Telling Stories with Pine Warblers

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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.

Posted in Technical Skills, The Inner Game of Outdoor Photography, Wildlife Photography

What really matters in your photographs

bobcat3
Here is a statement you might not be ready for. When I’m photographing wildlife, I’m not usually paying attention to the wildlife.

Huh?

Here is the thing, your wildlife subject is going to do what it is going to do, regardless of you. You cannot control this. You cannot change this. You are a bystander on the sidelines simply watching as their life unfolds.

As artists though, we cannot simply take what we are given. We must demand more. By the very nature of who we are, we question what is before us. We consider the alternatives. We change and tweak and tinker with everything. We create.

So what can you actually affect? What can you actually control in your photographs?

There are two things that I concern myself with in my wildlife photography. Light and the environment. That is really it.

Like I said, the animal is going to do what the animal is going to do. I set my exposure, I use solid techniques to make sure my subject is sharp of course, but it’s the light and the environment that are the two elements that make or break wildlife photography. Therefore, its these two elements that I am thinking about 99% of the time.

So when I approach a subject, before I ever even set my tripod down, the questions that I ask myself are these . . . What is the light doing? Where is it coming from? What does the environment look like? How about the background? And how is the light and the environment working together?

I will then spend the rest of my time concerning myself over these questions as I allow my subject to move throughout it’s world.

Here is how I would suggest approaching your wildlife photography. . . Light set’s the mood and dictates what is and is not possible. It basically set’s the parameters and rules for the shoot. The environment then set’s the stage and tells the story of your subjects life. When it comes to literature, aren’t these the key elements?  So too in the visual arts.

So let’s do a break down of the accompanying photographs.

bobcat101. In this first shot, I employed a chiaroscuro lighting scenario for this photograph. Chiaroscuro just means light and dark in Italian. With the direction and low angle of the light, deep shadows were being cast all across the landscape of boulders that this cat was crossing. Light and how it was interacting with the environment is what ultimately made this shot. I could not control the cat. I could not put him where he is. What I could do is realize the potential for a composition like this, put myself in place, get my exposure set, and then wait and hope he would enter this little area – which he did. Light and the environment.

 

bobcat82. Here is something totally different. A close up of a bobcat hanging out on its daybed under the trees. This seems simple enough right? In this photograph, once again, light and the environment were everything. Because of where this cat was, I could only photograph this with frontal lighting. Why? Because if there had been any angle whatsoever, then the shadows from the tree would have been cast across the face and body of the cat. The resulting zebra striping would have ruined the photograph. So  here too, light and environment are my key considerations.

 

bobcat2 3. Here is one of my classic shots of a bobcat coming down a fallen log covered in snow. The light almost non-existent. So I was basically shooting in full shade / shadow. This means I do not need to consider contrast in this scene what so ever. So now, I can photograph the cat in any part of the composition that I chose to create without worry of my exposure changing, or shadows falling where they should not be. The overcast like lighting simplified the equation for me. So if light is removed from being a major concern here, that means the only thing I am left with is the environment and how our cat here is interacting with it. I did not put the cat on this branch. But I was very much ready and waiting to capture this cat come across this fallen tree. The tree is everything in this photograph. Remove the tree and what do I have? Just another bobcat shot out of the thousands I have already. But, because of the tree, because of the falling snow from the foot steps, and how our cat is interacting with this environment, the photograph was a huge success. Once again, light and environment.

 

bobcat44. Ok. One more. Here we have a bobcat walking along the banks of a braided channel along the Madison River. This was taken in 7 mile meadow in Yellowstone, and it was after the sun had dropped below the horizon.

First the light. As stated, the sun had set. Water reflects the colors and light in the sky. To capture these colors, it was important for the sun to not be in the sky. If it had, it would have been too bright and I would have lost the gold of the sky reflected here. So this was about timing. Second, snow reflects insane amounts of blue light from the environment. So because the sun had already set, and because I had a cooler white balance, I ended up with loads of blue throughout my snow and shadows. Now in terms of the environment, if it were not for the water to reflect the light, if it were not for the wind swept nature of the snow reflecting blue light, what would we have? Nothing. Another image in the virtual trash can. But because of the light and the environment, and how that they worked together in this photograph, we have something extraordinary. The cat is just a little piece of this puzzle. Its doing nothing more than walking across the scene. The photograph is the light and the environment. The little cat only anchors the photographs. Without the cat, its a weak shot. Without the environment, its a week shot. Without the light, its a week shot. I needed all three of these to make this happen. But the most important parts of the equation are once again, light and the environment.

Posted in 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

 

Posted in equipment review, Technical Skills, Travel, Wildlife Photography

Winter 2015 VIP is completed

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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

Posted in Technical Skills, Wildlife Photography

Magazine Articles

seal

Writing is a big part of what I do. My business is much more complex than just crawling through alligator infested swamps, climbing snow covered mountains, and floating down the Amazon river to create wildlife photographs. With a never ending thirst for knowledge, an obsession for understanding the minute details of the natural world, a life long love for writing, and a background in both biology and environmental history, I guess it’s something of an inevitability. My niche here is taking the complexities of science and cutting research, and deciphering it in such away so as to make it accessible, interesting, and maybe even entertaining for a general audience.

Recently I decided put a few of the articles that I have written for natural history magazines online. This list is only a very small sampling of articles and by no means a complete collection. Each article that I have put online is in the form of a PDF and only the text is included – not the magazine layout with photographs and the like. So if you want to get your nerdgasm on, check the new link at the top of the page entitled Writings, or just CLICK HERE.

