Here is a sampling of photos from my recent trip to Minnesota. I am working to find images and compositions true to the area and authentic to Minnesota nature rather than simply taking generic nature photography ideas and applying them to Minnesota.
Many years ago when I was trying to really understand how photos worked, I used to spend time going through published photos and analyzing them carefully. How did this photographer use space? Why did this photographer put the subject there? What did the use of a particular focal length do for an image?
That was very helpful to me, so I am am starting a new series that looks at specific photos I have taken and then takes them apart, deconstructs them, explodes them, to look at what is happening in them and why I might have done what I did. That’s always a little dangerous because that requires one to accept a certain amount of vulnerability. I hope this helps you as well.
This photo was taken at dawn in the Santa Monica Mountains. The early light has just reached this rocky ridge and still features a strong warmth to it. This is a great example of why it is important to use a specific white balance and not rely on auto white balance outdoors. Auto white balance would remove that warm color cast, but it would also fool you because the photo would still look “okay.” Unfortunately, that very important color would not be there and most photographers would not fix it in Lightroom or Camera Raw because the photo would look “okay.” The warm colors have an important cold/warm color contrast with the sky color.
The highly directional light with strong shadows is very important to the image. It creates that strong presence to the rough rock at the bottom of the image, which then has an interesting contrast to the differently textured sky. Texture contrasts can be an important part of nature photography.
This image is a little unusual for me in that it is cropped from a horizontal. I needed a vertical for a book project I am working on now (more about that as I go along), and I really liked what was happening with the light in this image, so I decided to check out what might happen with a vertical from the original shot.
I like the original horizontal. The light is very important and gives the scene a lot of life. In addition, I love the wonderful pattern of the sky. But I had no vertical of this. I find I don’t shoot as many verticals as I used to (not necessarily a good thing), largely because these days, I need verticals much less. Digital slideshows favor horizontals, as do a number of digital projects I have been working on.
I like the way the vertical abstracts the scene, yet still gives a feeling of place. I am personally not attuned to doing abstracts divorced from their reality (some people love this and do it very well). But I do like a simple, abstract sort of design to a composition that still holds a reference to the original scene as the vertical does. Notice, though, I am not trying to hold the whole rock formation at the left. That was important to the horizontal, but not to the vertical. Actually, I kind of like the strength of the simplicity of the vertical.
The vertical creates a very strong spatial relationship of ground to sky in the composition now. That was in the original horizontal, but not to the degree it is now. I also love the hint of bush at the right that adds a visual counterpoint to both rock and sky. It really helps that that bush is in the shadow and silhouetted against the sky.
The large space used by the sky is important because it creates an interesting dynamic to the relationship of sky and ground. There is a tension from the use of space that keeps the viewer connected to the image. It also strongly creates a feeling of looking up across the scene.
Something else that is quite interesting about this image for me. The original was shot with a 9-18mm lens (Micro Four Thirds; equivalent in 35mm-full-frame would be 18-36mm, and APS-C would be 12-24mm). I am finding that I don’t use that lens much anymore. I used to use that focal length range a lot, but now I seem to be gravitating more to the 12mm focal length for wide shots (35mmFF – 24mm; APS-C – 16mm). The cropped shot is closer to 12mm.
Or maybe I am coming back to it. I used to love this focal length and it was my go-to focal length for many, many years when shooting film. The very wide focal lengths do some interesting things, but I am less interested today in such extreme effects. The 12mm works very well for me to give a strong wide-angle effect without being too strong for me.
Since my mom passed away last March, I have really struggled to keep up my podcast. I have realized that it is just too big a chunk of time for me right now.
I have always had a tendency to try to do too much, too many things. I find life interesting when I am actively involved in a variety of things. But I am learning, probably a little late in life but better late than never, that I need to better focus on what is really important and simplify my life and work a bit. My mom’s death, the last of my parents, really made me think in some good ways about what I can and cannot do, what is and isn’t really important in my life and work.
