Camera Lens Degradation

Do you know the flowering plant often called kangaroo paw (or toes)? The flower buds are these long, fuzzy rounded tubes that remind people of kangaroo paws (sometimes names for natural things can be fun and a little crazy). I have some in my yard. I walked by them the other day and for some reason the scattered open flowers caught my eye. They were pretty wild. 

My iPhone was handy, plus a strong close-up lens attachment, and since the sun was leaving the flowers, I grabbed it for the photographs. When I tried photographing the flowers, I immediately knew I had a problem. The wind was blowing, making the flowers bounce around, plus I was having trouble steadying the iPhone with its camera up this close. When you get close, any camera movement is magnified greatly. I also had little control over the iPhone’s shutter speed to maybe stop this chaos of movement. 

The result … the photos were blurry and unusable. Except for my blog! Anyway, a combination of camera movement during exposure, plus subject movement made the camera and lens look bad, even though it really was my fault.

Enlarged

Lenses are critical to our work as photographers. Without a lens, we cannot create a photograph with our cameras short of creating some pinhole camera with a body cap (it can be done), but even then, results are not that great (unless you want that effect). While lenses today are mostly quite good compared to lenses of the past, a distinctly “good” lens can be a joy to use.

 

Shot with same iPhone and CU lens on a better day.

Enlarged. The blur at the lower left is a lens aberration, not unusual with such gear.

The surest way to degrade the quality of a lens is camera technique that results in camera movement during exposure. This can be the result of holding the camera poorly, of punching the shutter button, of windy conditions that blow the camera, of vibrations from a car or other vehicle being transmitted to the camera, the use of too slow a shutter speed, not compensating for a telephoto or macro lens (both are highly sensitive to camera movement during exposure) and so on. 

All too often, I have seen photographs with camera movement that cannot be excused (though sometimes conditions can make it difficult to eliminate it entirely), but frankly, for a lot of photographers, this might not matter if they are only posting to Facebook. Small images often don’t show the sharpness problem of slight camera movement.

But much of the time, the blur due to camera movement is clear. It is amazing to me to see photographers spending a great deal of money on camera and lens, yet they allow their technique to cause camera movement, resulting in images no better than a cheap, entry-level camera and kit lens combination. And “allow” is the right word, because this is a choice. 

But a big problem on the Internet comes when photographers start commenting on lenses and even comparing them. From the photos, you can clearly see the camera movement degrading the image quality, yet the photographer posting this information will blame the lens for being of “poor quality.”

I once saw a comparison of a Nikon macro and a Canon macro where the “reviewer” said that the Canon was of slightly lower quality. Looking closer, I saw that the reviewer was looking at camera movement during exposure, not lens quality. This made the “review” worthless, though it may have influenced some photographers, “I know my Nikon is better than your Canon. I just saw this review …”

How do you know you have camera movement during exposure? One clear giveaway is little lines all going in a certain direction (of the movement) from point or round spots (especially sun highlights) that are not lines. Notice that all of the little highlights in the next image have a feeling of movement from top left to bottom right. 

Subject movement is similar, though you will often see the blurriness of the photo limited to a certain area compared to camera movement during exposure. The latter will always affect the whole photo. 

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Pruning Trees and Photo Gear

California lilac

I admit it. I am a bit sensitive to how people treat the life around us that isn’t human. The life on this planet is far greater than any measure of human beings. And in spite of our belief that we can do it all, we can’t actually do it all. We can’t constantly produce oxygen for us to breathe, plants do that. We can’t dispose of waste so that it disappears and is recycled back into our planet, insects and bacteria do that.

And more, of course, but this is not about what nature can do that we can’t. It is about nature photography, too, but I have to set the stage.

Recently, I came across a tree pruning company in our neighborhood pruning trees around a church and its parking lot. At first, I thought they were just getting rid of some dead wood. One of the pines did have dead branches.

Oh, no, not just that.

They cut down a couple of beautiful, old jacaranda trees. These are flowering trees with a stunning blue-purple abundance of blossoms. Unfortunately, the trees drop a lot of flowers. They are “messy”, so some people don’t like them. I am not sure what was going on here because the trees were not dropping flowers on cars or any lawn people used, but I am guessing that someone complained, so they decided to get rid of them.

