Category Archives: Technical Skills

Crocodiles of the Cuero y Salado Honduras

croc-honduras

Floating down the Rio Saluda in a small native boat in Honduras, I found myself searching for crocodiles at high noon. This wasn’t exactly the time of day one expects to do any serious wildlife photography. Underwater is a different story, but above water, well, it was hot, bright, and contrasty as hell.  Yet, here I was.

The last three days had seen a major cold front stall out over Honduras. Thick clouds and dropping temperatures meant that for the crocodiles of the Cuerro y Salado region, their black water home fringed with lowland rainforest would be something of a prison for them as they worked to regulate their body temps during the front. By the fourth day the unusual cold that had settle over the usually hot country had moved on.

I had been on the water since day break in search of these hold overs from the age of dinosaurs but with no luck. Finally, as the sun reach overhead it was as if someone had flipped a switch. Hundreds of crocodiles began to emerge as they hauled themselves out onto downed trees, dense clumps of floating vegetation, and whatever else they could find. This was what I had been waiting for.

Given that crocodiles live in the water, they need to climb out into the sun to rid themselves of parasites – as opposed to bathing themselves in water like we do. At high noon, with the intensity of the sun at its apex, the crocs all began hauling out to burn off three days worth of funk that had begun to build up on their bodies.

Despite the intensity of the harshness of the light, all I had to do was find a bit of dappled lighting to work with. As the river narrowed and the forest began to close in around us, bright shafts of light were contrasted with the deep shadows that the gallery forest cast across the water. All we had to do was to keep paddling until we found a crocodile in one of these shaft of light with an appropriately shadowed background. Given that the dynamic range of the scene was too great for the camera to record detail across its full spectrum of tones, I was able to create this chiaroscuro lighting scenario in the middle of the day.

Also posted in The Inner Game of Outdoor Photography, Wildlife Photography Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Story Trumps Everything

king-of-the-mountain

When is it OK not to see the eyes of your wildlife subject? When is it OK to photograph “butt shots?” When the story that the photograph tells is powerful enough to override just about every so called “rule” that you think you know in photography. Story is everything in our photographs. When it comes to selling photographs, story trumps all else. It trumps technical perfection. It trumps compositional rules. Story is what sells photographs. Technical perfection has never sold a photograph – ever. No buyer of fine art or editor of a magazine has ever stepped up to a photograph and thought to themselves, “wow. look at the technical quality of this image. Look there at the lack of noise. The exquisite perfection in focusing. And the exposure. Good God man, its perfect. I must have this!” No one in the history of buying photographs has ever thought any of that.

Photography is the art of capturing and telling stories.

So here we have a photograph of an elk bugling while facing away from us. Considering nothing more than the elk himself, this is all wrong. You can’t see the eye. The butt is the most prominent feature of the animal. He is looking the wrong way. But when the elk becomes part of the overall composition, all of this changes. From the perspective of the entire photograph, we have an elk perched atop a ridgeline high in the Rocky Mountains. He is bugling. Calling out across the mountains and valleys that roll off into a world impossibly larger than the bull can ever know exists. He is calling in would be challengers. He is luring in would be lovers. He is the king of the mountain. And he is the master of all that he sees.

This photograph is successful because of the story it tells. It is not simply the subject. It has nothing to do with the technical aspects of the image. As photographers, as visual artists, you have to begin to see beyond histograms and hyper focal distances. You have to begin to see in stories.

Also posted in The Inner Game of Outdoor Photography, Wildlife Photography Tagged , , , , , , , , |

The Lovely Poison Dart Frog

lovely-poison-frog

The Lovely Poison Frog – yes that is its real name! A.K.A: Phyllobates lugubris

Look closely at its back. That is a tadpole right there. The males of the species stand guard over the eggs that the females lay until they hatch into tadpoles. From here, they scoop up the tadpoles and transport them to deep puddles where they stand guard until the tadpole morphs into a frog. Other species of poison frogs have a similar life cycle and will carry their tadpoles high in the trees to deposit them into water filled bromeliads, then make the same trip each day in order to provide the tadpoles with food.

This particular species of poison frog contains a toxin that affects the ability of muscles to contract. Your heart is a muscle. It must contract in order to pump blood. Stop muscles from contracting, and you stop the heart from beating. In other words, don’t lick this frog!