So for now, I am stopping doing my podcast. I really thank all of you who have listened. It was fun. I did enjoy it. But it just sucked up too much time for the many things I am involved with, so I have to stop.
I am starting up a new series, though, for this blog that really fits me and who I am, plus takes much less time than a podcast. It will be about deconstructing and “exploding” photos to take them apart and look at what makes them tick.
When my mom passed away recently, this really got me thinking about what is really important in my work, my photography, my connection to the world and especially nature. The memorial service was on March 20, and though it was sad to say goodbye to my mom, we made the service a celebration of her life. The colored sketch above is from my Mom’s sketchbook. My mom’s life is easy to celebrate because it was long and full. She was a loving mom and a bit of a character.
It is that “bit of a character” that is important here. This was not some new thing she picked up as she got older. It was always part of her life. I tell a number of stories about her quirky eccentricity in the podcast. These stories show how mom engaged life. Mom engaged life in a way that was uniquely hers.
This was an important reminder to me how important it is to engage life in a way unique to each of us. This is really true for any creative endeavor, and that definitely includes photography. We don’t always do that because of our fears and insecurities.
There is a song that was popular a little while ago by the group Nickleback that talks about how we approach life. Mom’s life and death makes the words of that song even more meaningful to me.
If today was your last day
If tomorrow was too late
Could you say goodbye to yesterday
Would you live each moment like your last
That so fit my mom. She did not live in the past and lived fully in today. She was always present and part of the world.
The song also says:
You know it’s never too late
To shoot for the stars
Regardless of who you are
So do whatever it takes
Cause you can’t rewind
A moment in this life
Let nothing stand in your way
Mom was always very supportive of my work and loved it when I shared my books and my photography. She loved it when sent photographs from the work and places and nature wherever that was. Her death has made me really think about what is important in my work and what I really need to do.
This episode also includes a bit about dealing with cold weather and camera gear. While spring is “here”, it is still quite cold up north as was very clear to me when I went to Maine for my mom.
Are you in your photography? The choices you make are not necessarily your own. How much are they influenced by friends and relatives, advertisements, things you “should” do? Rather than your choices truly and freely being yours. That’s how a photographer develops a personal vision and style.
This session also includes a section on simplifying f-stop choice.
Plus a segment on some of the odd things being done in the name of “nature photography” on the Internet today, such as this frog and beetle.
In this podcast, I talk a bit about how important it is to follow your needs when buying gear and I use two recent examples of my purchases to illustrate. Here is a shot showing why I wanted a 150mm f/2.8 lens for close-ups:
I also promised a little more background on my past gear use. So often you see gear from pros and there is no context to help you understand why they made the choices they did. So I want to include that context – to understand my gear choices, you need to know a little background. My choices are far from arbitrary and reflect very real needs for my work.
When digital first started, I was working as editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. I got the chance to try out all sorts of gear from every manufacturer, but I could not afford to buy a DSLR at first (they were very, very expensive). So I started out with a Canon PowerShot G2.
The G2 was a compact digital camera that had every bit the capabilities of a DSLR but it did not have interchangeable lenses. I loved two things, the tilting “live view” LCD (this was way before the true DSLR Live View, but technically, it was live view because it was showing what was coming from the sensor), plus its built in close focusing capabilities.
Unfortunately, the camera had limited capabilities for its focal length range. I wanted to have the capabilities of shooting with more. This particular camera had an adapter that allowed you to add accessory wide-angle and telephoto lenses. This helped.
I found the optical viewfinder not of much use and so mainly used the tilting LCD. I really got to know the potential of using a tilting LCD. I loved it.
DSLR Live View
When DSLR prices came down, I definitely wanted a camera with interchangeable lenses so I bought a Canon Digital Rebel (APS-C). I could afford that, plus I had Canon lenses from my film gear. It acted like a film camera, which was okay, but I missed the tilting “live view” LCD.