As time permits, I will put more of these articles on the list here so if you like this sort of stuff, check back from time to time.

 

Posted in Business, Wildlife Photography

Wildlife Tracking skills for Serious Photographers

petersonsI am very pleased to announce that this coming year we are going to be adding something new to our Tetons and Yellowstone photography workshops. There are two books that I view to be absolute essentials for serious wildlife photographers. The first is Peterson’s Reference Guide to the Behavior of North American Mammals. The second is Mammal Tracks & Sign: A Guide to North American Species. Mark Elbroch authored both of these books and he will be joining us on upcoming workshops to discuss tracking skills necessary for serious wildlife photographers!

Dr. Mark Elbroch has authored 10 books on Natural History, and dozens of scientific papers. This guy is very well known among naturalists, trackers, and field biologists as one of the top minds in his field. In addition to the above credentials, he is also the project leader for the Teton Cougar Project.

I cannot begin to express what an incredible opportunity that this will provide participants of these upcoming workshops. We are constantly striving to go above and beyond with the workshops that we organize – focusing on photographic instruction, environmental education, experience based learning, and good old fashion adventure. For this reason, we believe that the addition of discussions led by Mark Elbroch will further our goals of offering you the best experience and photography workshop possible.

Want to know more about Mark Elbroch? Check out his bio through the big cat conservation group Panthera: http://www.panthera.org/node/3034

Want to check out the Peterson’s Reference Guide to the Behavior of North American Mammals? Check it out here via Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Behavior-American-Mammals-Peterson-Reference/dp/0618883452/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1323822063&sr=8-1

Want to check out mammal tracking Bible that Mark wrote entitled Mammal Tracks & Sign: http://www.amazon.com/Mammal-Tracks-Sign-American-Species/dp/0811726266/ref=pd_bxgy_b_img_y

Posted in Uncategorized Tagged , , , , |

Bull Moose Sunrise in the Tetons

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Driving along the base of the Gros Ventre Mountains in Jackson Hole, we were making our way to a river bottom to catch up with the moose rut this morning. As luck would have it however, this young bull moose stopped us dead in our tracks as he worked his away across Antelope Flats. With steam rising into the morning air from a small creek fueled by the Kelly Warm Springs, the peaks above treeline in the Tetons Range began to light up with alpenglow in the background, there was just no way we could pass up the opportunity for photographing this bull against this idyllic setting.  Not a bad way to end this year’s fall photography workshop in Jackson Hole!

Sometimes things just come together for you!

Posted in Wildlife Photography

Explosions of Fall Color

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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.

Posted in Fine Art Landscapes, Landscape Photography, Technical Skills Tagged , , , , |

Hidden Landscapes in the Tetons

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The weather has been an absolute horror these last few days in Jackson Hole. Rain, rain, and then more rain. This morning we had a little change with a touch of snow, but not enough to do anything for us in terms of our photography. With all of this crazy weather, the wildlife photography has been somewhat hit and miss. Sure we have photographed massive bull moose and black bears, but over all things have been a lot slower this year.

Luckily though, this is Jackson Hole we are talking about. Wildlife, though it may be my particular cup of tea, is not the only game in town when it comes to photography. Let’s not forget that this place also happens to be one of the top landscape photography locations in North America as well. So when nature tosses you lemons, you put a shorter lens on and make lemonade.

This photograph is from Lupine Meadows at the base of the Tetons – a particularly favorite location of mine for capturing some of the more subtle details of the Tetons range. With gold and reds mixed in with the dark green of the spruce and fir trees on these lower ridge lines, the pulsating clouds that crept up and down the mountain all morning made for some really cool scenics.

The fun part about photographing situations like this is that these moments are evanescent. The scene is constantly changing as the fog rolls down and lifts up, breaks apart in one place, and thickens in another. From one minute to the next, completely new compositions reveal themselves and then disappear forever. It can be trying at first to wrap your mind around compositions when they are so fleeting. However, given a touch of patience you begin to see the different possibilities before they actually occur and with time begin to create order out of chaos.

The two ridge lines cutting across the photograph offer strong compositional elements thanks to the repetition and diagonal lines they create. Once visually found, this became my base from which I knew I wanted to create a photograph of. When the fog comes rolling through like this in the Rocky Mountains, the scene can quickly become very monochromatic in nature. With the splash of color thanks to the hues of Autumn, I was able to do so much more. After I developed a general idea of what my composition was going to be, it was then a matter of waiting out the fog. As it rolled up and down, new scenes and even elements revealed themselves until finally, the one that I had pre-visualized in my head began to develop.

ISO 250 | f/11 | 1/15th | 200mm | D4

Posted in Landscape Photography Tagged , , , |

Rut in the Tetons

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With a chance of snow in the immediate forecast, the golden hues of aspen and narrow leaf cottonwoods lighting up the edges of the forest, the evening bugles of elk filling the air, and the moose, those lumbering giants of the river valleys battling it out for the hearts and minds of the ladies all across the valley, I can honestly say there is no place else I would rather be right now! This place is like Hotel California. You can check out any time you want, but you can never leave. Given that we made the monumental decision to pack up and move across the country to North Carolina in order to film a documentary, coming back out here two months later like this and experiencing everything that I love about this place in just one single day has me already looking trying to find a rental house to pack up and move back out here to.

 

Posted in Wildlife Photography Tagged , , , , , , , |