In the shot of the karst mountains in Guilin, China, I wanted to emphasize their repeating pattern and unusual shapes: individual humps instead of long ridges. I used my 80-200mm lens to zero in on an area that I felt made the strongest statement.
The second shot was taken a few minutes from my home in Seattle. I grew up in this neighborhood, and as a boy, I loved this path especially, with its graceful madrona trees. I went back to photograph it forty years later.
Spatially, light objects stand forward of dark in our normal experience of perception. When we have atmosphere such as fog, however, it is the reverse; dark objects are closer to us than light ones, as in the mountain scene. We understand this perceptually because atmospheric haze intervenes and makes the far mountains paler and less distinct. This is sometimes referred to as “atmospheric perspective.”
We also understand crisp outlines as close and fuzzy ones as distant, as with the trees in the fog, which is contrary to normal perception, where we can see distant objects in focus as well. The sense of space in both these images is definitely enhanced by the fog. Forms are more noticeable without competition from intricate detail. The tree trunks stand out more without the busy clutter of foliage. Because it shrouds things from view, fog, more than any other atmospheric condition, creates mood and a sense of mystery.
With SNOWMAGEDDON hitting the Pacific Northwest, a timely themed #TechniqueTuesday is in order! This is an entry from Photographs From the Edge, where I’ve combined the stories behind some of my most recognizable career photographs, as well as providing tips, techniques, and camera data for them. Enjoy, and I hope everyone back home is staying safe in the Winter weather!
Canon EOS-1DX, Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, f/18 for 1/250 sec., ISO 2000
This image of bison in Yellowstone National Park really began when I co-led a rafting trip down Alaska’s Taku River a number of years ago. On that trip I met Robert Bateman and his wife Birgit. This outstanding Canadian artist spent time photographing details of rocks along the river’s edge or details of the forest. I had to ask what he was doing. He simply responded that he was taking details that he could later render accurately as details in his paintings.
At that time I had been fixating on getting closer and closer to animals and ultimately getting that classic portrait of that animal almost as if it was a trophy. The analogy was that I was a hunter with the camera. Bateman made me take a serious look at how he would he was less concerned about portraits of animals and more concerned about capturing an animal within the context of its environment. I looked at my own work and started realizing he was right.
Bateman showed that by creating atmospheric conditions and a sense of place, the composition become more nuanced, more intricate, and more involving for the viewer. In the years after meeting Bateman, I think my work became infinitely more interesting by being more inclusive of the environment. From that point forward then I would always look at storms and thick atmosphere as opportunities rather than distractions.
This image of bison in Yellowstone works to carefully include the animal’s environment. With the advent of higher ISO cameras, I can shoot with both a smaller aperture and a faster shutter speed. Here, I was able to capture a herd of animals with great depth of field, and to use a fast enough shutter speed to stop the movement of snow. So in this image of the buffalo in Yellowstone, you can see tiny points of white snow suspended in motion as well as individual animals clearly in focus. To me, this photo recalls some of the great paintings of Robert Bateman.
Photo tip: For falling snow to show up in a photo, you need contrast to set the snow apart from the rest of the scene. In this image, both the dark trees in the background and the dark fur of the bison help bring this contrast to the image. The falling snow behind the bison also lend a strong sense of atmosphere to the shot.
The nature of the photo: Snow is extremely variable in size and shape, which has a strong impact on how it appears in a photo. Very cold conditions can create tiny snow crystals that will appear more as fog than snow in a photo. Large snowflakes can be a bold part of a winter photo.
For more photos and the stories behind them, along with tips and techniques, purchase Photographs From the Edge in my online store. As always, make a request note in your order and I’ll give it a signature!
And if you missed it – check out the gallery of images from my recent return trip to Yellowstone.
One of my favorite things to do when I have a couple extra days at home is to take a quick day trip to the Fraser River Delta in British Columbia. It is a haven for birds and birders and I concentrated on the short-eared owls and harriers that were hunting for rodents in the tall grasses. As I did earlier in the month at Pt. Reyres, I practiced with my new Canon EF600mm f/4L IS III USM lens, shooting mostly with a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.
