The Big Picture

Newborn Red Dog fbIf your goal is like mine, to take great images of the natural world, let’s take a moment to think about how we look at the world in general, before you even pick up that camera. Take a pretend step forward  just for a minute and imagine that you already know everything you need to know about working with your camera and that you have in your possession all the equipment you will ever need.  This might be a small step for some, and huge leap for others, but it doesn’t matter. Relax, and let’s look at the big picture for a minute.

Good photographs are more than the sum of tools and technique. An image can be technically correct in every way, and still be boring.  A good photograph tells a story.  The image itself gives us some insight into what life was like for that brief moment in time.

Good photographers are visual story tellers. Their images tell a story without saying a word – no caption necessary.  To begin thinking about where you find these stories, you might start with this age old question: Are we a part from the natural world (human exceptional-ism) or are we a part of it? How you answer will influence the way you see and photograph the natural world.  I suspect that most people taking the time to read this far consider themselves in the “a part of” camp.  I like to think of myself that way too. I extend that theory to almost all members of the animal kingdom but I do have to admit that I sort of draw a line with spiders.

This is an image I just took this weekend and it tells a story I’ve wanted to capture for some time now. Here you have a newborn with umbilical cord attached and mother’s milk on its mouth, bonding with mom and depending upon her protection.  Now that’s a sweet story 🙂

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Steps in learning to be a skilled nature and wildlife photographer.

Scarface the indomitable spirit

Someone once said to me “I want to go where you go, see what you’ve seen!”  While it is true that you have to get out there (a lot) in order to find great subjects to photograph, that certainly isn’t all there is to making a great nature photo. On any given day in Yellowstone something spectacular happens. You have to be there to catch it and I would be a wealthy woman if I had a dollar for every time someone said to me “you should have been here 5 minutes ago or an hour ago or yesterday”.

When those opportunities do happen and you are there to witness it, a beginner simply points and shoots; they are happy with an image which simply says “I saw this”.  An intermediate begins to understand his or her camera’s operations and how to use it creatively, but they are still hoping to take primarily head shots or documentaries.  An advanced amateur has begun to understand the concept of emotional, behavioral and environmental context – they seek to tell the story.  The biggest difference between an advanced amateur and a pro is simply time in the field!

So if you are looking to up your game and get those great images, here is what I suggest you focus on:

Master the exposure triangle.

Shoot with sharp in mind.

Become a naturalist.

Learn patience and perseverance.

Make good use of available light.

Compose with purpose.

None of these are simple or easy but they are all very important and interdependent.  This blog is dedicated to helping you find your way!



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Why Aren’t My Images Sharp?

You are using a tripod aren’t you?  If you are often disappointed that your images are just a little blurry or not as sharp as everyone else, consider the tripod.  Tripods are a novice’s most neglected asset.  A beginner does not own one.  An intermediate owns a rickety one.  A serious photographer owns at least one sturdy good one.  A sturdy tripod is as essential as the camera and the lens! 

Legs: A sturdy tripod should be able to raise the legs above eye level without use of the center post – think about setting it up on a steep slope. The legs should operate easily.  Aluminum legs are cheaper and heavier, the alternative is carbon fiber legs.  They are much lighter and unfortunately more expensive (well worth the upgrade though).  Legs generally come in section which can be lengthened or shortened by either a clasp closure or a ring lock. This is personal preference.  I prefer the rings as I can pinch fingers with the clasps. Others like the clasp because it is easier to see that they are indeed closed.

Center Post: Please don’t buy a tripod where the legs aren’t long enough on their own for you bring the camera up to a comfortable eye level without using its center post.  A center post is only for stability while carrying it.  It is not stable enough to raise and shoot from because when you raise the center post it changes the center of gravity and the whole tripod is less stable.

Heads: A tripod head is usually sold separately so you will have some other choices to make.  Regardless of how it operates, it should have a quick release mechanism or plate which attaches to your camera or lens mount.  This plate stays put even when the camera is off the tripod.   The head you choose should be easy to operate and support your heaviest lens.  Every respectable head should allow you to Pan side to side, tilt and switch to vertical from horizontal.  There are three basic types of mechanisms, the most common of which is a Ball head with 3 way pan tilt. This will have three different levers or knobs you have to adjust to get set.  Your second option, and my personal favorite, is the ball head with a pistol grip.  It is a one hand squeeze and head moves where ever you want to go.  Release and it is set.  Finally, for the heavier large telephoto lenses, a Gimbal or Wimberly head is the only way to go.

REMEMBER: The heavier and more difficult the tripod is to use, the less likely you are to use it. A tripod is as essential as the camera and well worth the investment. Many students complain that the tripod slows them down. To that I say: Yeah, that’s the point!  It slows you down and gives you time to think about your settings and what you are doing. It reminds you that you care enough about your images to make them sharp! Meg_sq


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What’s your favorite subject to photograph?