I chose to photograph this guy on a light table made out of pvc pipes, opaque white plexiglass, and with two flashes (one above and one below the plexiglass). The idea behind this was to showcase not only the frog in all of its beautiful colors, but to also reveal the tadpole on its back. And no, it was not fun lugging this thing around the tropics!

Isla Popa, Panama.

Also posted in Projects, The Inner Game of Outdoor Photography, Travel, Wildlife Photography Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Egret in Black II

egret-breakdown

Since I first released this photograph, I have fielded quite a few requests for information on how I created this image. Is it heavily photoshoped? Did I add the background? How on Earth did you set your exposure to make your photograph to look like this?

To create an image like this you have to understand light. That isSince I first released this photograph, I have fielded quite a few requests for information on how I created this image. Is it heavily photoshoped? Did I add the background? How on Earth did you set your exposure to make your photograph to look like this?

To create an image like this you have to understand light. That is what makes this image. Sure, I brought this in to Photoshop to sharpen and hit the saturation levels. I also put a vignette on it in Lightroom so as to help with the visual flow – specifically at the bottom of the photograph. But what makes this image unique, posture and the like aside, is the white bird against the black background. And this part was done 100% in the field by exploiting the type of light that I had to work with.

If you note the direction of the light, you will see that it is coming in from a strong angle. This angled or side lighting, illuminated the bird but dropped the background into light shadows.

Now, given the fact that this is a great egret with brilliantly white plumage, I knew that those feathers were reflecting significantly more light than the rest of the elements that my eye could see in the composition. Color is a function light. White objects are reflecting all waves of light back at you and absorbing none (as opposed to red feathers for instance which are absorbing all waves of light and only reflecting red). So this means that white feathers are going to be significantly brighter than any other object in a composition. And, the more incident light (ambient), the more reflective light ( what your camera meters) you have to contend with in your exposure.

This photograph was made at about 10am. This is Florida. So this means there was a lot of bright light to contend with.

When we switch over to spot metering from matrix / evaluative, we tell our cameras that we only want one small spot, about the size of a focus point in the viewfinder, to be read instead of the entire composition. So where ever you place your focus point (the little rectangle that lights up in your viewfinder) will be the only thing your camera meters for. Move the camera around and you will watch as the meter in your viewfinder jumps all over the place. This is because that “spot” is different in its tonality of light.

Make since?

So by spot metering off of the brightest area of the bird, I was saying that this spot is the most important part of the exposure equation.

Your cameras meter is still based upon the concept of 18% gray. This means that when spot metering, if you zero adjust your exposure so as to zero out the meter reading in your viewfinder, that tone of light that you spot metered off of will be rendered 18% gray. In other words, it will be made a perfect midtone.

So if I had metered off this bird and shot with an exposure reading that I was given by the camera, this white bird would have been an 18% gray bird. If I had done the same off of a black bear, the results would have been an 18% gray bear.

You see, the meter reading that you get from your camera is not a suggestion. Its literally a statement that at this exposure setting you will render the dominant tone being metered as 18% gray. That’s it. Nothing fancy. Nothing else. Its a fact. Its a declaration.

So, if the dominant tone is going to be rendered 18% gray at that exposure setting, and since I’m spot metering off the bird, this means the brightest light on the bird will be rendered 18% gray. And if i do not want a gray bird, then I know that I must ADD LIGHT to make this bird white.

With this knowledge in mind, I increased my exposure by 1.3 stops of light. This was enough to render white feathers white with ought over exposing those whites. This,is situation dependent of course.

Now, because there was so much light reflecting off of those white feathers to begin with, even though I increased my exposure to render the whites properly, the contrast between those whites and the shadowed background was so great, the background rendered completely black. And the result was beautiful.

To sum this up, the light created extreme contrast between my subject and the background. All I did was properly expose for the brightest part of the composition. This recorded whites as white, and the background faded to black.

Exposing for the highlights or brightest part of a composition is what we are always doing regardless of the situation. So really there is nothing unique here. Sure I used spot metering, but that was because there was so much contrast between the bright areas and the far more dominant shadowed areas. I simply needed my camera to ignore all the shadows.

