Good nature photography has five requirements:
1. A good subject is, of course, where it starts.
2. It must be well lit.
3. Your image must be sharp.
4. You must compose your image artistically.
5. And you need a good camera, lens, and photographic accessories.
Shooting for 60 years, but with a growing concentration on nature and anything beautiful.
Had 35mm SLR cameras beginning about 1965, and digital SLRs for about 10 years, now on my fifth one.
Photography inspires me to get out in nature for the exercise I need.
I have written photo essays about my hikes, snowshoeing, mountain climbing for years. Taking beautiful pictures inspires me to get out in nature for the exercise I need. And recently to inspire others to get the exercise they need I have shared these photo essays on my “Fitness and Photography for Fun” blog at www.mendosa.com/fitnessblog
Their level of experience
What they want to learn
Why we can proceed quicker by not showing any photographs, which they can see later on my fitnessblog
If you fall down while you are hiking, try not to fall on your camera. I made that mistake a few months ago and my Canon 50D SLR and telephoto lens had to go back to Canon for repairs. About $600. Fortunately covered by my insurance.
But as a professional photographer friend and mentor says, “Sorry to hear about the camera, but I’m glad it padded your fall. With that move you’ve certainly joined the ranks of professionals. One must at some point crash atop his or her camera to join the club.”
Film v. Digital
Higher initial cost for digital cameras. And for years they were not as good. Now, however, essentially all professionals are converts.
Tremendous freedom of being able to take as many shots of a scene as you wish, knowing that each shot is not costing, as it did with slides.
And for sharing there’s no comparison. For example, when I wanted professional scans of some of my old slides from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, I had to pay $2 a piece. That’s in addition to the cost of the film and developing.
The number of megapixels is no longer important, since anything above 5 megapixels can make great and large enlargements, if you hold the camera steady and get the shot in focus.
Or you can go up to 50 megapixels with the Hasselblad H3DII-50 medium format camera for $28,000; and the greatest nature photographer now shooting in Colorado, John Fielder, uses large format cameras so he can make huge enlargements — but he has sherpas and llamas to carry his equipment.
Digital zoom is just what you get when you crop a photo in your editing software. It’s useless.
When you step up to a digital SLR, basically you are getting 10% better photos for 10 times the money. Besides SLRs, few other cameras offer a choice of lenses — which can be both a blessing and a curse. The problems with having a variety of lens are not only the cost but the weight in carrying them.
For digital SLRs the big names are Nikon and Canon. Both companies make a whole line of excellent cameras at various price points.
Also refer to Pogue’s new review (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/12/technology/personaltech/12pogue.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=pogue%20big%20sensors&st=cse )
Start with a small, reasonably inexpensive shirt pocket camera and work up. Don’t jump immediately to a full-frame digital SLR (show my three cameras).
I consider that most digital camera fall into 4 groups. The usual distinction is between SLRs and point-and-shoot cameras. But I think the more important one is between shirt pocket and lugging a heavy load on your shoulder or back.
a. shirt-pocket point and shoot, like my Sony (and newer Sonys rate higher with Consumer Reports: show that article in the December 2008 issue). Big advantage: fast to get at, so you will miss fewer opportunities.
b. point and shoot cameras with long telephoto lenses albeit with inferior sharpness to SLRs, for wildlife, birds, and to make distant objects, like Longs Peak, appear closer
c. Olympus and Panasonic have new, mirrorless format lens mount based on the Micro Four Thirds system. It uses uses the same sensor size (18 x 13.5 mm) as amateur and semi-pro SLRs, but allows slimmer cameras by removing the mirror box and optical viewfinder.
d. Amateur and semi-pro SLRs: Big advantages include much faster (almost instantaneous) auto focusing (you don’t have to hold down shutter release half way and wait) and they take multiple shots much faster (important when shooting wildlife).
They have smaller sensors than professional full-frame SLRs, (1.6 ratio) so you can’t make huge enlargements:
Nikon D300 body only $1800
Canon 7D body only $1700
Canon 50D body only $1100
e. Professional SLRs: full frame, i.e. as big a sensor as 35mm film cameras. The standards are:
Nikon D700 body only $3000 (although D3 is $5000 and D3x is $8000)
Canon 5D Mark II body only $2700 (although 1D for $4000 and 1DS for $7300)
Before you shop:
Probably best reviews of cameras and lenses are at dpreview.com and stevesdigicam.com; but the December 2008 issue of Consumer Reports has good simple comparisons of shirt pocket point and shoot camera (available in all branch libraries)
Shopping: online B&H photo, also sometimes Amazon, and others; locally Mike’s Camera has much bigger selection and more knowledgeable staff than Wolf’s Camera.
