Thursday, February 25, 2010

When You Least Expect It......

Over the years I have learned that some of the best photos appear in front of you when you least expect it. More importantly , they appear when you are the least prepared. The frustration of this all came to head for me back in the 80's, when I began taking long walks into areas rich with wildlife. Inevitably, I would come accross some amazing sights and have no camera with me, or not have the right lense to get the shot. Some of the most interesting images were just never captured, because I didn't plan ahead.

Today I like to think I am more prepared and more excited about the possibilities that present themselves. Lot's of things have changed, and perhaps the most important is the increased range and quality of zoom lenses. While most serious photographers have ignored zooms in the past, today we all recognize the advantages they give, and we are excxited by the quality of images they now provide. My camera is now mounted with an 18 - 200 zoom, which allows me to frame so many scenes that a fixed focal length lense would not. The size and weight of both cameras and lenses have decreased to a point that none of us really have an excuse for not carrying our equipment most of the time. No camera......No shot!

I am one of those guys who like to poke around. I love to investigate what is inside of the old barns and old abandon houses. Yes, sometimes I am surprized by the resident racoon or snake, but often I am greeted by something interesting, like the dove pictured above. Finding these hidden treasures is exciting and keeps me looking for more. It's like turning a corner and finding a gift with your name on it. Who doesn't like an unexpected gift?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Magic of Light

Last week I had the chance to visit Savannah Wildlife Refuge, which has always been one of my very favorite places to shoot. It's one of those magical places that I found years ago, and I seem to visit there at least two or three times each year. I think I love it so much because I usually have the refuge to myself. It is not one of those that is frequented by throngs of people. Although located just minutes from downtown Savannah, it seems to be ignored by most of the locals.

On this trip I concentrated my shooting to the early morning. I arrived each morning at 6:00am, which is about a half hour before sunrise. Stopping for my usual coffee, I would head out to a predertermined location on the refuge selected for directional lighting and tide movement. In this refuge, tides make a huge difference in your outcome. Knowing the tides is extremely important in determining where you need to be to capture birds. My subjects know exactly where the food source will be at any given time based on the tidal movement. Obviously, I need to have that same information.

Dawn is a great time to be in any marsh. As the light begins to break, the marsh comes alive for a new day. Waterfowl begin lifting off the water, herons and egrets leave the rookeries, and waves of birds flash through the marsh. It really is a wonderful place to be. I feel sorry for people who never take the time to enjoy these sights. Nature is incredible, and it's sad that so many people today just don't take the time to soak it all in. Dawn in a marsh is like a powerful drug that somehow has the ability to heal us. Although not approved by the FDA, trust me, it has healing powers.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

More Than a Portrait

When I first began to look at bird photography many years ago, I noticed that, for the most part, bird photographers were all about creating bird portraits. The focus was clear on snapping a picture of a bird as close as one could get and filling the frame with the bird. These are the kind of photographs we still see today in bird identification books. They provide us with a good intensive study of the shape and color of a particular species. They are, however, pretty boring photos. They do nothing to stimulate the senses, and they rarely have the "Wow factor."

Although the vast majority of my work has been with birds, I like to think of my photos as landscapes rather than portraits. In most of my photos I ask the question of the viewer, "Is this a photo of a bird or is it more a study of the habitat?" While I love to capture a beautiful bird, I almost never want the bird to be the focus of the photo. Yes, the bird is certainly a critical part of the photograph, but he is just that.......a part of the photo. I never want the bird to be the photo. I very much like the viewer to scan the photo in its' entirity, looking at all of the photo and then gettng the "Wow factor."

The photographs that tend to blow us away have interest in many areas of the image. They give us a story, and they ask us questions. "Is this a bird photo or am I looking at something much more?"

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Keeping It Simple Can Produce the Best Results

Many of the photos I've taken over the years have been pretty simple compositions. In these images my goal has been to produce meaningful and timely art. For other nature photographers the goal may be quite different. While some seek to capture a moment in time, others may look to document a species or perhaps influence a public cause. I have to admit that my personal goals have not taken either of those directions. Instead, as I mentioned in one of my earlier posts, my goal has always been and remains today to create photographic fine art.

I believe fine art requires an adherance to some basic principles of design and compostition. That should not be interpreted as an artist must be placed into a box that leaves no room to move. Quite the contrary. But, without the presence of some basic constructs of design, I don't honestly feel that a piece can be enduring in the fine art genre. There are, of course , others who will argue the point, and I respect the other points of view. I am just sharing my own here.

Photography, in order to be considered fine art, cannot be of the snapshot mentality. It must be composed and thought through in a manner consistant with accepted principles of composition, design, color , and perhaps even presentation. A quick examination of some art history books will illustrate this point. Great paintings live on through history for a reason. They convey not only the subject, but they demonstrate the knowledge and the expertise of the artist. Fine art photography should do the same.