What ultimately made this photograph was the light in which I was photographing this bird in. Understanding how my camera meters and how to exploit the contrast that was being created was what allowed for this photograph.

Understanding light, and all of its nuances here is what allowed me to “see” the possibility of this photograph. This is everything in photography. This actual scene did not exist in the wild. My eye is looking across something like 24 stops of light. This means details existed in both shadows and highlights for me here. But, I know my camera records somewhere between 5 and 8 stops of light. So I instantly recognized the possibility with this situation. Once realized, it was then just a matter of working the composition out and waiting for this egret to do his thing.

what makes this image. Sure, I brought this in to Photoshop to sharpen and hit the saturation levels. I also put a vignette on it in Lightroom so as to help with the visual flow – specifically at the bottom of the photograph. But what makes this image unique, posture and the like aside, is the white bird against the black background. And this part was done 100% in the field by exploiting the type of light that I had to work with.

If you note the direction of the light, you will see that it is coming in from a strong angle. This angled or side lighting, illuminated the bird but dropped the background into light shadows.

Now, given the fact that this is a great egret with brilliantly white plumage, I knew that those feathers were reflecting significantly more light than the rest of the elements that my eye could see in the composition. Color is a function light. White objects are reflecting all waves of light back at you and absorbing none (as opposed to red feathers for instance which are absorbing all waves of light and only reflecting red). So this means that white feathers are going to be significantly brighter than any other object in a composition. And, the more incident light (ambient), the more reflective light ( what your camera meters) you have to contend with in your exposure.

This photograph was made at about 10am. This is Florida. So this means there was a lot of bright light to contend with.

When we switch over to spot metering from matrix / evaluative, we tell our cameras that we only want one small spot, about the size of a focus point in the viewfinder, to be read instead of the entire composition. So where ever you place your focus point (the little rectangle that lights up in your viewfinder) will be the only thing your camera meters for. Move the camera around and you will watch as the meter in your viewfinder jumps all over the place. This is because that “spot” is different in its tonality of light.

Make since?

So by spot metering off of the brightest area of the bird, I was saying that this spot is the most important part of the exposure equation.

Your cameras meter is still based upon the concept of 18% gray. This means that when spot metering, if you zero adjust your exposure so as to zero out the meter reading in your viewfinder, that tone of light that you spot metered off of will be rendered 18% gray. In other words, it will be made a perfect midtone.

So if I had metered off this bird and shot with an exposure reading that I was given by the camera, this white bird would have been an 18% gray bird. If I had done the same off of a black bear, the results would have been an 18% gray bear.

You see, the meter reading that you get from your camera is not a suggestion. Its literally a statement that at this exposure setting you will render the dominant tone being metered as 18% gray. That’s it. Nothing fancy. Nothing else. Its a fact. Its a declaration.

So, if the dominant tone is going to be rendered 18% gray at that exposure setting, and since I’m spot metering off the bird, this means the brightest light on the bird will be rendered 18% gray. And if i do not want a gray bird, then I know that I must ADD LIGHT to make this bird white.

With this knowledge in mind, I increased my exposure by 1.3 stops of light. This was enough to render white feathers white with ought over exposing those whites. This,is situation dependent of course.

Now, because there was so much light reflecting off of those white feathers to begin with, even though I increased my exposure to render the whites properly, the contrast between those whites and the shadowed background was so great, the background rendered completely black. And the result was beautiful.

To sum this up, the light created extreme contrast between my subject and the background. All I did was properly expose for the brightest part of the composition. This recorded whites as white, and the background faded to black.

Exposing for the highlights or brightest part of a composition is what we are always doing regardless of the situation. So really there is nothing unique here. Sure I used spot metering, but that was because there was so much contrast between the bright areas and the far more dominant shadowed areas. I simply needed my camera to ignore all the shadows.

What ultimately made this photograph was the light in which I was photographing this bird in. Understanding how my camera meters and how to exploit the contrast that was being created was what allowed for this photograph.

Understanding light, and all of its nuances here is what allowed me to “see” the possibility of this photograph. This is everything in photography. This actual scene did not exist in the wild. My eye is looking across something like 24 stops of light. This means details existed in both shadows and highlights for me here. But, I know my camera records somewhere between 5 and 8 stops of light. So I instantly recognized the possibility with this situation. Once realized, it was then just a matter of working the composition out and waiting for this egret to do his thing.