Then I suspect the tree pruning company told the church that “since they were there,” they could prune the other trees. None of the other trees actually needed pruning. (I don’t say this as a sensitive nature “tree-hugger.” In college, I studied plant and soil science, and while in school, I worked at an arboretum, including with a master pruner.)

But prune they did. They truly butchered the trees. The broad-leaved trees will resprout and should fill in the terrible gaps left. But pines do not respond well to severe pruning. They do not readily resprout. They will never look like they did (these were trees probably 50 years old with wonderful, full, healthy crowns), and they may be weakened enough that some die.

Badly pruned trees. Broadleaf on the left, pine on the right.

Healthy pine trees in area. What they should look like.

That said, the pruners did not technically do anything wrong. They had the right tree pruning and safety gear. They had the right technique in how to cut branches without damaging the trunk around the cut. The had the right technique to cut back to a joint of branches. They just had no understanding of the trees they were cutting, other than objects to cut, not seeing the trees as living organisms that have specific growth needs.

So what does that have to do with photography? If you pay attention to the marketing from the camera and other photographic companies, you will learn that you don’t have “enough.” That better photography will be yours if you just buy some of their newest gear. And I am sure you know some people who pay too much attention to that marketing, as well as paying too much from their wallets and gaining no better photography.

Also, I am sure you know of the amateur photo “expert” who has been to all the classes, read all the books, and can tell you a hundred techniques that will help you be a better photographer. Except these folks often don’t actually have great photos.

You see, the pruners and photographers can be alike. A photographer can have all the right gear. He or she can have all the right training to learn the best techniques. But…

If such photographers don’t have the ability to photograph from the heart, to actually see the subject as something more than an object to be “captured” and “manipulated” by the camera (and I use that word manipulated very deliberately yet it has nothing to do with Photoshop, and all to do with how one uses their gear), their photos are going to be like those over-pruned trees, empty, bare shells of what they could be.

Good photography comes from something much deeper than the gear one owns and the techniques one learns. Gear and technique are important, of course, but as tools to help your achieve your photographic vision. If they are the focus of a photographer’s work, then he or she is missing really seeing the world and its possible subjects.

You will often hear that good photography that engages others has some emotional content. That emotion largely comes from caring deeply about what you are photographing, about seeing your subject as more than an object to funnel into your lens. That may mean learning something about your subject more than it exists as a subject for photography. That may mean getting excited about color or light and translating that excitement into your photos. That may mean falling in love with the subject in front of you.

That doesn’t mean that one is in “love with nature.” That’s kind of a non-statement. A lot of people say that, but what does it really mean? Dig down and find what that love means, use that information to affect how you look for subjects, to influence how you photograph each subject in front of your camera, to change how you see every “individual” (even landscapes) you photograph.

That’s photography with heart. If only those pruners had had some heart about nature and how different trees really grow.

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Puzzling Out Night Nature and a Trailcam

Normally, I am unfazed by animal scat (droppings, poo, you get it). I have spent enough time outside to know the difference between deer and rabbit droppings, fox and raccoon, and so on. But when I found big round chunks of scat on a deer trail behind our cabin in the mountains, I really was puzzled.

Could it be bear? I had heard that there had been a bear in the area years ago. This was the Southern Sierra Mountains in California, after all. But no, there was no evidence of a predator (fur, bones) or even a berry-eating omnivore like a bear. The same would apply to a mountain lion, unlikely anyway since they tend to stay away from people.

Looking closer (like a good naturalist), I could see the scat was grass-based, like a horse might leave, but it would have been a small horse, and there were no horses, small or otherwise, in the area. Maybe some deer was constipated! Do deer even get constipated? So it stayed a puzzle. I did have a book on scat and tracks (a very useful manual for naturalist photographers), but it was at home. I was convinced the scat’s owner would remain a mystery.

