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!
For the last post on lenses we focused on the super wide angle, and how it affects perspective. Now I am introducing my favorite zoom lens for photographing wildlife, the 200-400mm. It has an internal 1.4 extender which is absolutely fantastic. It pushes the 400mm to 560mm and opens the aperture to get more light to the sensor.
I have been known to add an additional external 1.4 or 2 extender on top of this. This is recommended only in desperate situations, like when the snow leopards are spotted two miles across a Himalayan valley and you are on foot. Not only does the extender restrict light to the sensor, it magnifies the faults of the lens.
I use this lens for more than wildlife, though. Strong telephoto focal lengths are needed for photographing extreme compression effects, such as pulling in background elements like the setting sun to make them tower over the foreground subjects.
In addition, the telephoto allows you to:
cut down the angle of view and isolate aspects of the scene in front of you
get close to wildlife without disturbing it
frame simple compositions–look for little slices of design and interest within a landscape
Last and very important – to use this heavy lens effectively, you’ll need a sturdy tripod and a strong back as it weighs nearly 8 pounds.
As we are in the middle of a couple of West Coast workshops where coastlines, waterfalls, and woodland streams take center stage, now is a great time to discuss the use of neutral density filters. In the summer months where overcast days become rare even in a region fabled for it’s grey skies, ND filters are a necessary tool for outdoor photography.
Simply put, an ND filter will reduce the amount of light your sensor receives without affecting the color of your capture, therefore allowing you to use a wider aperture, capture a longer exposure – or both. This is especially useful when you’re shooting outdoors on a bright, sunny day, or trying to expose for soft waves and motion in water. If you’ve done this without an ND filter, then you know how hard it can be to get the exposure correct without having a blown-out sky and over-bright highlights.
ND filters come in several stops, with the cheaper 1, 2 or 3 stop filters being common – however I highly recommend spending the extra money on a 6-stop or even 10-stop ND filter. These will block out more light, and give you the greatest amount of leeway in using your camera settings to achieve your desired results.
A 6-stop filter will be good enough to expose for blurred waves and streams, and capturing the scene without an over-bright sky, while a 10-stop will create the foggy dream-like haze of water in motion. In either case, you will cut down on blown-out areas of your photo, balancing out the tones while keeping true-to-life colors and exposing for the proper amount of detail.
Though most of my use for ND filters involves apertures in the 11-13 range to capture all the details of a landscape, or as low as 5 for a scene that may not need all the details sprawling to the horizon, an ND filter will also allow you to open up your very wide. This way you can photograph a specific subejct outdoors on a brighter day while still keeping your aperture wide enough to achieve an out of focus background.
Some people are amazed to learn that I still enjoy getting out to photograph wildflowers. The greater truth is that I just enjoy getting out to photograph – anything. It fuels my soul, and as long as I can walk and hold a camera that’s where you’ll find me, out in the field working the subject, whatever it may be.
As spring gives way to summer, the snows on the mountains around Seattle melt away to reveal wonderful meadows of wildflowers. Mt Rainier is perhaps one of my favorite destinations for wildflowers, and so many can be found just a short walk from the parking lot. For those familiar with the area I like to head to Paradise, drive past the main parking lots and down the hill maybe half a mile, parking where the road crosses Edith Creek. From there you hike up towards the mountain and the wildflowers will soon surround you with a rushing creek and smooth boulders to work with. Hiking maybe a mile will afford beautiful views of Mt. Rainier filling the foreground with flowers.
When you head out to photograph wildflowers, one’s first instinct is to often isolate a perfect blossom at a 45 degree angle and go home happy. I call this the trophy shot – It looks just like the image on the packet at the home and garden store. We all have them, myself included, so get that shot – and then open your mind to more creative possibilities.
When I have lead workshops to Mt. Rainier in the past, I’ll let the students know that we have “arrived” at our destination for the next hour and they will politely line up on the trail and begin to photograph the first flower they see, usually right from the very direction they had approached it. After all, that’s why we’re here, no? No! We’re here to stretch our creative imaginations, to see in new ways, and uncover new possibilities. Consider how you approach the flower as you would any subject. Over the years I have critiqued so many photos and the answer is all too often the same, get lower and get closer.
My approach is generally to first walk through the area and get familiar with the myriad of options, perspectives, background possibilities, subtle differences in lighting. I’ll look at the subject from all sides possible before choosing a location to begin. Remember, recolonizing, fragile, easily accessible meadows like those of Mt. Rainier don’t allow for venturing off established trails. So please be aware of your surroundings, trail markers and warning signs.
Initially, I will photograph the larger scene with a wide angle lens (16-35, always with a polarizer adding a 2 stop hard ND filter as needed) helping to establish a sense of location. This can be useful later when trying to remember where I was when the image was taken, perhaps a hold-over from shooting slides when it could be three months before I would see any results from the days’ efforts. The wide angle lens allows me to include the surrounding plants, trees, terrain and mountains leaving the to flowers become a pattern of color in the lower foreground. I’ll look for leading lines in the pattern, gentle curves, a way for the viewer to interact with the image as they move through the foreground, middle ground and background – an old, well established formula from view cameras that still works today.