Also posted in photography in the Springtime, The Inner Game of Outdoor Photography, Uncategorized, Wildlife Photography Tagged , , , , , |

Telling Stories with Pine Warblers

pine-warbler-longleaf

As of late, I have been spending a significant amount of time deep inside of Croatan National Forest. This is an extraordinary place – quite unlike any other national forest I have ever had the pleasure to work in or explore. I am here to capture the story of the longleaf pine savannas through photographs. From the fire that shapes and sculpts these woods and grasslands, to the impenetrable swamps knowns as pocosins, and the denizens of this forest that have evolved to eke out a living here in this strange landscape.

Pine warblers like this one are unique in the world of warblers in that they eat seeds – and lots of them. Sure they will gorge themselves on caterpillars like any self-respecting warbler will, but their preference for pine seeds allows them to stand apart. Because of the ability to consume this super abundant food source across the southeastern part of the United States, they are one of the few species of warblers that do not leave the country. Many northern individuals move south for the winter, but all that means is that they pop up in places such as Croatan National Forest with its dense stands of longleaf pine.

Pine warblers are extremely common in these pine forests, go figure, but they are a species that is not often seen except for in the spring when they can be found foraging around on the ground. Otherwise, they tend to prefer the lofty perches at the top of the canopy where they go about their business far above the rest of us.

It was for this reason that I wanted to capture one of these pine warblers perched in pine needles. Such a composition as this one helps to tell the story of this bird in two ways. . . first, its preference for the canopy. Secondly, this photograph shows this little warbler interacting with longleaf pine – something I would have been hard pressed to create if he was perched on the ground, trunk, or branch.

So despite a long list of species that I am working on here, the pine warblers, though common, are an important part of visually story telling in the longleaf pines of Croatan.

Also posted in The Inner Game of Outdoor Photography, Wildlife Photography

Westcott Apollo micro Softbox review

softbox

I recently spent 10 days down in Panama bouncing around the islands of the Bocas del Toro area chasing poison dart frogs. If you have ever seen a poison frog then you know they are small – like really small. There are a few species that are a bit larger, but the particular species that I was chasing after, the strawberry poison frog (Oophaga pumilio), are extremely small. Photographing frogs is always going to be the realm of macro, but these guys are really going to test your reserve!

Photographing macro subjects in the tropics means that you will be using flash – like it or not. The light is just way too low in 99% of the sscenariosthat you are going to find subjects. With multilayered canopies towering upwards of 100 feet overhead, a bright overcast day is reduced to the equivalence of candle light inside of the rainforest. Flash is what is going to allow you to photograph in these conditions, period. But the problem with flash in close quarters, especially when everything is wet and shiny like it is in these tropical forests, is that the light from our flash bounces and sparkles off of everything give our compositions a decidedly “flashed” look. Photographing birds at 50 feet away, using a touch of fill flash is not going to be a problem. But shiny subjects like frogs on the other hand can really cause some problems for you.

In order to overcome these issues we need to diffuse the light. Diffusing the light means that we scatter the light around instead of concentrating it. By scattering it, we are not only eliminating a lot of the contrast of a scene (both good and bad depending upon what you are going for) but we are also reducing the intensity of the flash enough to eliminate the sheen of these frogs. You flash probably comes with some sort of drop down diffuser. Many even come with a little plastic cap that you can stick over the flash to cut light even more. However, if you really want to be able to control the light in your macro photography then you need to move in the the realm of softboxes.

I have used a variety of different softboxes over the years – both really big ones for commercial shoots as well as little tiny ones for macro work. The rainforest is no place for a full sized softbox you would see on a portrait shoot. But it is perfect for something like the Westcott Apollo micro softbox. Measuring just 5 x 8 inches, this thing is the ideal size for in the field macro work.

Basically the micro softbox attaches over your speed light (flash) via a couple of strips of velcro that come supplied with the softbox. If you a shooting in TTL then you can just adjust and shoot as normal. If you are shooting manual this is going to reduce your flash output by about 1 stop.