In addition to the birds of prey, I captured some of the best bufflehead images I’ve ever taken. Usually they look like little black and white sea ducks floating in dark water, but in the low winter light their feathers become a colorful iridescent rainbow.
Since they are a niche piece of equipment, not everyone is familiar with what exactly a tilt-shift lens is and what they are used for. Admittedly, I’ve only used them sparingly in my career. Speaking in simple terms, a tilt-shift lens is a lens that allows the optics to tilt and rotate in relation to the image sensor on your camera.
When you take a photo with a standard lens, your lens and the sensor create planes of the same angle. At a wide aperture, everything in front of and behind your focus point will gradually become more out of focus. Using a tilt-shift lens, you can achieve more control over what is or is not in focus by having greater control of your focusing planes, therefore keeping more of the image both in and out of focus, depending on what you’re looking for. It should be noted that there is no auto-focus available on T/S lenses.
You can use this flexibility to achieve a number of desired outcomes. Although on short notice prior to my trip my Canon rep was unable to get me the lens, I was able to rent the Canon TS-E 135mm f/4L MACRO from borrowlenses.com and use to great effect while photographing a king penguin colony on South Georgia Island. By tilting the lens down, you’re essentially moving the plane of lens to be closer to the angle of the the ground and in effect, widening what falls into the range of focus. This allows you to utilize some of the benefits of a relatively lower aperture while still achieving a great deal of detail.
This is just one use and effect achievable with a tilt-shift lens. Even if you’re not familiar with their use, it’s likely you’ve seen photos or even video utilizing the concept. In portrait photography, where a longer lens is ideal to bring attention to the subject and blur the background, a tilt-shift lens can be used to use such a lens in a tight space. In architecture, having greater control over your image plane can be used to combat the distortion that often happens to parallel lines. If you’ve ever seen a photo of a cityscape that looks more like a scale model than an actual city – that’s a tilt-shift lens in action!
The nature of the photo:King penguins are second only to emperor penguins in size. Mostly they live on islands north of Antarctica such as South Georgia Island, rather than on the continent itself. They feed on fish and squid from the ocean nearby which is known for its diversity of life. Canon EOS-1N/RS, TS-E 90mm f/2.8 lens, f/16 for 1/125 sec., Fujichrome Astia
South Georgia Island is a great place for penguin photography, but it is an extremely remote island in the South Atlantic that is difficult to get to. While working on my book, The Living Wild, I worked out a way of getting onto South Georgia Island and camping for six days. My assistant, Gavriel Jecan, and I were dropped off by an American tour boat then picked up six days later by a German passenger ship coming from Cape Town, South Africa.
During our stay, we faced all sorts of weather, but primarily wind and snow. This can be miserable for the photographer but such weather is often stunningly beautiful for the pictures. I love atmospheric conditions and blowing snow is one of those conditions that convey a sense of the primordial and timelessness to the image. Still, it made for difficult shooting.
You can see all of the penguins are hunkered down to withstand this turbulent weather. We were trying to shoot videos as well as stills. The wind meant we had to stabilize the image with a heavy tripod. A small f-stop of f/16 kept all the penguins in focus. One thing a still photo doesn’t convey are the sounds and smells of the moment. Certainly the smells of hundreds of thousands of penguins is something I’ll never forget. The sounds of the birds, the trumpeting of the adults is a sound that is forever etched in my brain. Simply put, it’s one of my favorite places to visit on earth.
A simple tip this technique Tuesday, but an important one to consider – If you suspect challenging weather, be sure you are prepared for it with the right clothing, boots, gloves and hats. If you are too uncomfortable, you are not going to stay outside for the unique possibilities that weather might bring. When conditions get tough, dramatic and unusual photographs are often possible then.
For more stories, technical details and tips relating to some of my most well-known photos, check out the book this excerpt was taken from in my online store – Photographs from the Edge.
This excerpt is from “Photographs from the Edge”, which not only details the stories behind some of my most well-known captures from across the globe and throughout my career, but is also filled with tips and tricks and equipment information.
