I recently shot a story for Digital Photo magazine on portable power solutions for the photographer. How do you charge up that D4 battery when you are in woods? Hands down Goal Zero has been the answer for me. Goal Zero offers a large line of portable power packs and matching solar panels to power your gear in the field. Their power sources range from my favorite, the Sherpa 50, to the massive Yeti 1250 which can run your refrigerator. But here is the really handy thing; most of their large power supplies have inverters, which means you can plug in your camera charger just like you are plugging it into the wall. I use the Sherpa 50 to power up my batteries all the time, and recharge the battery during the day using the Nomad 13 solar panel. Better yet, this little pack can power Goal Zero Light-a-Life light for 16 hours, plenty of light to do work in camp at night. If you are looking for portable power, check out Goal Zero.
I regularly teach a class on composition during my workshops, and one topic we discuss is how the eye moves through an image. What attracts the eye (i.e. viewer), what causes confusion, why do some photographs just look so good? Being able to articulate these concepts is critical in visual literacy, and is fundamental in creating better photographs. If you don’t know why a shot is good, then how can you create another good image except by luck alone?
Let’s review a few principles. First, viewers go to what is sharp in an area before they go to the blurry sections. Next, high saturation of color attracts the eye and draws the viewer into the image. The same can be said for areas of high contrast.
And bright areas in the image attract the viewer’s eye before dark areas. Light advances, dark recedes….or does it? Nothing kills a good image more quickly than some bright object in the background that distracts the viewer from the subject. But the one exception to this rule is when you have mist and foggy conditions; then dark advances, and light recedes. Take a look at the image above. We were staying in a lodge in the rainforest, and mornings consisted of misty clouds blowing through the jungle. This presented a great opportunity to use the ‘dark advances’ concept. The Costa Rican jungle is dense, with mysterious sounds and animals moving through it. I liked the way this image captured this magical place.
I’ve just added two new workshops for this summer, both for the Mentor Series. I’ve worked for years with the Mentor Series, and their trips are always loaded with fantastic shooting and lots of fun. I also really like the fact I get to work with other Nikon Pros (Dave Black and I can’t keep a straight face!); participants benefit from hearing multiple views on technique and style. This summer I am teaching in two very familiar places for me, Colorado and Montana. Both trips combine landscape and wildlife shooting with speedlight portrait work, along with image reviews. This workshop format works great, and packs in a ton of shooting and learning. If you have some time this summer, join me on one of these terrific workshops.
I just returned from a great trip to Costa Rica with ANPW, looking forward to returning next year! We spent our days photographing wildlife and jungle scenes all through this friendly country. We found all sorts of critters to photograph including iguanas, turquoise Morpho butterflies, 4 species of monkeys and countless exotic birds. After getting the mandatory clean shots of various animals, the question came up in the group on how to photograph wildlife in a more creative way. My response was ‘shoot through it’.
Landscape photographers are big on creating depth and dimension in their images by introducing more layers into the scene. The same can be said about wildlife photographers. Try photographing your favorite subject through some branches, leaves or trees to create a sense of place and add context to your shot.
This iguana is a good example. We got incredible close up shots of iguanas, they were easy to approach. After getting some nice tight head shots of their scaly skin, I tried photographing one through some vegetation. I really liked the different mood of this image; shooting through leaves gave this iguana personality and drama. The next time you are shooting wildlife, try shooting through something to spice things up.
I’ve written posts before on packing light. I’m sure some of my obsession with packing light comes from years of carrying 80 pound packs on month long expeditions; if you don’t need it, don’t carry it. But better put for photographers is maybe ‘too much gear is a hindrance, not a help’. I am very careful about carrying what I need on a shoot or workshop, because if I am only using a lens once or twice on a week long trip, then it is more dead weight that slows me down rather than helps me create images. I have learned a few tricks that might help with packing light on your next trip.
The image above is my gear for an 8 day workshop in Costa Rica. I have taken out the padded case from my LowePro Roller X100, and put my LowePro Flipside Sport 20L inside. This allows me to roller my gear through airports and to my hotels. Once at my destination, I take out this terrific pack and I am ready to hit the trail. Inside this pack are two bodies, 4 lenses, macro flashes/bracket, batteries, filters, cable release, battery charger. I close the pack, put my padded Macbook Air 11″ on top, and close the flap on my roller. One bag to roll through airports, with easy access to my computer if I need it.
The biggest decision I had to make was to bring my 500 F4 or not. I know there will be some bird images that would be great to shoot with this lens, but I decided to bring my 80-400mm instead. This lens is more practical to shoot hiking on trails and from boats, and I am not losing much. So following my advice to myself above, I am leaving the big glass at home.
