Technique Tuesday: Scale of your Subject

The following is an excerpt from “The New Art of Photographing Nature“. Pick it up in my online store and check a gift off your list for the photographer in your life!

SCALE:  HOW LARGE SHOULD THE SUBJECT BE?

AW: In these three shots of a spotted owl, we see how the owl changes in importance according to its relative size in the frame. In my opinion, no image is stronger than the other; they simply say different things. The first composition is a shot of old-growth forest that happens to have an owl as an element (80mm lens). In the second, the owl is clearly more evident, and still enough forest shows to create a strong sense of place (200mm lens). But in the third, I’ve eliminated most of the forest and the owl is clearly the dominant element. It is a more rewarding view of the owl, and of the textures of the trees, which you can now fully appreciate. The sense of forest is definitely gone (400mm lens).

MH: In each of these images, the owl relates to his surroundings in a different way. In the first, he is hardly visible, blending in beautifully with his surroundings. It is interesting that here, the light-colored branch, rather than being a detracting element, actually leads our eye right to the owl. The forest, with its strong vertical lines, is clearly the dominant element in the frame. If I had a story to illustrate that emphasized the need to save lots of habitat to provide for one owl, I would use this version.

In the middle frame, there is much more of a balance between the bird and the forest. The owl stands on its own, without being overpowered by the trees. This would be a classic opening shot for a story on spotted owls and old-growth forests.

In the last image, you have a portrait of the bird. Now, too, the lighter limbs of the trees actually take over as the strong linear elements in the composition. The owl’s soft shape stands out against the harder lines of the tree trunks, without losing the feeling of camouflage we had in the first version. Unless I had text I wanted to drop out of the space on the left, I’d crop this to a vertical to emphasize the owl even more.

For more insights and technique tips, check out “The New Art of Photographing Nature”!

 

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Technique Tuesday: Making Order out of Chaos

The following is an excerpt from “The New Art of Photographing Nature”, and for more photos of the natural world, specifically magnificent trees world-wide, check out my latest recently published book “Trees: Between Earth & Heaven”!

MAKING ORDER OUT OF CHAOS

The elements that go into making a good image are basically the same for photography as for art, with one significant difference. An artist is faced with a blank piece of paper or canvas and has to construct a whole image by putting together the design elements–line, color, form, space, perspective–all of which he must create for himself. A photographer is given all these same elements in his viewfinder and basically subtracts the material he finds distracting and unessential to his statement.

Good photography is decision-making. It is not a passive process. The eye must learn to detect the essential and make it into a meaningful arrangement. Initially, nature appears random and chaotic. Our mind needs to make order out of chaos, to create relationships between things in order to understand them. When we look at something, we subconsciously focus our attention on some aspects and ignore others; we filter everything through our experience and our emotions.

The camera makes no such distinctions or evaluations. It records everything it sees. It is, therefore, the photographer’s responsibility to edit the camera’s view and select those elements to be captured. Understanding what goes into making a strong composition can improve a photographer’s personal statement. Freeman Patterson stated it beautifully when he wrote: “The camera always points both ways. In expressing the subject, you also express yourself.”

In a good composition, one has the distinct impression that nothing could be added to or subtracted from the picture. This sense of completeness–of balance–is the key. Balance does not, however, imply symmetry. Asymmetrical compositions can be balanced. We will explore these concepts as we move from chapter to chapter, discussing where to place the subject, how to make it stand out, how it relates to the other elements within the frame, and what creative options you have to work with to make a stronger photographic statement. There are some guidelines that can be followed, but none of them are so absolute they should be adhered to constantly.

Art Wolfe: “In the first image, the tree is silhouetted against a much lighter pink sky. In the second, it is against a part of the cloud closer in value to that of the tree, but the composition is still not quite there. In the third, the cloud is now in complete balance with the value of the dead tree, and I have recomposed the tree to fill out all four corners of the composition. To my eye, it is a more harmonious image.”

Martha Hill: “We are talking about very subtle distinctions here. Many people will like the first image over the third because of the luminous quality of the pink background. And it is clearly a matter of personal taste.

What makes the third photograph so appealing to me is the ethereal quality of the light. The background colors gradate very subtly from pink to lavender to blue in an even tonality, giving a sense of serene harmony and balance. The linear design of the tree branches is weighted slightly off-center, thus creating a delicate imbalance.

The spatial depth in the picture is also ethereal. As in an Asian painting, the sense of three-dimensional space is ever so subtly there, as the lighter tone of the tree brings it forward from the background. The branches reach to the edges of the frame, also bringing the tree to the frontal plane of the picture space. To me, this third version is shibui, which in Japanese describes something of an understated, highly refined elegance.”

For more insights and technique tips, check out “The New Art of Photographing Nature”!

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Technique Tuesday: Rhythms From the Wild

Today’s high ISO cameras are amazing at freezing motion, a technique I use and love on any wildlife shoot these days I have been capturing images that I couldn’t have imagined in the days of film – or even 8-10 years ago, for that matter. Flying bears, macaws tack sharp against a dark cave, every drop of water perfectly captured from the spray of an elephant – what’s possible now is incredible!

AI often try and remind myself to slow down every now and then; drop the ISO back down to 100 and stop down the aperture and let the motion move across the image. Ernst Haas was one of my early influences, a person who’s work I continue to admire. He was a pioneer of using this technique to show the motion in his subjects.

