

Whether we are photographing a landscape or a native bee, we have to translate the three dimensions of real life into the two dimensions of a photograph. Creating the impression of depth can be very important to showing off nature (though there are times that a two-dimensional image works, such as a flat pattern).

This has long been a challenge for any artist who is dealing with a flat surface for their art, from sketches to paintings and so on. This has been an important part of my studies of composition, and the techniques I have learned have definitely enhanced my craft as a photographer. There are more ideas than I can fit into a single blog post, so I will do this in several parts on creating depth in a photograph.

It is easy to assume that because we are photographing three-dimensions in the real world and that photography seems to show that world well, that we automatically get a three-dimensional look in our images. We don’t. There are things we can do in order to enhance the perception of depth in photographs as we create the image, and even when doing some processing of the image as well.

Here are some specific techniques you can use:

  • Frames – framing a scene is a classic way of creating depth. A frame can be anything that uses an edge (or edges of the photo) for some object to literally frame the scene behind it. A tree or a tree branch along the edge of the frame works well (although I am not fond of adding a branch to a scene that has few if any trees in it just for “depth” – that is a very inauthentic way of capturing nature). You can also look for objects with natural openings that can be used to surround your subject in the distance.

    Lake Mead Rec Area, near Las Vegas, NV

    Lake Mead Recreation Area, near Las Vegas, NV

  • Lines – the use of “leading lines”, compositional lines that lead the eye from the foreground to the background, is another classic depth technique. But it can also become a cliché. Any leading lines need to be an integral part of the scene, i.e., they need to feel like they belong there and are not used arbitrarily in such a way that they make sense to a composition but not the scene.


    Redwood trees,                                                       Mountain Home State Forest, CA

  • Overlap – overlapping objects automatically gives a feeling of depth because only objects that change in distance, in depth, can overlap (if they were right next to each other, they could not). This has long been an important technique for painters, but it is not well known among photographers. All it often takes is some movement left or right so that something in the foreground overlaps something behind it (or even all the way to the background). I saw a commercial during a football game on Thanksgiving that did this extremely well.

    Barrel cactus with brittlebrush, Joshua Tree National Park, California

    Barrel cactus with brittlebrush, Joshua Tree National Park, California

  • Color – the use of color can have a very strong impact on the impression of depth within a photo. Think of colors as more than what an object looks like. Warm colors come closer in an image, cool colors recede, creating depth. Saturated colors come closer in an image, less saturated colors recede. So look for warm colors, saturated colors or both to include in your foreground, then compose to avoid them in the background, and you will increase the feeling of depth. And if you do the opposite, you decrease the feeling of depth.

Giant coreopsis, Point Dume, CA

  • Light – light has a little bit of an unusual effect on depth. An area of bright light in the foreground with darkness behind creates a feeling of depth. An area of dark in the foreground with brightness behind creates a feeling of depth. It is the contrast that does it.


    Sunrise, Wofford Heights, CA

  • Backlit shadows – with backlit shadows, you get an impression of depth from the lines and changing patterns in the shadows. This is especially true if they can be seen going back to a specific object.


    Snow scene, Southern Maine

  • Aerial perspective – if you look into the distance, you will often see that things far away are hazy compared to close objects, that the distance often looks less sharp than anything up close, that the distance loses contrast, that the distance also looks bluer than anything up close, and that colors lose their saturation. This is called aerial perspective and a natural part of the world. You can use all of those ideas in a photograph to get more depth. However, there are challenges – sometimes the distant bluish haze just looks bad in a photograph.


    Mountains, Southern Sierra Nevada, CA

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Two Approaches to Nature Photography

connection-4Recently I saw a web ad for some sort of photo course about getting great shots of night skies, and it had a photographer pointing his camera "at the night sky" (through the help of Photoshop!). It struck me as an interesting visual for how we approach photography.

The photographer was definitely "taking" a picture of the subject. This is one approach to photography. We direct our attention and our camera outward toward the subject. It is very much a photographer-centric approach where what is important is how the resulting photograph represents the photographer.

What I mean by that is that the photograph is about "capturing a great shot", about working to create "better photos", both in terms of the photographer. The photographer can then be happy (or not) about his/her work, his/her "eye", his/her photographic abilities. It is more about the photography than the subject. That does not mean the subject is unimportant, just that it is less important than the visual aspects of the photo.

This is an important approach to photography, one that all photographers do at one time or another, and an approach that will dominate the work of most photographers. It is how photography gains visual creativity and impact. It is the basis of fine-art photography.

Something to consider – if nature photography is reduced to purely visual creativity, that can be interesting, but it does not connect viewers, the audience, the world, with the nature. It is about creating pretty or impressive photos, but it is not about reaching out to people and saying, "Hey, isn't nature cool!"

