Photography On Location

Shoot at the sun….

July 15th, 2014


I just returned from a photography packed trip in Montana put on by the Mentor Series, and I am still trying to download all the images I shot.  We photographed animals at the Triple D Game Ranch, North American Indian Days, models fly fishing and kayaking, and the beauty of Glacier National Park.  Thanks again to everyone who put this trip together, and the great participants on the trip!

One technique we explored was shooting into the sun.  This angle is generally the last thing photographers are thinking about; lens flare, tricky exposures and spotty autofocus can all be problems when you photograph from this angle. But the results are worth it!  Our first subject shooting into the sun was avalanche lillies on Logan Pass.  These delicate yellow flowers are only about 4 inches tall, so to start with,  some of the participants and I laid down on the ground at eye level with the flowers.  Next, we positioned ourselves so the sun would drop behind a peak around sunset, producing a nice sunstar and backlit flowers.  Remember, to produce sun stars you need to use a small aperture opening like F16.

Next up was photographing a huge Blackfoot Indian Pow Wow.  This is an amazing event; bright colors, heavy drumbeats and loud chanting creates a powerful experience.  We had complete access to this event, and we all got some great images.  As the sun was setting during some dancing, I realized it would be at the perfect angle to shoot through the elaborate headdresses worn by the dancers.  There were only five minutes where the dancers and the sun lined up, and I got one of my favorite shots during the trip.

Remember when the sun is setting, anticipate possible shooting opportunities you might have….


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Practice makes perfect…almost.

July 8th, 2014


Workshop participants often ask about techniques they can use to improve their photography.  Many are busy with work during the week, so their only shooting time might be on weekends.  One thing we all can do to improve our shooting is practice a lot.  When was the last time you went to the park and really worked on creatively shooting those boring mallard ducks?  Of how about photographing flying pigeons in the street? This might not sound glamorous, but shooting sessions like these will improve your camera handling and technique….the better you know your camera, the quicker you can get that fleeting shot.

Recently I was in Kenai Fjords NP, and we were returning from a fabulous day of photographing in the park.  On the boat ride back we had a flock of gulls that just hovered and soared all around the back of our boat.  I was sitting there watching the gulls when I realized this was a great opportunity to photograph flying gulls against beautiful scenery.  Better yet, these birds got really close to the boat, no long lens needed.  So I started shooting…and shooting…and shooting.  I shot at 10FPS with my D4, and experimented with different focus patterns, shutter speeds, focus modes…I couldn’t remember that last time I put my camera through so many different settings experimenting with my shooting techniques. About 500 frames into it I was really having fun.  ’Boring’ gulls were becoming as exciting as sea lions on the rocks.  By 800 frames I was laughing like a giddy child; these gulls were as exciting as breaching whales.  By 1000 frames I was almost losing my voice I was laughing so much. And I was getting some very interesting frames, only shots I could get by shooting hundreds of gull photos.  I honed some of my shooting technique that day, and learned a few creative approaches to panning bird photography.  Practice with that camera, even with ‘boring’  subjects, you will be a better photographer for it.

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Nikon 70-200mm with 1.4x is sharp!

July 1st, 2014


I just returned from a terrific ANPW workshop in Alaska (if you are interested in next year, there are a few spots still open).  We had a private charter into Kenai Fjords NP one day photographing orcas, seals, birds and whales, and spent a number of days photographing bears in Lake Clark NP.  I brought my long lens with me, my 500mm, which is always good to have shooting wildlife in Alaska.  But I also tried out my F4 70-200mm with a 1.4x converter as a lighter, more accessible option to capture the action.  I wasn’t disappointed.


I am using my 70-200mm F4 a lot these days for a few reasons.  First, it is a lot lighter and smaller than my 70-200mm F2.8.  Second, this lens features Nikon’s latest VR technology, and it is simply incredible, noticeably better than any earlier versions of VR.  And third, to my eye, this lens is as sharp as the 2.8 version.  If there is one thing the F4 version doesn’t do as well as the F2.8 version, its focus as fast, especially in low light conditions.  But I just got done shooting this lens everyday in Alaska, and it is impressive.


All these images were shot using the 70-200mm F4 with the 1.4x.  I was very impressed at how tack sharp this combination was.  I wound up using this set up more than my 500mm since the bears were close, and it was much easier to get low shooting angles and follow moving bears.

