What Really Matters in Photography and Life

Moms gallairdia01When 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.

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011 Putting You Into Your Photography

You in PictureAre 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.

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010 A Gear Story and More

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:

150mm f2.8And here is a shot why I wanted the equivalent of 24mm for close-ups:

24mmThe craft section is about why centering is a problem for composition and the nature section is about early spring signs.

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!

Trying Mirrorless

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:

Camera bodies:

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

Several beanbags

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.


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Joy of Nature and Photography Podcast 009 Sample

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.

Mounts Botanic Garden, West Palm Beach, Florida

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009 Choices in Photography to Give You Control

Mounts Botanic Garden, West Palm Beach, FloridaChoice 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.

Some links:

Santa Monica Mountains


Edward Steichen

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008 Florida Nature and Photography

J. W. Corbett Wildlife Area, West Palm Beach, FloridaI 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.

FL 2I 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.

I mentioned Niall Benvie’s new book, You Are Not a Photocopier (a very nice book on better photography). And also Craftsy.com for photo classes.

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007 Complete Picture of a Location

Podcast 007 2 Podcast 007 1When 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. 

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006 – 10 Big Things I Learned in 2014

Joy JONAPSince it is the beginning of a new year, I thought it would be interesting to share 10 things I learned in 2014 that will definitely influence what I do in 2015. I hope this might give you some ideas about what has been important to you as well as offer some insights that might be useful to you as well. Here’s what I talk about in the podcast along with some people and links I reference during it.

  1. Meditation – I finally learned what meditation can really do to help me stay focused. My approach is very simple, but I have stayed with it. 10 Percent Happier by Dan Harris had a big influence on me seriously meditating as well as Success Through Stillness by Russell Simmons
  2. Multiple callings over time seem to make more sense now than thinking you just have one calling. Playing Big by Tara Sophia Mohr was a big influence.
  3. “It’s not for you” – Seth Godin got me thinking about the importance of this phrase.
  4. Good enough/great enough – Pat Flynn from the podcast Smart Passive Income helped me understand this.
  5. Surroundings are important – Art Wolfe started me thinking about this as we worked on the book, The Art of the Photograph, and in 2014, I worked to do something about it.

In a short break, I mention Bill Fortney’s book, A User’s Guide to Fuji’s X-System. Check it out at www.billfortney.com

  1. Power of the introvert – Influences: Quiet by Susan Cain, and Introvert Powe, by Laurie Helgoe.
  2. Amy Purdy and ParaOlympics – You have to check out Amy Purdy’s talk, Living Beyond Limits, at Ted Talks. Very inspirational.
  3. George Washington Carver – I was blown away by a visit to the George Washington Carver National Monument in Diamond, Missouri. What an amazing man, very spiritual with a deep connection to nature. A quote: I recall when just a boy just starting up to do art work that I longed to paint flowers so that they would speak to the beholder, and inspire and enthuse them to do great things.
  4. Bats – while my interest in bats started before 2014 in Austin, I have really gotten into them this past year. Hard to deal with photographically, but still quite interesting. Bats are a high proportion of all mammal species. Their echo location is amazing. Like a fish finder but magnified exponentially.
  5. Joy is important to life, photography and nature
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005 Story, LED Light, Mistletoe

StoryIn this episode, I talk about the importance of story to nature and photography and to ourselves. Story is important. It helps us make sense of the world. The photo above is from the Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge in the middle of the Nevada desert. The story of this place comes from the contrast of the cottonwood and water with the desert landscape in the background. This gives all important context for the photo.

Stories affect our photography and our connection in three key ways:

  1. Create stories about our connection to nature through photography and words.
  2. Stories we tell ourselves about nature and what it is. Is it scary? What about night? Spiders? Bats?
  3. Stories we tell ourselves and “know” about who we are.

I find story pretty interesting and it can have a big impact on what, why and how we photograph. This is all in the podcast.

Here is the link to my Craftsy.com class, Photographing Intimate Landscapes, that I mention in the podcast.

The podcast also includes a section on a new LED light, the F&V R300 (R300 is correct), I purchased and why an LED light might be useful to you. Plus, in keeping with the holidays just past, a bit about the natural history of mistletoe and why you might look for it this winter.

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004 Special Places – Overlooked Places for Photography

Yucca in chaparral, Santa Monica Mountains, CaliforniaIn this podcast, I talk about special places that we all can find near us that need us. They can connect us and others to such places through our photography. I love going places, seeing new things. But I also want to connect to the place where I live.

Of course, California has a lot and you might think that makes it easy. But I am not talking about the spectacular places that are some distance away. I am talking about locations near me, places that aren’t always seen by others. In fact, I have found stunning locations literally within driving distance of millions of people, yet I rarely see another serious photographer. My example is the chaparral, but everyone can give examples of nature near them that is under-photographed, under or even unappreciated, places others don’t “see”, yet our photography can help them see the nature there.

In the craft section, I give some tips for dealing with exposure challenges. And in the nature section, I talk about what connection to nature can mean and how that relates to us as photographers.

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