That night, our son’s fiancé was sitting by a window that overlooked a bird feeder and happened to look out. “Omigod, there’s a pig … no … could it be a bear … no, it’s a pig!” My wife, my son and I rushed to the window, but it was gone. We grabbed flashlights and went outside, but no pig was to be seen. We knew it was no domestic pig, but a wild pig (aka, hog or boar).

Let me clarify. My son and I grabbed flashlights and looked, but my wife and my son’s fiancé stayed close to the house. My wife was worried about our little dogs – should I even walk them that night? I reminded her that pigs didn’t eat dogs, small or otherwise. Though I have to admit that if the pig had suddenly showed up in my headlamp while I was walking the dogs, the dogs and I would probably have had a record speed walk back to the cabin!

Okay, now the big scat made sense. The size was right, the content right. It had come from the wild pig. Pigs are not native to California. When the original settlers came here, they had pigs, some got loose and became wild or “feral.” Then in the 1920s, somebody decided to introduce the European wild boar to Monterey County for hunting. The two interbred and now the wild pigs are hybrids with little of each and in much of California. They are very productive and have spread into many areas in the state. Once established, they can be hard to get rid of, plus they can be very destructive to natural areas.

Would it be possible to photograph this night beast? This is where trail cameras (trailcams) with infrared light can work. (More on trailcams for nature photographers in a later post.) I had modified mine because I didn’t like its built-in light, so it could use an “off-camera” infrared light. I couldn’t easily set it up when it was night, plus it was already set up for some night nature video at a small pond I had created in the front of the house. So I forgot about the pig for the night.

The next morning, I gathered up my trailcam and brought it inside. I looked through the video captures to see what had visited. And there was the pig in one of the clips! I could only display it small on the trailcam screen (which is really small), because I had forgotten my SD card reader for my iPad, but it still was obviously a wild pig. Notice how he plays the statue in the middle.

Now I had visual proof of our piggy visitor! And I was sure of that scat. Subject-triggered photography/video comes through! It is almost impossible to visually capture night visitors in any other way.

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Photography Is Not Just One Thing

In the last post, I talked a bit about how a photojournalistic approach has helped me “get the shot” in varied conditions. A photojournalistic approach is about communicating how you connect with your subject so that others can, too. I happen to love that approach and you will see it in much of my work.

Not everyone likes that approach. There are many approaches to photography, but one of the most common is looking at each image as art first. My friend Art Wolfe is truly an artist who takes this approach. He is one of the finest photographic artists I have ever known. Every one of his images have been carefully crafted based on his background in art. And they are beautiful! (This photo is from The Art of the Photograph that Art and I did. Art’s website is at artwolfe.com. You can call 888-973-0011 or email info@artwolfe.com to license this image or purchase a limited edition print.) 

Photo © Art Wolfe

Now what happens when two photographers get together to discuss images and they have very different approaches, such as an art first bias or a photojournalistic bias? There is a natural tendency to be critical of work done by the “other” approach, often more so than of work done by folks with a similar inclination. Psychologically, we are hard-wired to favor things that connect with our world view, so if our world view is based on art, we may have little patience with someone else’s world view based on photojournalism.

(I want to be clear that this is not necessarily an either/or idea. Folks doing a photojournalistic approach may create art, and those doing an art approach may look for photojournalistic elements.)

There is a very strong bias toward the art approach among photographers, especially among folks who do critiques at camera clubs. So much photography instruction is about applying art ideas to photography, which can be great. I do work to apply art ideas to my work as well.

But the problem comes when people start making arbitrary judgements about work that doesn’t fit their world view of what photography “should be.” This can make people uncomfortable following their own path in photography when it differs from a pervasive bias. I have given talks to camera clubs showing a different approach at times, and then I will often get quiet comments from some members who feel “relieved” that their photography is okay. The pervasive art bias makes them feel not okay.

The way we deal with this is to take photographs and photographers as they are, not as they “should be” based on our personal approach. Be open to possibilities that you can learn from others, yet still retain your own preferences.

There are more approaches to photography than simply these two, such as documentary, abstract, record-keeping, and so forth. Each approach demands the photographer take different approach to image making. You can still evaluate how well a photograph meets its objectives based on what it is trying to do, but not based solely on what you are trying to do with your work. I try to do that approach in my workshops and critiques, and it seems to work pretty well.