As I move in closer, I continue shooting with the wide angle lens, allowing first, a group of flowers and then individual blossoms to dominate the frame. This gives me the ability to still tell the story of location and environment through the greater composition. When people first purchase a wide angle lens they see it as an opportunity to get a greater view of the distant vista, to include the mountain and the surrounding hills – and are all too disappointed with the results. It’s not until they begin to see the wide angle as a tool for getting in close to the subject, I’m talking within inches – not feet, do they begin to see the possibilities.
Once satisfied, I’ll switch to my 70-200 lens and look to limit the composition to just the flowers themselves. Here I begin looking for those ubiquitous motifs in nature, patterns of petals filling the frame, alternating colors, lines and form, positive and negative space. Ultimately zooming from the wide end up to 200 mm abstracting the subject as I bring the viewer to see the flower in a unique way. I’ll then put on extension tubes which allow me to focus even closer. As you abstract the elements of the flower, digital photography now allows you to “rack focus” with a middle ground f-stop, say f11, shooting several images as you move the shallow depth of field marching towards the back of the composition, knowing later you will combine them into one image with a sharp focus throughout.
What about wind and movement? Use it! Sure you can purchase a “Plant Clamp” to hold the flower steady in a light breeze but why not use the movement to your advantage just as you would with flowing water in a stream. Try longer shutter speeds to abstract the flowers to a wash of color. Even introduce your own movement by intentionally panning with the camera up, down or sideways during the exposure. You may be surprised by the results, perhaps pleased even.
Working the subject I will be changing my location, moving in closer, shooting from the side as well as directly overhead – ultimately I may even spread the legs of my tripod to where it is less than 12 inches off the ground and be lying on my side in the dirt – why? Because it’s about unique perspectives. Flowers aren’t usually photographed from directly overhead nor do most people bother to look at them from the ‘flowers’ perspective. Great images are generally not made at a comfortable standing height having just walked up to your subject!
Don’t wait for the sunny day to go out and look for wildflowers – your best bet is an overcast day with even lighting. A sunny day is great for a picnic, and the flowers are beautiful to look at – yet the shadows caused by the direct sun put too much contrast in the image. The strong highlights and shadows will take away from the varied hues of the flowers, as well as giving you much less information to work with when editing your videos in a tool such as Adobe Lightroom. Overcast and even rainy days are some of my favorite for flower photography. Good thing I live in Seattle!
In the field there are times when a standard lens is inadequate to capture a subject as you would like to portray it. Often I will use a 15mm fisheye to create more interesting angles and more dynamic compositions. This lens can improve the statement of a subject by changing the relationship of elements in the picture. Getting up close with this lens lends a strong sense of depth to a composition. Some say it distorts reality, but really you are changing the way you are perceiving perspective. The lens defines this way of looking for us and creates a fascinating relationship of foreground and background. Standard focal lengths can be boring! Take that step out of the ordinary.
Here are a few tips when shooting with a fisheye lens:
• Know your subject, and keep the composition simple – the distortion is already going to make your image more complicated. Make sure your subject stands out!
• Try different heights and angles – where you shoot from can intensify or lessen the fisheye effect.
• Fisheye lenses allow a lot of light to enter making them useful for night photography – therefore they can be great for shooting stars.
• Look for normally straight lines that will bend with the lens and lead the eye through your photograph
• Often I tell people not to put the subject in the center of the frame, but intentionally centering up a subject and using symmetry with a fisheye lens can often create a compelling image.
• When shooting in close quarters, a fisheye lens can be used to capture the elements that a normal lens would crop away. You can then either keep the distorted view, or use software like Adobe Lightroom to correct the effect and remove most if not all the distortion.
• Get close to your subject – a fisheye lens will bring so much of the surrounding detail into the frame, you can get much closer to your subject than you normally would.
Now that I’m getting back to traveling, I’m reminded of all the details that come along with doing so – and some tips that can make the whole process a lot less stressful! Since it’s top of mind, I figured I would share on this #TravelTuesday!
•Have a detailed packing list and start packing well in advance of your trip so you have time to obtain any necessary items, such as prescriptions, before you go. Don’t forget your adapters, cables, and extra batteries for all your devices! A portable power pack is a good way to ensure you won’t run out of juice if you’re unable to charge your devices.
•Check the CDC for any necessary immunizations you might need before your travels.
•Acclimatization is critical. Set your watch to the local time of your destination. Try to sleep on the plane or stay awake depending upon the time. Use earplugs, noise cancelling headphones, and eyepatches.
•Flying with expensive camera gear. Take your camera bag with the majority of your gear in the plane cabin with you. Check big, heavy lenses.
•Enroll in STEP — Smart Traveler Enrollment Program — with the State Department before your overseas trip. If you lose your passport, this will make it much easier to get a new one. Always carry a photocopy of your passport.
•Always get trip insurance. Yes, insurance is a gamble. It will add expense to your trip, but it may save you a bundle as well!