I will still be using my 70-200mm F2.8 for action sports, but I have been very impressed with the F4 version.  And since it is tack sharp with a 1.4x converter, I’ll be using it even more.

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Right place, right action, right mood.

June 18th, 2014

Lander, Wyoming. Sinks Canyon

Climbing photography often results in the butt shot, i.e. sitting at the base of a rock climb and shooting up.  Granted, there are some creative ways to shoot butt shots, but that is another post.  With any action photography I always recommend one simple rule; capture the essence of the sport with your image.  Rock climbing is about pushing limits, exploring personal boundaries; it combines powerful movement with problem solving to figure out difficult sequences to get up a route.  It is easy to just point and shoot sports, but really take a moment and figure out where the best shot will be.  If you only get one frame to sum up the entire shoot and activity, what is the best angle?

I just returned from 9 days of climbing and shooting in Wyoming.  My 14 yr. old son is a willing model, and climbing some very difficult routes these days.  He worked the route, Camel Jockey 5.13b, for a few days before going for the redpoint ascent (climber speak for leading the route without falls after previous attempts).  To get the right angle, and show the desperate moves on tiny holds, I rigged a rope on the cliff nearby and ascended to where I could get the right angle.  Skyler cranked through the moves, and I had my shot.

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Speedlights and Topaz Adjust 5

June 12th, 2014


I have found a combination of techniques that really makes a stunning shot when put together.  First, wait for a moody sky with good detail and contrast with some stormy clouds.  Then find a subject to work with this moody concept.  Add some of your own light to punch up the contrast on your subject….shoot picture….then really bring it to life using Topaz Adjust 5.  One day in Scotland we visited some standing stones, ancient ceremonial artifacts from times long ago.  The scene looked pretty flat when we arrived, and there was a slow drizzle falling from the sky.  But the sky had moody clouds, and the standing stones just begged to be lit with a speed light to make them pop out of the scene.  We used three speed lights at different angles, all triggered using a SU800 transmitter.  I set my ambient background exposure to -1.5 to darken the scene and add mood.  It only took a couple shots to get a good one.  In the computer, I used the ‘spicify’ action.  I added this to a separate layer in photoshop, and reduced the opacity to to add just the right amount of the effect without overwhelming the shot.  Try Topaz out, it adds some amazing effects to images.

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Watch the background

June 7th, 2014


I just returned from a great photo tour of Scotland put together by Strabo tours.  Scotland is a magical place with steep mountains and misty valleys, beautiful waterfalls and some really funny looking cows!  One of the most amazing parts of the trip was photographing puffins on Lunga Island.  These puffins nest along a cliff edge over the sea, and you can get close, very close, to these birds.  One thing I was reminded of photographing these puffins is how just a simple shift in position greatly improves an image.  Take a look at the shot above.  Initiallly I was lying flat on the ground thinking this level would make a good perspective. Instead, being this low put my puffin against a flat gray sky.  But when I raised off the ground about 1 foot, then the puffin had a dark rock background behind the bird, creating better separation and a better shot. Remember, little details like this make or break many images.

If you are interesting in joining me on an international trip, I am headed to Croatia with Strabo in October; there are only 3 spots left!  Come join me photographing this amazing country!

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Travel Tip #9; Expose for the subject.

May 28th, 2014

Dominican Republic. school kids.

Digital photography has given us many amazing tools to create better images.  No more guessing on the right exposure or composition.  Take the shot, review the image on your LCD, and adjust accordingly.  But just remember to use these new tools to their fullest advantage, and don’t get trapped following to many ‘rules’.

One rule of thumb that has some confusion surrounding it is ‘expose to the right’.  This guideline refers to the fact that cameras can capture more pixel data when you set your exposure such that your histogram pushes up against the right side of the display.  In other words it is like you are over exposing the image in order to capture more data.  In post processing you can pull the exposure slider back left to create the exposure you want (with more pixel data since you exposed to the right).