So another approach is to look at photography as a way of connecting the viewer with nature and the world and not just the photo. LIFE magazine used this idea as a basis for the magazine. One of its guiding statements was: "To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things — machines, armies, multitudes, shadows in the jungle and on the moon; to see man’s work — his paintings, towers and discoveries; to see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to; the women that men love and many children; to see and take pleasure in seeing; to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed..."

Notice there is nothing in there about creating "great photos", though a lot of LIFE photos were indeed great. Check out Great Photographic Essays from Life by Maitland Edey to see how this classic publication did it (the text is as valuable as the photos). You can find that book very inexpensively as a used book from AbeBooks.com or Amazon.com.

connection-3That approach has become increasingly important to me, in part because connecting the wonder of nature subjects with others and me (yes, the photographer can be more or less connected) is truly part of who I am. This is more important to me than the photograph as a stand-alone work of fine art.

Important! This does not mean that the visual aspects of the photograph are not important! Creating an interesting, effective photograph that clearly communicates about the subject in a way to connect the viewer to the subject is part of our job as photographers.

connection-1That often requires problem solving beyond 10 tips for better photographs. It means we have to really look at the subject AND the photograph we are capturing. Is this photograph really communicating what we want it to do? If not, what do we need to do to make it better do that? What photographic craft and skills do we need to use in order to craft a better image for both nature and the viewer? This is one area that digital photography is so helpful because we can see the photos as we take them!

There are a couple of potential limitations to this approach. First, if the photographer pays too much attention to the subject and not enough attention to the craft of the photography, the resulting photos will often be simply boring snapshots. They might create a record of that nature, but they will not attract the attention of other people. Creating an attractive, effective photo is important in order to gain that attention.

Second, this often means photos that are less flashy, less attention getting resulting in fewer likes on FB and challenges in getting attention from camera club and other photo competitions. If you look at a lot of the work in Great Photographic Essays from Life, you will find that most of it wouldn't gain much attention on FB and would often be too edgy (even though the photos are "old" now) for camera clubs. Realize that FB is not designed to favor these sorts of images. It is designed to be looked at quickly. People don't spend a lot of time on any individual photos, so if a photo is to impress them, it has to be dramatic in some way.

I am not suggesting we give up on photos that are really more about the photo than the subject. They are important for many reasons, including helping us better use the medium. I am suggesting that as a fellow lover of both nature and photography, that you might consider how you can use your photography to clearly communicate something unique about the nature that you really care about.


Posted in Craft of photography, Environment, Nature photography | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Photos with Environment

environment-1More and more I am leaning toward photos with environment, photos that show more than the subject and include some of the setting. Photos with environment –

  • Connect me with nature beyond the subject as I photograph. Looking at the environment of the subject as I shoot means I am going to see more of the natural world.
  • Connect my subjects with the real world. The inhabitants of the natural world do not exist in a vacuum. Showing their environment gives context (and even story).
  • Connect my subjects to a very specific place.
  • Connect my viewers with more than the subject. People get an impression that nature is an integrated whole.

With a lot of nature photography, we concentrate on the subject and the photo. We look at how the subject works in a composition, how the subject is shown off by the photograph. This is an important part of photography ... and the main way many photographers approach nature.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, since this approach doesn't show off how natural subjects fit into the world, I feel we need more balance. Hence my leaning more and more to photos with environment.

This approach has an interesting affect on the photographer. Now, instead of concentrating on subject and photograph, you have to broaden your way of seeing to include the setting, the environment. This does present some unique things to consider:

  • Depth of field can be challenging. You don't have to have the surroundings, the environment, in perfect focus, but there needs to be enough depth of field that this aspect of the photo is recognizable.
  • Wide-angle perspective can be important. A telephoto tends to narrow the amount of surroundings you see with a close shot. A wide-angle up close will allow the subject to be emphasized yet still show the surroundings, now smaller in size but larger in scope.
  • environment-4A telephoto perspective can help with larger subjects by compressing distance and bringing in and enlarging important background elements that connect the subject to its environment.
  • environment-3Composition can be challenging. When you include more "stuff" in a photo, and adding environment is doing exactly that, you have to become very aware of what that stuff is doing. It needs to connect to the subject visually without taking away from it. This is one area that a wide-angle up close can help. By getting close to your subject with a wide-angle, you also shrink the size relationship of the background. That often results in allowing more sky to show up, a simple background to your subject, while still keeping environment.

environment-5I hope you will consider adding environment to your natural subjects. I am not suggesting this as a replacement to other photography – that is still important. This is an addition to your toolkit of photographic approaches.

I won't tell you that this will help you get a better response at the camera club compositions. In fact, you might get a worse response – realize that most photographers really aren't used to this sort of nature photography and will often discount it rather than try to understand it.

Do it anyway! Nature deserves this approach, too!


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