Then Olympus came out with the first DSLR with a tilting, Live View LCD. This was perfect for me. Although they ran the Live View off of a second sensor, it showed pretty much what the camera sensor saw through the lens and now I had the tilting Live View. I totally abandoned my Canon gear and invested in this new Olympus digital camera system. I loved everything about it, so I stayed within the system and got an Olympus E-3 (Four Thirds). This had an even better, true Live View with a swivel LCD.
Change to Video
I had shot video professionally in the 1980s and 1990s, so when Canon came out with high quality HD video in their DSLRs, I went back to Canon. In the days of standard video, I never liked shooting nature because the image quality was never that great. With HD video, this all changed.
So I got a Canon EOS 7D. It was a great little camera, but I missed the tilting LCD. Then Canon came out with the 60D. This camera had the same sensor and internal processing as the 7D, but it had that tilting LCD! I bought it and quit using the 7D even though the build quality of the 7D was “better.”
Tired of Big Gear
Then I went to Costa Rica to do a workshop and photograph in the amazing rainforest there. I had all of my Canon APS-C gear on my back much of the time. I just got tired of dealing with it, including dealing with it going through the airport and flying. Costa Rica was fun, but the gear weighed too much!
At the time, mirrorless cameras were gaining traction on the market. Because these cameras have no mirror in them, the camera bodies can be made smaller and less expensive, plus lenses can be designed specifically for them that are also smaller and less expensive for equal quality.
I decided to try out the Sony NEX system, which was APS-C format mirrorless gear. I was able to get a camera with a sensor very similar to my Canon gear plus lenses and it all fit into a smaller, far more lightweight backpack. The cameras had tilting LCDs, too. I was not completely happy with the way the Sony handled, especially the way the controls were set up and were so dependent on the LCD. I also felt limited by the range of lenses and accessories available for the system.
My Present Gear
Because of my experience as an editor of a major photographic publication, I had the opportunity to try out a Panasonic Lumix GH3 with a couple of its latest and most modern lenses. I fell in love with this camera. It felt good in my hands, not unbalanced like the Sony cameras always did, the controls were accessible and easy to use, plus there was an outstanding selection of lenses available. This is a mirrorless Micro Four Thirds (MFT) camera. MFT has a smaller sensor than either 35mm-full-frame or APS-C, giving it a focal length factor of 2x compared to 35mm-full-frame. That means that a 50mm lens, for example, on MFT is equivalent in angle of view to 100mm on 35mm-full-frame.
The cool thing about cameras in the MFT system is that you can use lenses and accessories from both Panasonic (which includes some Leica designed lenses) and Olympus (which has long had a strong reputation for quality lenses). You can even get adapters to put almost any camera lens on the body. This gave me a wonderful range of lenses to choose from. And since this was mirrorless MFT, all of the gear was extremely small and lightweight. I no longer struggled with a heavy pack on my back when I was out shooting.
The GH3 had a high-resolution, bright swivel LCD for Live View, and it shot some of the highest quality video available from any DSLR at any price. In addition, this was a true pro body that was built to extremely rugged standards, plus there were Pro series lenses available for it as well. I had considered the Olympus OM-D cameras¾excellent, high quality camera bodies⎯but they didn’t have the video quality that I needed at the time.
So here’s my core set of camera gear:
Panasonic Lumix GH3 and LX100
The LX100 is a full-featured compact digital MFT camera with a fixed 10.9-34mm f/1.7-2.8 lens which focuses to 3 cm at the widest focal length.