In my small suitcase will be my clothes, a Gitzo 1541T tripod with RRS BH40 head, one light stand and a SB900 in a padded case. Since this is going to be a warm weather trip and I am bringing a lot of nylon clothes, I’m guessing my suitcase will be around 35 pounds….it normally is for week long trip. Of course these trips aren’t supposed to be about not bringing cozy things to wear or camera gear to use; after all, these trips are supposed to be fun! But if you do want to go light, just give a little thought to the gear you really need. You might be surprised at how light your suitcase is.
I have been shooting in a lot of snow lately, and not the kind on the ground. Blowing snow causes a few technical issues, as well as a few creative ones. Here is the short list the next time you photograph in a snowstorm.
1. Autofocus may not work. Depending on how heavy the snow is falling, autofocus may get confused and try to focus on falling snow. Switch to manual, and check your LCD for critical sharpness.
2. Use a lens hood. Lens hoods keep the snow from sticking to the front element of your lens, especially big telephotos. Avoid blurry spots in your final image, use a lens hood.
3. Use a lens rain cover. Many cameras can take a lot of abuse like getting soaked in falling snow, but why take the chance? I use a simple rain cover by Fotosharp to keep my gear dry.
4. Avoid condensation when returning to a warm room. Seal your camera in a bag, or just leave it in your photo backpack (zipped up) until the bag warms up.
5. Telephoto shots in heavy snow may not work well with distant subjects. I was shooting a 500mm in heavy snow in Yellowstone, and the compression of the lens along with shooting at distant subjects almost made the subjects unrecognizable. But falling snow can look terrific through a long lens if it isn’t snowing too heavy.
6. Choose a fast shutter speed to freeze the snowflakes. I’ve found I like to shoot fast in falling snow to freeze the flakes instead of getting blurry white streaks shooting around 1/60. I try to shoot 1/250 or faster in the snow.
7. Use a Hoodman Loupe. It is really hard to see your LCD in white conditions. Consider using a loupe.
8. Experiment with flash. Shoot a speed light in falling snow, and every little flake shines…this can make for some very creative effects…and for some throw outs.
9. Use ‘Clarity’ to make snow pop. The ‘Clarity’ slider in Photoshop does wonders in rendering snow more defined and sharp. I also love using Topaz Adjust 5 to bring winter scenes to life.
Go out and shoot in the next snowstorm, blowing snow makes for interesting and dynamic images.
I just returned from weeks on the road, first in Tampa filming a new training video for Kelby Training (more on that later), and most recently teaching a workshop with ANPW in Yellowstone. This was our 9th year there, a sell out trip almost every year, and with good reason. Yellowstone is just plain magical in winter; wildlife, geyser basins and feather-like ice crystals on the trees. Since we were photographing a lot of wildlife this year, one topic that came up was what is the best lens for wildlife photography. As you can imagine, there is no simple answer, but I can give you a few thoughts to consider. Through the years I’ve owned every long lens focal length from 300mm on up except the 800mm, and after much buying and selling I’ve settled on the lens I first used in Alaska starting out, a 500mm F4.
The 300mm F2.8 is a tack sharp lens, small/compact, and only weighs 6.39 lbs. But 300mm is a little short for much of my wildlife photography. A great option is to use a teleconverter with this lens; still very sharp and the added reach is much needed. Next would be the 400mm F2.8. Often mentioned as the sharpest of the Nikon big glass, this lens weighs just over 10 pounds and is expensive. And for me 400mm is still to short for my wildlife photography. Weighing about the same at 11 pounds is the 600mm F4. Now this is plenty long, but at 11 pounds and pretty large to carry around, both the 400 and 600mm were not the best options for me. The 800mm is quite the lens, weighs just over 10 pounds, but the cost is high.
And then there is the 500mm; 8.5 pounds, nearly 3 inches shorter than the other big glass (except the 300mm) and long enough for wildlife shooting. Tack sharp, and combined with the 1.4x teleconverter I get a 700mm lens. The bison shot above was taken using this combination. And since this lens has VR, I shoot it hand held when I can’t get a tripod set up in time. This is a big lens, but I find if I sit down and balance the lens on my knees I can get sharp images. Of course always better to use a tripod with long glass, or a bean bag shooting through car windows.
One nice option for many has been the new 80-400mm. At 400mm you can get some nice wildlife shots without carrying a large lens around. In the end, your shooting style, budget and willingness to carry big glass will decide what lens you use.