August 1988: “Rising Mist”, Alaska Range, Denali National Park, Alaska USA Nikon F3, Nikkor 200-400mm f/5.6 lens, f/8 for 1/250 sec., Kodachrome 64
The nature of the photo: Mountains are well known for their fast rising and falling air along their slopes. Glider pilots in mountainous areas will fly right at a mountain side when the thermals are right, then catch a fast moving ride going up with the air. They often describe this as running and jumping onto an elevator that is already moving upward.
Years ago I was working on a book entitled Alakshak, The Great Country, a Sierra Club book about Alaska. I spent a lot of time crisscrossing Alaska gathering photos for it. As part of this journey, I wanted to get some aerial shots of mountains in the Alaska Range. So I found myself in a small plane above the mountains working in the hours between 11 pm through 1 am.
In the summer, this is a key time because the light is most dramatic then. During summer solstice in Alaska, most of the day is bright sunshine and you only have a few hours of twilight with bold light and color. I was using the shortest hours of the day to capture the most radical light.
In this image, the light of the sun on the Arctic horizon illuminating a few misty cloud sweeping up a slope at around 18,000 feet. While I like this image and I have long loved photographing mountains, it is not the photo itself that brings back memories of this moment. This was shot over 25 years ago, and I remember it all these years later because of the absolute turbulence that our plane would encounter as the plane would fly long the lip of the ridge.
I fly a lot, and I have been on planes around the world in some very remote locations. However, I’m not a happy camper when the plane drops 20 feet in an instant as it was doing here. I can often circle in ever tighter circles around the subject with my mind so focused on the shooting that being scared is not part of the equation. However, when a plane is dropping and rising with the thermals like this, it is uncomfortable at best and frightening usually.
I remember spot metering the brightest part of the frame which was simply the wispy cloud. I compensated for the brightness by exposing to make that cloud bright with detail. By contrast then the surrounding mountains and distant valley remain fairly dark by comparison. This shot shows off the ephemeral nature of clouds and light. Within seconds of shooting this, the sun dropped below the horizon, and the entire moment was gone in an instant.
Photo tip: Spot metering can be a helpful technique when the light is dramatic and you have to be sure you get the brightness values right. In this shot, spot metering determined the exposure for the bright cloud, but that would have meant the clouds were dark and the rest of the scene even darker. That exposure has to be adjusted to make the clouds bright, not dark, by adding exposure to what the meter shows.
For this and many, many more stories behind some of the most notable photographs from a lifetime of world travel, pick up “Photographs From the Edge“ today and make a note at checkout that you’d like me to sign it!
This excerpt is from “Photographs from the Edge”, which not only details the stories behind some of my most well-known captures from across the globe and throughout my career, but is also filled with tips and tricks and equipment information.
July 2014: Rufous Hummingbird and Chick, Seattle, Washington, USA Canon EOS-1D X, EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXT lens +1.4x, ƒ/20 for 1/125 sec., ISO 4000
The nature of the photo: All hummingbirds are remarkable birds for their amazing flight abilities. However, the rufous hummingbird, a bird about three-inches long and weighing about a tenth of an ounce, has the longest migration of any U.S. bird its size. It may go the distance from Alaska to well into Mexico, and some scientists think it may go as far as Panama.
I have spent 30 years developing and cultivating a Japanese-inspired garden around my house in Seattle. It has filled in nicely, creating a wild space by my home. I planted some black pines in my garden early on to provide year-round structure and color, besides refuge for birds and other wildlife. I have steadily shaped and pruned them bonsai style to help them fit into the space of my garden.
In 2014 as I was working on my trees, I found a bird staring me in the face. As I looked down past the bird, there was the nest. A rufous female hummingbird had chosen to nest in my beloved black pines! That sort of discovery still excites me after so many years connecting with nature.
A hummingbird nest is so tiny, no more than 2 inches across. The bird covers her nest with lichen, so it is easy to miss in the lichen-covered black pine. But luck had been with me, so I quickly descended from my stepladder and forgot about pruning the trees that day.
