AW – Often students in my classes will bring work that shows an interesting subject, but without enough information to tell a complete story. I find that one effective tool for storytelling is using a wide-angle lens close to my subject, so that some of the background is included, creating a valuable sense of place.
I find elephant seal weaners, fattened up and then abandoned by their mothers, to be wonderfully cooperative photographic subjects. With this weaner, I laid flat on the ground in front of it to photograph it on its level.
The hot-spring-addicted macaques in the Japanese Alps are another fun subject. When their own hot springs were invaded by the furry monkeys, the human residents built a monkeys-only spring. This youngster hung around the side of the pool, making a perfect subject for a wide-angle shot, which allows me to add important background and context.
MH – Looking at us with its liquid black eyes, the seal pup seems to be hoping we are his mother coming to feed him. Weaned at three weeks, he seems a bit lost, even indignant, that the tap has suddenly been turned off. With the spectacular landscape of South Georgia in the background, this image creates a sense of loneliness, seeing this solitary pup by himself in this grand wilderness.
In the second image, the Japanese macaques are so human-like that it’s a little freaky. The monkey in the image seems curious, even mischievous, while his peers ignore his proximity to the camera and wallow in the thermal heat. I love seeing an animal in its environment, especially one as unique as this. It enlarges our understanding of how they live and sometimes gives us clues as to what motivates their behavior. Here, the slight distortion of the wide-angle lens enhances the drama of the scene.
Strong Leading Lines
Another important approach to using a wide-angle lens is to work with leading lines. Leading lines have long been important parts of painting and other two-dimensional forms of art. A leading line is simply something that creates a line from foreground to background and leads or directs the eye through the image. It can be anything that is visually distinct, that a viewer is going to notice, and helps define the composition.
You can find all sorts of leading lines in the environment: tracks in the sand, edges of roads, cracks in rocks, architectural structures, and so on. These can be used to direct the viewer’s eye through a composition and toward the main subject. They are an excellent way to help the viewer understand your picture as well as add a graphic element to the design of your image.
Wide-angle lenses help emphasize leading lines. This comes back to the concept of perspective. By getting in close to nearby parts of leading lines, you spread them apart, yet they still go to the same vanishing point in the distance. That creates a very strong change from foreground to background along those lines, something that will dramatically show off the elements of your photograph.
To understand this, think about a railroad track. If you stand on a hill and photograph railroad tracks in the distance so they start at the bottom of your picture and go to the horizon near the top, you will see them heading off to a vanishing point at the horizon. The railroad tracks will be a certain width at the bottom of your composition. If you then put on a wide-angle lens and get right down on the tracks, the width of the tracks will fill the width of your image. The tracks are still going to go off into the distance to a vanishing point, but now they go from the full width of your frame, creating an extreme change from foreground to background.
Don’t be afraid to get close to leading lines in order to emphasize how strong they are. So often photographers back off from subjects like this and lose some of the impact because they don’t have the same foreground-to-background perspective.
Having missed the “Eclipse across America” I scheduled a trip to Chile to catch the recent total eclipse down there. I have shot eclipse moments in the past but this time armed with Canon’s new lightweight 600, a 2x and 50mp 5D… I was not only able to get the shot I came for – but cropping in you can even see solar flares along the edge of the sun!
Currently, I’m in Chile viewing the total solar eclipse visible from South America, and it makes me hark back to when I traveled to South Australia back in December 2002 to photograph a total eclipse there. At the time, I was photographing landscapes for my book Edge of the Earth, Corner of the Sky and I thought this would be an amazing opportunity. I’d seen many technically excellent photographs of total eclipses over the years, but quite honestly they all looked pretty much alike. My objective became capturing the eclipse in relation to the Earth.
The solar eclipse that occurred on December 4, 2002, was noteworthy when viewed in South Australia for a couple of reasons. First, the eclipse was unusually brief at 25 seconds. Also, it occurred less than 40 minutes before sunset, so the likelihood of an obscured view was greatly increased because clouds generally stack up along the horizon at that time of day. To maximize my chance of success, I decided to find the precise position from which to film the eclipse by experimenting exactly 24 hours before the eclipse. I also decided to try two cameras for two very different perspectives, so I used both a wide-angle and a 70–200mm lens, enabling me to take full advantage of the eclipse’s late hour by incorporating the landscape.
Most eclipses occur earlier in the day when the sun is much higher in the sky. For this book, I wanted to establish the connection of the eclipse with the Earth. I wanted the viewer to witness the eclipse as if they were standing there next to me under the gum trees. Since I could not determine exposure until totality began, I decided to use matrix metering on an automatic aperture priority setting. When totality began, I would simply engage the shutter using locking cable releases, hoping that the entire roll of film would run continuously through the camera. This would have happened had I not made one final decision: to auto-bracket my exposures. I discovered, too late, that the camera would not continuously advance while on the auto-bracket setting. After just three exposures, both cameras stopped advancing. By the time I figured out what was happening, totality ended. Fortunately, I did get proper exposures for both compositions. After the critical moment of the full eclipse, I continued to photograph as the eclipse continued, switching to other lenses and film.
To create these images I used two Canon cameras, an EOS-1N and an EOS-1N/RS, EF70-200mm and EF 16-35mm lenses, Fujichrome Provia 400 film, and a Gitzo tripods. For the images of the setting eclipse on the horizon, I used an EF500mm IS lens and Fujichrome Velvia film.
With a few extra days to spare, I met up with some friends in Yosemite. I was excited because there was no moon, but unfortunately, the clouds rolled in. I was able to get a few decent shots of stars and star-trails, but the most interesting nighttime image in this group is one that shows the climbers on El Capitan lit up like fireflies (final shot).
A few tips for shooting for the stars! (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself):
As far as equipment goes, in most cases you wont need anything special. Most of my shots end up being between 20-30 seconds in length. If you wish to shoot longer exposures you may need to use an intervalometer. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyways as an excuse to link my preferred band – you’ll need a tripod. Finally, your favorite wide angle capable lens to capture as much of the sky as possible.
Do your research! Find locations that have minimal light pollution. Here’s a handy map I came across. Checking moon phases is a must as well. The time period around a new moon is your best bet – you’ll never know how truly bright a full moon can be until you’re trying to shoot the stars! As mentioned above, a cloudy sky can also pose challenges. Ideally speaking you’ll find a place away from population centers on a clear night with the moon nowhere to be found, or at least in it’s most obscure phase.
As far as individual camera settings go, it’s impossible to give specific numbers because it will largely depend on the above conditions and the specific gear you’re working with. Most of my night shots fall into the ƒ/2.8 – ƒ/4 range and a focal length between 24-40 mm, with an exposure time of about 25 seconds. If you want me to take a stab at a starting point, 24mm and 25 seconds at ƒ/2.8 is probably a safe bet to give you at least enough information to make the proper adjustments.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as photo tips go for shooting at night – but my garden needs me! For more information, check out CreativeLive – they have a few helpful courses on the subject!
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.