People, pets, wildlife, nature?

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Happy Spring!

Finally, Spring has arrived!

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Tail Feathers

When the wolves kill an elk or bison in Yellowstone, many other birds and animals benefit too.  Generally within an hour of the prey’s death, ravens have discovered it and other scavengers are soon to follow. They all try to find a way to get their share.

Last March I was watching the parade of scavengers at a kill site, waiting for the main attraction (wolves) to return.  As I watched I saw something pretty remarkable.  A bald eagle had flown to the carcass, grabbed a chunk and retreated to a hillside.  Within minutes there were magpies and ravens all around the eagle.  First, a magpie made a daring move to distract the eagle from its meal – it pulled on his tail feathers:

The eagle ignored the magpie, you can see the eagle working on his morsel between his feet and his beak. But then a raven stepped in to play the same dangerous  game:

You can just see the red meat between the other two ravens.

It did not take long for the eagle to turn on the raven who was pestering him.  Unfortunately for the eagle, the ravens kept it up.

Eventually the eagle flew away, leaving at least one successful raven behind (see the meat in the raven’s mouth?)

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How Steady are You Really!

Think you can hand hold anything?  Experiment.  Go outside, choose a subject and test your self by shooting a few frames handheld and same subject again with a tripod. Look at them closely on the computer.  You will see a difference.

Here is another test you can do.  Find something you can use like this bulls eye. Take a pin light flashlight or laser pointer and step way back.  Point the light on the target and see how difficult it is to hold the little light steady. Now image you have a much heavier camera and lens in your hand.  How steady are you?

Remember also the further you are from your subject, the greater the effect  any shake will have on the image.

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Get Ready

Keep your equipment organized so that you can find it when you need it quickly.  Sounds simple, yes?  I don’t think it is.  You need a system that works for you.  It took me several years to develop mine, but here is what I do.

I have two boxes in which I have put dividers (covered in soft fabric) one box is for lens and the like and the other I use for all the other gear we carry.  I like the boxes to be able to quickly pull out like a drawer. Above the boxes sit my lens racks with lens mounted and camera bodies attached, cards empty and batteries charged.  (On the dash of the car I keep a 100-400 mounted and a 28-135 mounted as well.  If you are counting, that’s 4 camera bodies.  Several of which I would not use by choice if I have time to change the body out to a better camera I will, but if not, I’m ready.

I have also built a tripod rack so that both of my tripods can ride fully extended and ready to go. Any idea how much time you loose as you are trying to set up your tripod? Me neither, but that time is precious and you don’t need to waste it fumbling with the tripod!

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Stop the Car

When you are looking for wildlife, most people look too casually.  Stop the car, get out and really look.  If you have binoculars, by all means use them. Focus your thoughts on finding something, anything.  Once you find something, you will begin to see others because you  are focused.

Look for movement.  You may not be able to anticipate how big or small something like a bear or wolf will look like at the distance your are scanning. If you see it move though, that catches your attention and you can focus on it to see what it is.   Just because it might be too far away to photograph when you see it initially, watch it.  It may come closer, you never know!

Look for colors that seem out of place.  This is a little harder if you are unfamiliar with the area, but true none the less.  Is there a white patch where there is no snow?  Focus on it. Could it be an elk behind, a sheep,  mountain goat?  Wait for it to move. Animals eventually will, rocks don’t 🙂

Don’t look just once.  Look the area over several times, you will frequently be surprised to find what you missed the first time.

Finally,  look down as well as out.  Many times you will find something other than what you were looking for – but equally rewarding.

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What’s Your Favorite Kind of Weather?

What’s your favorite kind of weather? The question really is what light is the best for photographing animals?  The Chamber of Commerce kind of day where the sun is bright, the sky big blue and the birds are singing is not always the best for photography (unless you are shooting for the CC 🙂 Bright sunny mid days are often the harshest of light.  There will be the highest level of contrast between light and shadow.  And, most animals will be deep in the shade.

Contrast that with a spotted clouds. The clouds filter the bright sunlight, softens the contrast and also the shadows. On a partly cloudy day you can see this effect as the clouds move in front of the sun.  Wait a second or two for the clouds to move away.  See the difference?

Overcast days, cloudy but bright, are ideal for shooting detail and color saturation for everything from feathers to fur.   The sunlight is bouncing around in the clouds and is essentially coming from every direction but it is diffused and soft.  There will be very little shadow or contrast. My favorite kind of day!

Heavy  overcast, on the other hand, is generally very difficult. Light quality is so poor that your ISO may have to be boosted to get the kind of shutter speeds you need.

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