I just walked in the door from teaching the AMS photo workshop in Kauai, and I am still shaking the sand out of my hair. We had an incredible trip…huge waves on the north shore, helicopter rides over the Napali coast, portrait sessions with world class surfers. This island is very dramatic with steep cliffs, lush scenery and massive waves crashing on the rocks. This trip was also my first chance to try out the 15-Stop Mor Slo filter by Singh-Ray.
This image about sums it up. Silky water, stretched out clouds, interesting light. This filter allows you to shoot 30 second exposure during the middle of the day for some very creative results. I used it both to slow down the crashing surf and to transform clouds into silky shapes. Check it out at Singh-Ray.
I have been to Hawaii many times, and every time I go I try to photograph the rare endemic Nene goose. On other islands this goose is hard to find, but on Kauai this goose is easily seen and photographed. I found a pair the Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge that lined up nicely for an image using my 500mm F4.
I recently have been shooting some macro flash, and I was asked what worked the best. Here is the good news. Lighting principles work the same, whether you are photographing a model on the beach or a butterfly in the garden. All light has direction, quality and color, the three characteristics you work with using light. With macro photography, your set is very small, maybe only a few inches across and a foot deep. But macro adds some unique challenges.
The biggest challenge with macro is you might only be 5 inches from your subject. That doesn’t give you much room to work with in terms of angle of light and how soft it is. One big variable is the lens you are using. If I am shooting my 60mm macro, I am about 2 inches away from my subject when I have 1 to 1 life-size reproduction (true macro=subject is life size on your sensor). I really can’t do much with my flash, maybe hold it off to the side, but this is very close and will scare live subjects away. I like to use a 105mm macro. This allows me to be about 7 inches away from my subject, far enough to use two lights and alter the flash angle and intensity for interesting light. I use the Nikon R1C1, a twin flash macro set up that fits right on my lens (see image at top). This handy bracket allows me to change the angle and location of the flashes, producing creative results in the final shot. I often pop off one SB R200 and hold it even further to the side. You can hold bigger speed lights off to the side as well. This is a good technique if you are using the 200mm F4 macro lens since you are farther away from your subject.
Why use macro flash in the first place? Because macro subjects are often in dark areas, and the flash duration will freeze the action. Last summer I photographed dart frogs in Costa Rica, and using a flash was critical on jungle walks due to low light. And since the flash is illuminating the entire scene, flash duration of 1/1600 (SB R200 at full power, much faster as power decreases) freezes any subject movement. Flash also allows you to backlight subjects on vegetation.
Another handy thing about using flash with macro is it allows you to control your background exposure. Take a look at the shot above. The butterfly looks okay, but the background is white and distracting.
If I use macro flash, I can set my background exposure to be darker, while my subject still looks good since the flash is illuminating it. You can control the background darkness. Some photographers like lighter backgrounds for more natural effects (butterflies are out in the daytime); I like my background a little darker so my subject really pops of the image. You can shoot macro flash at your local zoo in the winter, or somewhere warm. These images were taken at the Denver Butterfly Pavillion.
Winter may seem like a funny time to shoot macro, after all, there are no insects or flowers to photograph. But I am headed to Kauai and Costa Rica (two spots left) in the next few months, and I wanted to update my macro options to capture those colorful dart frogs in the Costa Rican rain forest. I’ll talk about lens options in another post, but probably the least expensive way to get into ‘macro’ shooting is using extension tubes.
Generally macro photography is thought of as the subject size is life size on the sensor, resulting in a 1 to 1 reproduction. ’True’ macro lenses have 1 to 1 reproduction, while other lenses may only have 1 to 3 reproduction. Many photographers have telephoto lenses like the 70-200mm, which zooms into your subject, although not as close as a macro lens. Extension tubes help you get closer. An extension tube is a tube between the lens and the camera. By moving the lens further from the image plane, you can focus closer. Auto extension tubes allow full autofocus and metering with your lens. There is no glass in an extension tube, so no loss of optical quality here. The only downside to using extension tubes is you loose light resulting in longer shutter speeds.
I have been using an inexpensive set of Vello extension tubes ($79). The tubes come in 12, 20 and 36mm. Attaching these to my 70-200mm gets me much closer to a tiny subject and still allows a good working distance (so I am not right on top of my subject). The tubes are made of plastic with metal fittings inside; they may not feel the most sturdy, but I have not had any problems using them. I get full autofocus and aperture control, and they are very lightweight. Any time I think I might want to shoot ‘macro’, I drop these into my pack. And they would make a perfect stocking stuffer if you are still shopping!