The results are phenomenal. These softboxes are without a doubt the best I have ever used. Westcott is a top of the line company trusted by professionals throughout all walks of photography – not just macro work. The build and construction is second to none, and the whole things folds flat so I can slip it just about anywhere in my photo backpack while trekking through some pretty gnarly terrain or bouncing between islands by boat. If one of these can hold up to the abuse that I put it through when in the tropics, then they will endure just about anything.

The price is more than reasonable coming it at right around $30 usd.

Below are a few photos that I made in Panama while use this micro softbox.

poisonfrog9 poisonfrog8 poisonfrog6 poisonfrog4 poisonfrog3

 

Also posted in equipment review, Travel, Wildlife Photography

Winter 2015 VIP is completed

VIP

So for those of you in the know, the VIP newsletter will be sent out this week. I just finished the winter 2015 edition and it’s being tweaked now. Don’t know what this is? Its quite different than the newsletter I put out called Behind the Lens. The VIP thing is for folks who have joined me on workshops in the past and those who are currently signed up for upcoming trips. The VIP newsletter is sent out quarterly and is a downloadable PDF file all about wildlife photography.

Each edition has a species profile in which I take one particular animal and discuss its natural history and just about everything you need to know about photographing it. Next there is a section on technique, where I write in detail about a particular photography technique that is specifically related to wildlife photography. Finally there is the section called Shoot this NOW!. This final section is all about what you as a wildlife photographer should be out chasing down right now given the season. Often times we as photographers get stuck in a rut. We keep shooting the same old subjects day after day. For this reason I decided to add this last section to help motivate people to step outside of their comfort zone and pursue other wildlife photography opportunities!

This edition:

Species profile: Canvasbacks

Technique: Nail those Silhouettes Every time

Shoot this NOW: Waterfowl

Also posted in Wildlife Photography

Explosions of Fall Color

fall

Its simply impossible to escape the Tetons and Jackson Hole this time of year without being mesmerized by the explosion of colors across the landscape. From the reds of mountain maples to the orange of narrowleafed cottonwood trees, and let us not forget the amazing genetic and color diversity of the different aspen stands that also range from yellow to red on their own.

Photographing fall color is not just about capturing the grand landscapes with Autumn hues painted across the scene. Personally, I prefer to chase down these sort of abstract intimate landscapes in the fall. Viewing photographs like this are like looking through a window peering into a forest. Photographs of this nature are all about design and therefore make for good print sales because of their universal appeal.

When I am visually exploring a patch of brilliantly colored forest like this, I am looking to bring order out of chaos. The vertical lines of the aspens become the primary consideration in terms of the composition, followed next by how the color falls across the scene. For my lens choice, I used a Nikon 200-400mm lens at 200mm for this photograph in order to compress the perspective through the forest. In order to further this, I then chose an f/stop of f/8 so as to insure maximum focus across both inside and out of the forest. Photographing this scene in light overcast conditions helped to significantly reduce contrast but left enough light so as to make everything pop. Though exposure rules for digital photograph remain in place while in the field, keep in mind that in film days we underexposed photographs just a bit in order to increase saturation. So once brought into LR or PS consider bringing down the exposure just a touch and bring down the midtones with a curve layer for increase richness in the color of the leaves.

Also posted in Fine Art Landscapes, Landscape Photography Tagged , , , , |

BIF setting for mating sandhill cranes

Sandhill-cranes

What is it about the prairie regions of this country that cause birds to evolve some of the most bizarre an exotic mating rituals that can be witnessed in the US? Growing up back east, I really cannot think of a bird whose mating rituals even begin to compare with those of the plains and prairies. Last week I spent several mornings tucked into a blind photographing the mating displays of greater sage grouse. This week it was sandhill cranes. . . 

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Also posted in Wildlife Photography

The Leaf Cutters

Hiking into the still uncovered remains of the La Milpa Mayan Ruins in the highlands of Belize, I really had no idea what to expect photographically speaking. The unmistakable smell of spider monkeys lingered in the air around us and in the distance I could faintly make out their chatters. The forest here was tropic primeval. Towering cahoon palms, ancient mahagony trees, and an impossible tangle of lianas (woody vines) surrounded us. Occasionally we would spot a black poison wood tree whose sap is so caustic it will literally burn the flesh right off your hand if you touch it.

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Also posted in Travel, Wildlife Photography