When you see something that might be a good shot somewhere off the trail or will need to get your camera ready but aren’t sure if the scene (the bird or animal) will still be there or is worth going for, always make a positive assumption. Most of the time you won’t get the picture anyway, but if you make a negative assumption, you will never get the picture. Likewise for sunsets.
ISO and Noise
Whenever possible use the lowest ISO setting (e.g. 100); but when necessary you can go up, usually with no problem up to 400 or 800 ISO; my Canon 50D camera goes up to 12,800 ISO and with noise reduction software like Noise Ninja, which I sometimes use, we can remove a lot of the noise (or graininess)
Whenever possible use your lens at its sharpest point. What is that? Midway between the largest and smallest f stop (with my Canon 50D it is f/8). But blurring the background (called bokeh), which is often really nice, can be better at a different f stop.
Generally, set the lens at the sharpest point unless you have to open it further in low light and use aperture priority. Only use shutter priority in nature shots of waterfalls and animals (to stop motion at fast shutter speeds). If you want blurry water (but rest of photo sharp) you have to use a tripod and start with 1/4 second exposure, but also try at 500 or 1000 to capture individual droplets to see if you like that better. A polarizer may reduce the glare and may let you see through the water to streambed, but may be better without; so try both.
Depth of Field
Cameras have less depth of field at smaller f/ stops, like 2.8. This can actually be advantageous if you want background to be out of focus, especially in flower shots.
Get down and dirty; lie down or crouch down to get a better angle.
As Ansel Adams once wrote,
“A good photograph is knowing where to stand.”
Take many pictures, save few, show only the best of them.
Once I went hiking with a professional nature photographer mentor and friend. He took a lot of photos of me and sent them to me later. He is a superb photographer, but was was surprised at how many bad shots he took. Everyone takes a lot of bad photos.
As Ansel Adams once wrote,
“Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.”
You can change the exposure, straighten, crop in post-processing software, but you can’t get something out of focus into focus. Check the focus on the camera’s LCD display before leaving the scene. With digital, an overexposed image can be corrected better than one that is underexposed.
Focus problems include: Not holding the camera steady, wind blowing on the object, particularly on flowers, a shutter speed too slow for the focal length (rule of thumb: at least equivalent to focal length, e.g. if focal length is 50mm then a shutter speed of less than 1/50 is likely to be out of focus). Exception: image stabilization will give you about two f stops more.
You can’t change the composition in post-processing software either.
Contrast: for example hard and soft (e.g. flowers and rock); light subject, dark background (especially if out of focus, i.e. “bokeh”); a cabin (man-made) in the foreground of a mountain (natural).
Background: keep it simple: like dark, out of focus, the sky, rocks.
“Border Patrol:” The term that Weldon Lee uses for paying close attention to the characteristics of the edges of the photo, specifically allowing enough breathing room around the primary object, being careful not to cut off any part of primary object (except in closeups, e.g. of wildlife, and even then making sure to show neck and shoulders), also considerations like not cutting a framing tree in half; ultimately this is a question of artistic judgment rather than of photographic technique.
Rule of thirds. Know the rules, like sky 1/3 of the scene, except for sunsets where 2/3; can break the rule if the sky is dull and use less than 1/3. “Dull” includes a bright blue sky with no clouds!
Balance asymmetrical elements; try to avoid centering the subject; often better 1/3 off center.
Sometimes we really need to have people in nature photographs to show scale.
When taking photographs of flowers,”improving” them by spraying a few drops of water on them and tearing away weeds around them is accepted practice.
When photographing lakes, show some part of the shore in the foreground. Being able to visualize a place to stand invites viewers into the picture.