I wanted to photograph the mother as it raised its young, so I set up my camera about 10 feet away from the nest. Even that close, hummingbirds are really small, so I needed to use a 200-400mm lens at 400mm plus a 1.4x converter. I could then take pictures from the lawn chair without being so close to the nest as to disturb the mother. I had a field day for the next two weeks as this hummingbird raised its young.
Photo tip: Wildlife photography is rarely about just capturing the animal in a photograph. Timing can be critical to getting the remarkable, striking shot. You have to keep shooting, always paying attention, to be sure you do get that shot. Shooting your camera continuously will not necessarily get the shot, though, because the key moment may be between frames.
Simply put, black bears are very challenging to photograph. Their inky fur absorbs light, and if you try to get the correct reading off it, everything else gets overexposed. Whenever possible I try to shoot a variety of perspectives of the same subject. Even with the advances in digital technology, there is still no substitute for getting the correct exposure the first time out. In the days of film, we bracketed in the hope that one frame would nail it. Now we can happily get immediate results, but too much time spent fooling around with your camera settings may result in losing the shot as the bear (or whatever wildlife you are photographing) shambles away.
In this recent shoot in British Columbia, the light conditions were overcast, not from fog, but from smoke from forest fires burning from California to Canada. This actually helped me get the correct exposure much more easily than I would have had the sky been clear and sunny, adding even more contrast to difficult lighting evaluations. The end result – black bears doing some coastal fishing, with some success! I was photographing these bears with both an EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM and an EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXT lens in an attempt to get the subject at different depths in this colorful and unique environment.
Maybe it’s time to think small, macro small. September and October in the Pacific Northwest present wet dew laden mornings which are perfect for photographing tiny intimate landscapes, insects in your garden, abstracting details of a flower into a wash of color, or a spider’s web suspending drops of dew.
When I talk about “macro photography” I’m not limiting myself to 1:1 or greater magnification. Macro to me is really anything that might fit in my 2 hands. A clump of clover or a close-up of a Macaw’s back showing detail in the feathers, fall into my definition of “macro photography” as does a butterfly’s wing or dandelion seed head filling the entire frame.
People often ask me what I would recommend for a macro lens and honestly I don’t generally carry one; they add too much weight for how often I find myself using one. Instead, I carry a set of extension tubes, practically weightless when compared to adding another lens to my bag, and at my age, less is definitely more (as in more walking, more shooting and more time out of the chiropractors office!)
I’ve asked Jay Goodrich to provide a few technical details on macro lenses and how extension tubes work:
To understand macro lenses you must first understand how a lens focuses on a subject. As you twist the focus ring, the glass optics inside move forward and back. Want to focus closer? Move the glass further from the sensor. Want to focus at 1:1 magnification? (1:1 happens when the object you are shooting is the same size on the sensor as it is in real life such as a quarter or butterfly’s wing filling the frame) Then your lens must be able to move the optics away from the sensor a distance equal to the focal length of your lens (This will vary based on the crop factor of your sensor). In other words if your 100mm lens can move 100mm from the sensor, you have a ‘macro lens’ able to focus close enough for objects to appear life size on the sensor. A 100mm macro lens will be able to achieve 1:1 (lifesize) at twice the distance from your subject than a 50mm macro lens would.
But what if your 100mm lens is not a “macro lens”? That simply means it is not able to move the optics a full 100mm from the sensor. Perhaps it can only move them 75mm and thus it can’t quite focus close enough to fill the frame with the butterfly’s wing. An extension tube is spacer that fits between your camera and lens and they come in various thicknesses. Having no glass at all they do not impact your image quality as a magnifying filter (also used for macro photography) would. So if you were to put a 25mm extension tube on the back of your “non macro” 100mm lens – you would then be able to achieve the full 100mm (75+25) of extension necessary to photograph your subject at 1:1 or 1x magnification.
So what does Art use in the field? He will add extension tubes between his 70-200 f4 lens. Without them, the lens has a minimum focusing distance of 1.2m and a magnification of .21x (about 1/5th life size). Adding a 25mm extension tube allows him to move in closer and achieve .42x life size. Stack additional extension tubes behind the lens and he’s able to focus even closer yet – all without adding an additional lens to his bag.