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When You Have to Get the Shot

As I drove into the forest service recreation area, I saw all these white spots on the hillside next to the road. Flowers! I wanted to know what they were, so I had to stop and check them out.

They were Mariposa lilies! Several species are common throughout California and a great sign of the California spring (also called calochortus after the scientific name). I had never seen so many at one time! Usually I had found one here and there through a landscape, but not like here. They aren’t as spectacular as the California poppies or the “superbloom” that sometimes occurs after a big winter rainy season (like this year), but there is something about them that makes them so beautiful, especially when you get close.

I knew I had to get some photographs. The problem was that it was about 11 AM. The sun was high and the light was not overly attractive, especially for anything beyond a close-up.

Close-ups often work well at any time of day because you can always control the light by moving around your subject, shading it or the background, and so forth. You can’t do that with bigger scenes and here was a big scene of Mariposa lilies.

I know, of course, the story for a nature photographer is that you always “have to” photograph at sunrise and sunset or near those times. Of course, those are great times to be out and photographing because the light can be absolutely beautiful. But nature doesn’t just exist at those times. So how do we get interesting photographs of nature when we aren’t there at the “right” time?

Early in my career, I worked as a staff photojournalist for the publications at the Minnesota Department of Transportation. As a photojournalist, my job was to go out and get the picture. I could not go back at another time or anything else like that. I had an assignment to get out and get a certain photograph at a certain time, when a highway engineer, for example was only available at a certain time, or a state legislative transportation committee was only meeting at a certain time. It was my job to get an interesting and engaging photograph that could be used in our publications. No excuses. This is true of any photojournalist.

I think this definitely colored my approach to nature photography. Even though I have been photographing nature since I was a kid, this photojournalistic approach made me think about how I did my nature photography. I photographed for one of the state maps while at MN/DOT, and I only had a certain amount of time to go around the state doing that. I was photographing nature for the map, but if I came into a location and the weather wasn’t perfect, I had to find a way to make an interesting photograph.

I think sometimes nature photographers get trapped by the “rule” that you can only photograph at certain times. There is no question that there are times where nature photography is difficult. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

So back to my Mariposa lilies. I started photographing them in different ways. First, I used a telephoto to isolate the flowers against out of focus flowers behind them. The telephoto also compressed distance to make of the flowers in the background look more plentiful. That type of closer work often does give you interesting pictures when the conditions aren’t ideal. However, I wanted something that gave a feeling of where these flowers live, which was up in the Southern Sierra Nevada mountains.

I tried some wide angle close-ups, which as you know I love to do, but the light wasn’t quite giving me what I wanted.

What to do?

One thing about finding a photograph in difficult conditions is to really have a mindset that you are going to find a photograph. Notice I did not say that you are going to take a photo. Find a photograph means that you can’t simply point your camera at the subject and snap a shot because that’s all you’ll get, a snapshot. And it probably won’t be very interesting as a photograph. To find a photograph starts by taking a mindset that you are going to find an interesting, engaging photograph, maybe even something a little different than what you even expected.

So I started looking at these flowers again and realized that if I laid down on the ground, I could get a dramatic shot of the flower against the sky with mountains in the background. So I laid down on the ground and started shooting. This was not a simple thing either. I worked the shot to find the best photograph I could, so I kept looking at the background to see where the mountains would show up, how the flower in the foreground would relate to them, and what showed up in terms of out of focus flowers on the hillside as well. But as I worked the scene and played with it, I found a shot that I really liked. The light actually made the flower look great even though the overall scene didn’t have the drama of other times of the day. But it didn’t matter. I still had my shot.

Sometimes you have to think beyond simply finding a beautiful scene and capturing that. It can help to think about how can you make an interesting photograph with what is in front of you. That could take some work and some time to do. But it can be well worth doing.

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The Importance of Shallow Depth of Field

Shallow depth of field is an important part of the craft of photography. So often I get questions about how to get more depth of field, which can be important, yet getting less can be really, really helpful in creating better photos. It is a cool technique often missed by photographers who get stuck feeling they always have to have a lot of depth of field.