One very simple lesson I use to pound into my students is "Less is More." Capturing an image without frills, one that contains only the essentials necessary to complete the compostion, can be the most rewarding. So many photographs seem over-powered by the content. In the midst of all the stuff, the subject gets lost and the photo loses its' power. It doesn't have to be that way. We really can free ourselves from the traditional nature photo, and we can begin shooting meaningful and lasting works of art. Sometimes all it takes is to look for simple subjects and then clean away all the clutter. Not a bad idea for our lives as well.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Clarity in Your Photos

In some earlier posts, I have talked about light and its' power when it comes to making a photograph special. It clearly can set a mood and bring about a response from the viewer, but it can do some subtle things as well.

Getting really sharp photos is the result of a number of things, not the least of which is starting out with a good lense. Without high quality lenses, it is really impossible to achieve the kind of results that pros demand in their work. So, that said, let's assume we all have good glass. Other factors, of course come into play in gettng a sharp photo. Camera movement is certainly the biggest issue for most photographers. A good tripod and making sure that a sufficently high shutter speed has been selected can go a long way to resolving this problem. In todays' digital world, ISO settings can also play a factor in sharpness. Using extremely high ISO's can create noisy images that degrade the overall sharpness. The lower you set your ISO, the cleaner your images will be and the sharper they will appear, if only because they lack noise distortion.

Something that is often overlooked in our quest for clarity and sharpness is the lighting source for our photos. While direct lighting does little for our images, cross lighting, light coming to our subject from a low side angle, can accually help with sharpness. While it does nothing to effect camera movement or accurate focus, it does increase contrast in our photos and make our shots appear even sharper. This is particularly true when our subject is full of texture. ( the feathers of bird, the bark of a tree, a pile of leaves, etc.)

Perhaps the next time you look to shoot something special you'll think about the light and just how it might help you achieve your goal. Thinking about our shots in advance is the best way to improve the end result. The big difference between the pros and the weekend shooters is that the pros give projects some thought.........the others just shoot away. Taking the time to think through a shot can really make a difference in how you shoot and how people see your photography.

Monday, February 8, 2010

It's All About Reading the Light

My files are full of thousands of photographs that I am pleased to have taken, but only a few move me in a way that gives me a thrill. Those photos have something special going for them.......they have the magic light. We all know about the special quality of light coming at sunrise or close to sunset. Books on photography tell us the importance of shooting during these times.

Sometimes, however, we can still capture beautifully lit scenes in the middle of the day. This cyote was photographed in the middle of the afternoon on an overcast day that was occassionally interrupted with some sunshine. I followed this cyote for several hours carrying my 600mm and tripod. Just when I had about given up, I caught a break and the sun hit him. I snapped off a dozen or so frames before the glume of the day returned. What had been an otherwise uneventfully morning turned into a magical moment.

Waiting for the light can be boring. It sometimes pushed us all into a place we don't like to see ourselves. But.....sometimes really good things come to those who wait.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

A Wildflower Story

Several years ago my wife and I moved into a residential neighborhood just outside of town. The area had been a farming area, but was being developed into home sites for folks like us. We were one of the first homes built in this area, and so most of the land around us remained in a natural state. Just up the road was a field that had grown into weeds that stood over six feet tall, and became one of my favorite spots to find and photograph birds.

Late one summer I arrived on the scene to discover that the entire meadow had been mowed right down to the bare ground. What had once been my favorite birding habitat, now looked like something that would never hold interest for me again. But, I was wrong.

In late September I decided to grab the camera and head out for a walk, and I found myself back at my favorite old spot. What I saw was amazing. Apparently, hiding under all of those tall weeds were thousands of wildflower seeds just waiting for the chance to germinate. Once the weeds had been cut and the sunlight could penetrate, the seeds found the strength to blossom into an incredible floral display. As though planted by some award winning landscape architech, the array and diversity of flowers transformed the field into one of the most dynamic photographic scenes I had ever witnessed. Not only was it beautiful, but the birds loved it.

Maybe a lesson can be learned from this..........sometimes it pays to take a second or even a third look at things. They may not always look the same on a different day.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Breaking the Laws of Nature Photography

Long ago I was told that a good nature photographer had to make sure that nothing manmade appeared in his photographs. No bird feeders, no buildings, no cars, no barns.......nothing manmade was the rule, and it was a rule that most top nature photographers followed. The idea was to capture nature in its' raw state. A nature photo was suppose to transport us to a place yet undiscovered by man.