If you enjoy shooting macro subjects, an investment in a true macro lens is worthwhile. While extension tubes allow you to “make one” on the fly, they must be removed to allow the lens to again focus on distant objects and to infinity. You can even purchase a macro lens with enough extension built in to achieve up to 5x magnification – filling the frame with the eye of a praying mantis.
Most of the time stopping down to f22 and keeping your sensor plane parallel to your subject will give you enough depth of field to cover your subject. If not, you may need to “rack focus”, shooting several images with the focus point first on the leading edge of the subject with each subsequent image focusing a little further into the composition until you reach the furthest point you want in focus. Later you combine the images with Photoshop or Helicon Focus; the combined image will then look sharp across the entire scene from front to back.
I use macro photography to abstract the patterns, lines and texture found in nature; to give the viewer a different taken on an old subject. We’ve all seen photographs of flowers, force your audience to think a little, to tilt their head as they wrap their imaginations around your composition.
You can abstract just about anything you find in nature and even man-made objects. By framing tight on your subject you are able to show a pattern that is lost when looking at the whole. Your image allows a new appreciation for the subject which is unavailable without the photograph to isolate and show only what you, the artist behind the camera, is allowing the viewer to see.
Patterns come from the repetition of shape and textures, thus it is possible to get too close and not show enough of your subject, losing the magic of the pattern you had intended to show. If you love ferns for their delicate pattern of leaves, get in close, focus your attention on just one frond and enjoy the gentle curve of the main stem while playing with the beauty of the individual leaves branching out while ever decreasing in size to either side. A fully symmetric composition with the frond in the center makes a different, but equally effective statement as drawing the frond out of a corner diagonally, try it both ways to see what you like.
Sometimes if I am lacking for inspiration I’ll create a little vignette, a story, with the elements around me. On a beach I may grab some bits of seaweed, a shell, perhaps a dead crab or some muscles, and a bit of drift wood. I’ll loosely arrange these so as not to appear too deliberate or forced and play with the composition. This exercise can help to open me up to other options around me as I begin to see line and form that I may not have seen otherwise.
A good exercise for anyone, whether you are feeling stuck or full of inspiration, is to walk to a random spot, in your back yard, in the country, in the forest… and just stand there and take in the scene. Look all around you. It may take 15 min or it may take an hour, but you will begin to see opportunities on a macro, close up scale, which you may have overlooked in the past. The stained glass effect of a dragon fly’s wing, the rainbow of colors in a puddle, a sewer grate, the wabi sabi qualities of a dead leaf as it curls and browns. Photographic opportunities are all around if you open yourself to the possibility of seeing them.
Always keep a sharp eye for any distracting elements in the composition. Check each of the four corners for bright areas on the edges, twigs, dead leaves, hard edges. A grouping of pine needles close-up can make for an abstract of Japanese writing; a single pine needle in the corner can blow the whole composition.
As you head out to photograph the macro landscape, ask yourself about the difference between a tight shot of a flower that could be used in a botanical textbook as “figure 7.2”, and an artist’s abstract of that same flower. When you get in really close, can you start to see a Georgia O’Keefe or Claude Monet’s influence on the composition? Does the texture make you think of a pointillism painting where the entire scene is composed of dots of color? Go back and photograph those same flowers, mosses, and leaves you have shot so many times before, even those in your own yard, but do so through a new set of eyes, not looking to record nature but to abstract and challenge the senses of your viewer.
I’ll be in town this weekend between trips and will be spending some time on Saturday signing books at Kenmore Camera’s Customer Appreciation Day! The first 100 customers will be receiving a FREE copy of “Edge of the Earth, Corner of the Sky”, and my assistant Libby will be on hand with some other goodies. Other books will be available for purchase and signature, so come on by and check out the festivities.
Kenmore camera will be offering special savings for the event, so this would be a great time to come and pick up that gear you’ve been holding out for. A Canon rep will also be on hand to answer questions you might have about their products.
Hope to see you there! If you can’t make it but would love a signed book for yourself or as a gift all pre-orders of my latest book, “Trees: Between Earth and Heaven” will be signed and shipped out this fall!