Bower 7.5mm f/3.5 fisheye (this focuses to 4 inches)
Lumix 12-35mm f/2.8 (constant aperture zoom that focuses to 10 inches)
Olympus 60mm f/2.8 macro
Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 lens
Nikon 300mm f/4 manual focus (an adapted lens with the equivalent of a 600mm f/4 lens on 35mm-full-frame for a fraction of the cost and weight)
Gitzo tripod with Really Right Stuff head (these are the smaller versions because I don’t need a heavy tripod with this gear)
MePhoto monopod with Really Right Stuff head
Why I Have to Have a Tilting LCD
I have always loved getting down low and right in there with my subjects, from landscapes to close-ups, two of the main subjects in my work. When tilting LCDs became available, I fell in love with them immediately. They enabled me to put my camera into places that was difficult to do otherwise. I could set up my tripod at any height beyond simply at eye level and not be uncomfortable looking through the viewfinder. Waist level, no problem! Higher than my head, no problem! This has become so much a part of my workflow in shooting in the field that I really cannot work without a tilting or swivel LCD.
My LX100 does not have a tilting LCD, however, it is very viewable at varied angles, plus it can link to my smartphone so that it can be used as the camera’s LCD. That makes the viewing through this camera very handy.
A lot of people comment about how hard it can be to see your LCD in bright light. While that is true, it is a lot less true today than it used to be. The newest cameras have very bright LCDs that are usable even in bright light. I always wear a hat and use my hat at times to shield the LCD when the light is giving me a problem. This is not as big an issue for landscape photography because a lot of landscape work is done early and late in the day when bright light on the LCD is not a problem.
Here’s a chance to check out my nature photography podcast without listening to the whole thing. This is a short bit about using a telephoto lens for close ups.
This photo of an anole was shot with a 300mm lens and extension tubes on my MFT camera, the Panasonic GH3.
Choice is what it is all about when it comes to the craft of photography. How you make those choices affects how you control the image. Always remember that the camera does not see the world the way we do and must be controlled in order to create images you want. In this podcast, I talk a bit about choices, including one very important one that many photographers don’t make.
In the craft section, I offer some ideas on why and how to use a strong telephoto lens for close-up work. You will need either extension tubes or an achromatic close-up lens (Canon makes a good one that will fit any lens – these accessories screw into the filter ring of your lens). The photo of the anole displaying above is shot with a 300mm lens with extension tubes on my Panasonic GH3. In the nature section, I give a little overview of the chaparral, an important landscape and ecosystem of California that people don’t know.
I just got back from Florida. I was at FotoFusion at the Palm Beach Photographic Centre in West Palm Beach doing some presentations, then I was doing a bit of nature photography there and up by Orlando with some friends. In this podcast, I talk a bit about nature and photography in Florida. It really is a great place for nature photographers and worth a visit at some point.
I will be back at the Palm Beach Photographic Centre in March for some classes in Lightroom and close-up and macro work. You can see them at www.workshop.org.
Locations noted in the podcast include:
- Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge
- Grassy Waters Nature Preserve
- J.W. Corbett Wildlife Area (photo above)
- Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
- Canaveral National Seashore
- Anastasia State Park
- Highway A1A north of Jacksonville
- Apalachicola National Forest
- Blue Spring State Park.
I forgot to mention a really excellent bird photography area, the Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Delray Beach – I didn’t get there this time. And the Highlands Hammock State Park (photo below) which I did visit for the first time.
I looked up the proportion of the Everglades National Park to the Everglades as a whole. The park includes about 20% of the southernmost parts of the Everglades. If you are interested in learning more about the Everglades as a whole, I highly recommend the book, The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise, by Michael Grunwald.
When I am out photographing nature, I like to work for a complete picture of a location. These two photos from the same area of Great Basin National Park give a more complete view of the location than either image alone.
For me, this approach brings a deeper connection to place – visually, emotionally and personally. I know from experience as editor and teacher, this is not the norm. Nature photography that is reduced to trophy hunting doesn’t interest me. That doesn’t connect me to a place or even to nature, and it doesn’t connect others either.
When I look to photograph a complete picture of a place, I find more to photograp. Looking for both variety of subject matter and variety of photography also helps when conditions are challenging for the area.
For the craft section of this podcast, I offer some ideas on getting sharper photos when you don’t have a tripod with you. And winter and some of its photo opps are in the nature section.