Just this week I photographed my son and his fiancé in a city park. We had no time to go to some other location, so park it was. I deliberately shot with very shallow depth of field to isolate them against a nice background that showed none of the park, the people there, the buildings in the distance, and so forth. The shot showing some of the background is from my wife’s iPhone — it gives an idea of the conditions.

Shallow depth of field is very important to nature photography, too. It can be a huge help in making sure your subject stands out in the photograph regardless of the surroundings. Exactly like my son and future daughter-in-law’s photos.

The easiest way to get shallow depth of field is to shoot aperture-priority exposure with your lens wide open (this means choosing the biggest f-stop which is also the smallest number) and using a telephoto focal length. The telephoto focal length also helps to compress stuff in the background, making it tighter and often less distracting.

For the photos of my son and his fiancé, I used my 40-150mm f/2.8 set to 150mm and f/2.8 (that lens on my MFT system is equivalent to 300mm in 35mm-full-frame and 200mm in APS-C formats). Sure, I had to back up to get the shots, but that backing up helped compress the background, making it more attractive, while that combination of 150mm and f/2.8 gave me extremely shallow depth of field. That meant making sure my focus was right on the eyes of the couple (any time eyes are out of focus, the photo will look out of focus to most viewers).

All of these photos required me to back up to get the shot, NOT stand in one place and zoom.

So if you are ever feeling trapped by a background, try getting out the lens you have with the longest, most telephoto focal length, then shoot with the widest lens opening (the smallest number). Then give this a try with other subjects. You may find it a lot of fun!

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Change of Venue

You may have noticed a change for my blog. I am moving my blog, www.natureandphotography.com, here, maybe temporarily, maybe permanently. The original site has to be moved, but I am not sure when the person working on it can move the archived, older blog posts. Until then, new posts will appear here. 

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Being Me – Being You

Be me2It has taken me a long time, a lifetime in fact, to learn a very simple rule for getting the best from my photography. Be me.

Over the years, I have chased the looks of photographs made by well-known photographers I liked. It is one thing to be inspired by others, but truly, the only people who can do their work are those photographers themselves.

I have chased gear that others had, even have been envious. Instead of focusing on the gear that is most appropriate to me. Gear is obviously important because without it, we can’t photograph. But thinking too much about the gear others have is a distraction from my own photography. Be me.

Be me1I have chased the latest techniques hoping that would lead to a breakthrough in my photography. Learning new techniques is always valuable, but not when they overwhelm who I am as a photographer. I really don’t have to know everything about every new technique. Some really aren’t for me. Be me.

I have chased the approval of people important to me, from other photographers to family. Sure, people close to me are important, but not as arbitrary evaluators/critics of what I do. I can desire to learn what people think, but only as one input of many and an input I can chose to use or not. Be me.

I have worked hard to produce work that no one can criticize. That is unrealistic and ultimately restrictive. It also guarantees mediocrity. If I try to please everyone, I end up pleasing no one, especially myself. Be me.

Really, the number one rule for better photography, for more satisfying photography, for more authentic images is to be me. And for you to be you.

Cannon Falls, MN

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The Joy of Minnesota Nature

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.

Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Louisville Swamp area, Minnesota

Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Louisville Swamp area, Minnesota

Question mark butterfly, Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Carver Rapids, Minnesota

Question mark butterfly, Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Carver Rapids, Minnesota

Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, Nerstand, Minnesota

Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, Nerstand, Minnesota

Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, Nerstand, Minnesota

Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, Nerstand, Minnesota

Cannon Falls, MN

Cannon Falls, MN

Cannon Falls, MN

Cannon Falls, MN

Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Bloomington, Minnesota

Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Bloomington, Minnesota

Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Carver Rapids, Minnesota

Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Carver Rapids, Minnesota

Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Louisville Swamp area, Minnesota

Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Louisville Swamp area, Minnesota

Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Carver Rapids, Minnesota

Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Carver Rapids, Minnesota

You can see more of these images at joy-of-nature-galleries. Check out my new book and short course package here.

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Photo Deconstruction and Exploding Images!

Cover 1Many 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.

Cover 2I 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.

Cover 1The 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.

 

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