This is a good rule of thumb, but just remember this; blinking highlights don’t mean a bad shot.  With travel photography in particular, I frequently have blown out highlights in my shot.  Why? Because I am on the move, and shooting during the middle of the day in contrasty light.  Travel photography is not landscape photography where you can wait for the perfect light.  It is not indoor sports photography with controlled lighting.  Travel shooters may only have one hour in a market, and then have to move  to the next town.  I expose for my subject instead of exposing to the right. The image above is a good example.  These school girls were photographed in the middle of the day, and the bright background was blinking on my LCD.  If I would have under exposed to eliminate the blinking highlights, then the girls would have been way to dark.  Instead, I exposed for the girls, and let the background blow out.

The bottom line here is to really understand what your histogram is telling you about your exposure, and use that information to your advantage.  Sometimes exposing to the right works great, other times not so well.  I solve this challenge by exposing for my subject, and letting my highlights fall where they may.

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Travel Tip #8; Shoot food…and it too!

May 19th, 2014

Italy desert

A good travel photographer records ‘the experience’ of their destination. The sights, culture, people, mood, activities…after seeing a selection of images you should have an emotional response to the story.  And part of travel for many people is experiencing the exotic foods at their destination.  Yet how many photographers actually photograph food?  I’ll admit the last thing I want to do is photograph my dessert when it arrives, I want to eat it.  But that same mouth watering reaction I have looking at my dessert can be conveyed in a nice image of it.  So take a moment and photograph your chocolate cheesecake.

There are many approaches to photographing food, but key is the lighting and styling of the food.  If you are eating at a really nice restaurant, chances are the dish presented to you is beautiful already.  You just need to photograph it before it goes cold.  The easiest way to photograph food is putting your dish (or eating at a table) beside a large window that provides nice soft indirect light.  You can add a simple reflector on the opposite side for a more specular effect.  I like to shoot with wide open apertures around F4 to create some soft focus on the dish.  Another angle is photographing straight down on your dish with everything tack sharp. Make sure you style the napkins, silverware and plate nicely, this often makes or breaks a food image.  If you are eating near a window, you can take a few nice food shots very quickly without disrupting other diners in the restaurant.

And here is the best part.  After you capture that mouth watering dish, you follow up by eating it.  Your friends back home will be jealous!

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New possibilities using the Elinchrom ELC 1000s

May 15th, 2014


Have you ever had a creative idea that just wasn’t technically possible? For as long as I have been shooting adventure sports, I love creating image sequences of athletes in action.  My favorite subject has been skiers flying off of big jumps (take a look at the back cover of my book). Not only can you watch an athlete’s every move as they fly through the air, but the resulting curved line of motion creates a strong graphic element in the image.  For years I have dreamed of shooting one of these sequences, but using flash for every frame in the sequence.  Last night the flash sequence became reality using the Elinchrom Pro HD ELC 1000s.

Fort Collins, CO

I connected with a super talented local skater, and he pulled off one trick after another in the skatepark.  I used one ELC1000 head connected to my Honda 2000 watt generator, and shot sequence after sequence at twilight.  Not only did the ELC 1000 flash/recycle perfectly at 10 frames a second, but the fast flash duration froze the action.  In Photoshop I seamed up all the individual frames using layers and masks.  Seeing these sequences has my mind churning with new sequence ideas, but this time they are going to be lit with the lightning fast ELC 1000s.

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Travel tip #7; think graphically, not literally

May 13th, 2014


One trap I see many photographers fall into during my workshops is photographing a scene from a literal standpoint.  You see an interesting subject, and take a shot that shows the whole subject.  But what if the ‘whole subject’ isn’t that interesting, just one part of it stands out.  Then photograph that part!  Remember, always stay open to your intuition about what attracts you to a scene, and why you are taking the photo in the first place.  Look at your subject not as a literal subject, but instead from a graphics standpoint.  If the subject has interesting color, then zoom in on that part.  If the old car had some gritty texture on the door, then focus on that…not the whole car.  Viewers will often get a stronger impression and understanding by tightening up the graphic elements in a scene, not by watering them down and shooting a wide angle shot to capture the entire subject.  I just returned from Yosemite, and one afternoon we explored the Mariposa Grove of sequoia trees.  My first thought was to photograph as much of the tree as I could.  But then I realized what I liked best was the contrast between the sequoia trunks with other trees in the grove…more about texture, color and pattern than showing the whole forest.  Follow your graphic intuition, chances are it is the right way to go!

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