Mature subjects: In his book Galen Rowell’s Vision (Sierra Club Books, 1995), noted outdoor photographer Rowell describes the difference between “immature” or unfamiliar subjects (which demand a direct visual approach like to be found in textbooks) and “mature” or familiar subjects (which require a more subtle visual interpretation). For example, Rowell writes, “A deer is a mature subject for almost everyone. A picture of the entire animal just standing there doesn’t do much for us, but an image of only the deer’s ears and eyes poking out of the grass could be tantalizing. People recognize the subject as a deer, and their mind fills in the missing part of the animal.” Change the animal to a rare snow leopard, he points out, and viewers expect a more straightforward treatment that reveals the entire animal.
Great article at http://www.moodsofnature.com/composition.html (I printed the PDF)
Line: diagonals are interesting; also lines of many receding mountain ranges.
Curves: the curves of the landscape can be beautiful.
Simplicity: When a photo has lots going on, our eyes don’t go as easily to the object.
Photography is all about light. It’s key.
But it doesn’t mean more is better.
Shooting into the sun is a no-no. But it sometimes works, like outlining the subject of your photo.
I used to think, for example, that a cloudless day was best. But a cloudless sky is boring (so show none or little of it in my photos now, even to breaking the so-called “rule of thirds”).
Time of day:
1. for landscapes and wildlife: first and last hours of sun.
2. flowers and birds: any time.
3. Morning often better than afternoon because of less wind and less chance of rain, less chance of being out after dark — at the expense of not seeing sunsets.
Whatever the time of day, shoot immediately upon seeing the scene. The light may change or the animal or insect may move. Then, after you have had a chance to compose the photo in your mind and perhaps move to a better location, shoot again and again. Still, I have often found as I go through the dozen or so shots that I take of any situation, often the first or the second one is the only one that I find worth keeping.
4. In deep valleys, midday is often the only time you can get sunlight.
Cloudy days, when even not at first and last light, can be great for mood.
As you get more and more proficient in operating your camera equipment and understanding good composition, form, and light, the sharpness of your images may become more and more important for you. It certainly has for me.
The three areas where you can get greater sharpness are these:
1. Better camera equipment, like stepping up to a SLR camera.
2. Using a tripod.
3. Using prime lenses rather than zoom lenses. While zoom lenses are more flexible, a prime lens — one that has a fixed focal length — is inherently sharper. A 50 mm prime lens, which sees the image very much like the way your eye sees it, can be very small, very light, and quite inexpensive.
For flowers and insects in particular.
The general rule for macro photography is to use manual focus, because our eyes are sharper than the camera.
When using a macro lens with an SLR, a tripod is essential.
JPG v. Raw
Raw gives greater post-processing control at the cost of a little time and a lot of hard disk space.
Only a polarizing filter is essential.
A rather new technology called high dynamic range (HDR) has replaced the graduated neutral-density filter. A GND filter is much more limiting, simply reducing the exposure of the top part of the photo by a set amount — and to change that amount you have to have a set of filters. While you can tilt the reduced area, it’s still a line (albeit an invisible one) across your photo. I’m so glad that I don’t have to carry a GND filter and its holder any more.
HDR can go a long way to make up for the harsh light at mid-day.
Now Pentax (with its Pentax K-x at $649) has introduced new a camera that incorporate in-camera HDR. Undoubtedly the major camera manufacturers, Canon and Nikon, will follow.
Meanwhile, HDR is available in post-production software. You take at least three shots in increments of either one or two stops apart. You use a tripod so that all of the shots see exactly the same scene or, when hand-holding your camera, setting it to multiple-exposure and auto-exposure bracketing and quickly making three images. The HDR software is built in to Adobe Photoshop CS2-CS4, but like all of Photoshop it is difficult to use, and it is the least controllable of the programs. Better are HDRsoft’s Photomatix ($99). The simple Pangea Bracketeer ($29.95) is too slow for me in combining hand-held images.
Some tips that I didn’t appreciate at first:
a. HDR doesn’t work for subjects that are moving, like wildlife.
b. Use aperture priority.
c. Turn off automatic white balance by setting it to a specific temperature or a specific icon like sun or cloud. Or change it from automatic to a the correct setting in Photomatix Pro, if that’s the HDR program you use.
d. In Photomatix Pro “align source images by matching features” if not using a tripod; align by correcting horizonal and vertical shifts if using a tripod.
e. In Photomatix Pro when clicking on the Tone Mapping button, avoid the “Details Enhancer” tab if you want a more natural effect; use the “Tone Compressor” tab instead. Set the Saturation slider to no more than 50 percent to avoid overly garish results.