Like so many others, I tried that for a number of years. I managed to capture some interesting shots, but it pains me now to think of all the great ones I missed. The ones I missed because I stuck to the rules. Today......that has changed! No more rules for this photographer! My goals have changed, and my direction has turned onto an entirely new path. Now, I am after the most interesting shot, and I don't care where I might find it. I am certainly not going to pass up a shot because of where the subject might be. In fact, I now look for those interesting places where my subject is not suppose to be. I seek out the spot that makes the viewer ask, "How did you find him there?"

The answer, of course, is simple. I have opened my eyes to a broader world. I am allowing myself to look into the shadows and find the unexpected. I have made a concious decision to break the rules. You would be surprised to see what is all around us, if only we take the time to look........really LOOK.

Shooting Flowers with the Long Lense

There are lots of ways to photograph flowers, and while most photographers like to reach for their macro lense, I have always preferred a longer lens. Telephoto lenses in the range of 200 to 300mm are my personal choice for capturing the quality of image that I like to see from the garden. Just as with my bird photography, I like to control depth of field in my photos, and I think a telephoto lense is by far the best way to achieve what I am after. Telephotos limit depth of field to a very narrow window, and in doing so produce wonderful soft and muted backgrounds. The trick , of course, is to selecting an F stop that is going to keep the primary flower in sharp focus, while eliminating distracting background detail. Experimenting with various combinations of F stop and shutter speed can be fun and instructive. As the Spring flowers begin to bloom, why not give it a try. I think you might just be thrilled with what you come up with. Good Luck.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Looking in a New Direction

Sometimes we need to change our view and see things differently. As a bird photographer, I spend most of my time looking up. But lately........I found myself looking down, and I discovered a new world at my feet. It's too easy for us to get stuck in a place that is comfortable . So, I have decided to begin looking in some new directions.......and maybe I will discover some new wonders around me.

Attracting Birds to Your Yard

I thought I would share something pretty basic with everyone today. The concept of a "Feeder Station." Lot's of folks think if they just hang up a feeder, the birds will come. While that may hold true, by creating a Feeding Station, you will attract more birds and a much bigger variety as well. Here's one of mine, and it seems to work very well. It's designed with three different kinds of feeders and a heated water source. I have also incorporated some natural perching features that seem to make everyone more at home. As for food......I use lots of variety aimed at different species. Songbirds really need our help. Habitat is disappearing and neighborhood cats kill thousands of birds every day. Anything we can do to help them out is a good thing. Let's all be good to our birds today.

When Meters Just Won't Work

Modern camera equipment has made most of us lazy. Even the pro level cameras are full of auto settings that make us too reliant on the equipment, and less focused on the skills that have made us good photographers. While the auto settings on most of today's cameras do an outstanding job of capturing an image, there are those times when the nature of the scene just cannot be captured in Auto Mode. It's at these moments we learn just what our skill level really is. I have included a few examples of shots that needed much more than an automatic setting on a camera. Here I had to go back to the basics of exposure, where one has to "think". Too bad so many photographers today have either not learned these skills, or have decided to just trust the camera for all of the decisions.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Caney Creek Falls, Tennessee

This is one of the really difficult waterfalls to get to here in the mountains of east Tennessee. Hiking in at dawn to photograph is a gamble at best, and this time the fog made it very difficult. I do, however, like the resulting shot. Don't attempt this trail if you are not in very good shape.

A Smokey Mountain Sunrise

An early morning in the Smokies can be magical. Sometimes a good photo is all about the light and how it plays with the surrounding foilage. The rest is often.....just luck.

Seeing Subjects With Painterly Eyes

For as long as I can remember, I have been drawn to painters. At a very early age, I remember clearly going to the library and heading straight to the art section, where I could spend hours looking through art history books. I was then, and continue to be today, in awe of the really great painters, who have created incredible works that have demonstrated the test of time.

I think, when I chose photography as my way of expressing my own creativity, I knew that I wanted my photos to have those same elements of design and composition that I saw in the work of the great masters. So the journey began for me to discover what it was about the truly outstanding paintings that made me want to view them over and over again.

Hopefully, today my photographs convey what I often refer to as a "painterly quality." I often hear from folks that my photos look so much like paintings rather than photographs. I love that, as it means I am on track with what I sat out to achieve so many years ago. For me, it means that each time I look through the lense of my camera, I am seeking to compose a masterful painting. I am looking for the magical light, the perfect balance of composition and color, and an image that expresses a very special moment in time. It's really never about the moment of capture, but always about the thought process that comes before the shot.

A Simple Introduction

It seems impossible to me, but I have now been involved in photography for over forty years. I am not at all sure how those years have passed so quickly, but looking in the mirror or stepping onto the scales tells me instantly that they have, indeed, passed. The good thing is that I have learned some things over the years that I hope to share in this blog with those of you out there who choose to follow. Hopefully, together we can learn a few things about photography, and maybe about life. This blog, I hope, will be like life itself.......a journey of exploration. I hope you will join me and tell your friends to come along as well.