3. Tripods or Monopods:
Sometimes an essential accessory, but heavy.
Use for landscapes, but especially sunrises and sunsets, when we have little light to work with; use with self-timer, image stabilization off (maybe), mirror locked up; it is also essential when using a macro lens and for white water with long exposures.
As Ansel Adams once wrote, “The term accessories has come to include a host of photographic gadgets of questionable value…”
b. Using a special non-slip strap like the UPstrap-Pro (http://www.upstrap-pro.com/ )
4. Chest pack (I’ve used two brands, and the solution for me is the Clik Elite Large SLR Chest Pack (http://www.clikelite.com/shop/large-chest-pack/ ). It offers quick access to my camera without removing the pack and has a comfortable harness that fits easily under my daypack.
Make adjustments for saturation, contrast, vibrancy, etc., in post-production software rather than on the camera, because the computer has a more powerful processor.
Almost all professionals seem to use one version of Photoshop or another. But it has a steep learning curve.
Other PC software includes Photoshop Elements, which has essentially everything but the professional needs.
Mac software includes iPhoto, which comes with many Macs and is easy to use and is a satisfactory basic program. But a year or two ago I upgraded to Aperture, which wasn’t exceptionally difficult to learn and does everything that I want. I especially appreciate that edits aperture
are nondescrutive, which means that I can easily and immediate revert to the original image.
Whether you have a PC or a Mac, editing and viewed your photographs will go a lot smoother and be a lot more satisfying if you have a fast new computer with a large high-resolution monitor.
The biggest difference of opinion in photography is in “improving” your photographs. If you are a news photographer this is no controversy whatsoever. No improvements allowed.
But some nature photographers believe strongly in boosting saturation and contrast and in usuing special filters to achieve more stunning — more beautiful — effects.
Now, in the age of digital photography, this controversy is raging even more strongly than it did in the era of film photography. Nevertheless, Fujifilm’s Velvia has very saturated colors under daylight, high contrast, and exceptional sharpness. Consequently, some photographers consider it to be oversaturated.
Personally, I boost my contract and saturation at least a bit. I will also, if necesary, darken the highlights, lighten the shadows, and remove flaws and blemishes to say nothing of cropping and straightening my photos as I routinely do. My one guideline is not to boost contrast and saturation so much that the scene looks artificial to my eyes.
My advice: You have to please yourself not your viewers, because you can’t possibly please all of them.
Try to get a mentor: I have three: Kevin Mahoney, a staff photographer for the New York Times and a photography instructor at CU; Doug Goodin, a professional nature photographer; and Weldon Lee, who led the photo safari that I just took to photograph wild horses.
The Colorado Nature Camera Club meets the third Thursday of every month (excluding July and August) in the Rose Littman Hall (S of the SE corner of Arapahoe and 30th Street, across from the Scott Carpenter Park on 30th street in Boulder) at 7:00 PM; write Calvin E. Whitehall <firstname.lastname@example.org> to get on mailing list
Two magazines: “Nature Photographer” publishes four issues per year, and “Outdoor Photographer” publishes 11.
B&H Photo catalog, free with purchases, 473 pages in the current edition.
Two books are loaded with the best possible advice for nature photographers:
1. National Audubon Society Guide to Landscape Photography by Tim Fitzharris, 2007, $24.95
2. Amphoto’s Complete Book of Photography by Jenni Bidner, Photos by Russ Burden, 2004, $24.95
Since November 2009, Carol Burkett has been posting useful articles for local nature photographers. The URL is http://www.examiner.com/x-29603-Boulder-Photography-Examiner
“Photography has flourished for a century and a half with only two real subjects: Beauty and bad news.” — Larry McMurtry; which one of my mentors, Kevin Mahoney, sent me the other day.
“There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.” — Ansel Adams
“Buying a Nikon doesn’t make you a photographer. It makes you a Nikon owner.” — Author Unknown
Photography is the visual art form analogous to non-fiction as the art form of words. Both of these art forms get their necessary tension from the constraints imposed by having to work with reality. Contrast these art forms with the visual art form of painting and the fiction art form of words, which must have its tension develop internally.
The constraint of having to reflect reality is a strength, not a weakness of photography and non-fiction, just as the constraints of poetry are a heightening of expression compared with free flowing verse.