It takes some experimentation and often you won’t really know if you have any successful images until you’ve edited and evaluated them. Some may still show the eyes of the animal in reasonably sharp contrast to the blurred legs in motion – I like this look – but I also like those images that make me think of ancient drawings on a cave wall, where nothing is particularly defined and the entire animal is abstracted in it’s motion and the background a blurred canvas.

I won’t always see the potential in these images immediately. Some I shot on film many years ago I nearly tossed out but decided to file away at the last second. I pulled them out years later and found a new appreciation for their abstract qualities and I’m glad I did!

If you’re interested in more photos captured with this technique, check out Rhythms From the Wild.

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Flashback Friday: Denali 1988

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!

 

 

 

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Technique Tuesday: Photographing Reflections

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.



June 2013: Canyon Wall Reflection, Kimberley, Australia
Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 24-105mm f/4 lens, f/4 for 1/1250 sec., ISO 2000

The nature of the photo: The Kimberley region of Australia sits in the far northwestern part of the continent. The area is known for its sandstone and limestone gorges and steep cliffs. The land has a maximum height of a little over 3,000 feet, but the terrain is so steep that the country is difficult to move through except by boat along the coast.


The fine art world has long been important to me, since that was what I studied in college. Many painters have influenced my own work. The image here reminds me of the work of Gustav Klimt and his homage to the pointillist painters of his time. These included a series of paintings of women with very ornate dresses.

As I traveled by boat through the inlets and canyons along the coast in the Kimberley area of northernwestern Australia, I found that the reflections of the canyon walls in the water reminded me of the color palette and design within Klimt’s dresses. In this image, you can see the ocher-colored cliffs reflected in the disrupted surface of this saltwater inlet, along with the blue sky above.

I love these moments where the abstraction takes on all sorts of forms that remind you of other things, things that become metaphors for me. You can get lost looking at the details of this image, seeing “faces” and other shapes. I find that these abstracted pieces with embedded images draw the viewer into them.

In the center of this photo, I see the eye and ears of a goat. Other people will see something entirely different. That’s how an image like this one can engage people on a very different level than simply one of recognition.

Photo tip: Water is a wonderful reflective surface in nature and offers so many opportunities for the observant photographer. Look for reflections, both on still water and on water that is disturbed and creating unique patterns and rhythms. Be careful of using a polarizing filter with reflections because it can remove key elements of those reflections on water.

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Technique Tuesday: Capturing Wildlife in the Moment

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.

 

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Technique Tuesday: What to Shoot in September/October

By Art Wolfe with Jay Goodrich

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.

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Technique Tuesday: Horizon Placement & Depth

AW: One of the most common errors I see in portfolio reviews is the placement of the horizon in the middle of the photograph. In my opinion, this flattens out the image, creating less of a sense of depth.  Placing the horizon high in the frame or low, on the other hand, can create a dynamic that allows the eyes to wander through the image far more easily.

In the first image, with the horizon in the middle, the eye just stops. In the second, the high placement of the horizon allows me to add more foreground, showing the expanse of beach and tide. There is a nice play between the forms of sand and the drama of the setting sun.  In the third shot, with the horizon low in the frame, the focus is on the sun and how it reflects on the water, giving greater emphasis to the clouds overhead. High and low horizons create less predictable images and to my mind, offer a greater sense of depth and drama.

MH: Because the horizon line is so straight, it cuts the picture space into definite sections and has to be factored into what you want to emphasize.  In each of these images, we get a slightly different sense. Placing the horizon in the middle might be desirable if stability and tranquility are what you want to convey.  However, it relies on a very dramatic sunset to make a powerful statement.

With a horizon placed high in the frame, the foreground becomes more important, and requires either a texture or an interesting detail.  However, if the drama of the sky is more powerful, then lowering the horizon is a better option.

This lesson and more from The New Art of Photographing Nature – Order yours today in my online store! As always, include a signature request and I’ll be sure to sign any books ordered through the store- however, my time between travels is limited so please note this can delay orders. If you want to get your prints and books signed in time for the holidays, now is the time!

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Technique Tuesday: Conveying Scale

Looking for a sense of scale can be another way of defining a composition and influencing how you place your subject. Scale is simply a way to give the viewer perspective on how big the scene is within the photograph.

Once you understand how to use scale, you can decide in each case whether or not to include it. Sometimes abstract photographs look their best when there is no sense of scale whatsoever, while big landscapes need it to reveal themselves to the fullest.

There are lots of things that can be used to convey scale within a photograph. Anything that is recognizable to viewers and will immediately convey an idea of its size will work. This is one reason why human figures are often used for a sense of scale in landscapes and street scenes. We know how big people are, and when we see a person in a scene, it gives us an idea of how big the scene is. People can also personalize a place and help a viewer better connect with it, such as in the example shown here of a visitor standing in Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove.

Park visitor, Yosemite National Park, California 70–200mm F4L IS USM, f/9 for 0.5 sec., ISO 400

Other useful elements are items that people use, from vehicles to houses; these have a human scale that people understand. Animals also provide a sense of scale, as shown in the image below, as do certain types of plants, such as a big pine tree, another evergreen, or a large cottonwood tree—iconic types of trees that people recognize and have an idea of the size of.

The trick to using any of these things for scale is that they must look like a natural part of the composition. A big mistake that people make when trying to convey scale is to simply add something to the picture without thinking about how it integrates into the overall scene. That always looks odd and gives the feeling that the object was simply added as an afterthought—which it probably was!

Never compose your picture around the object that is there for scale purposes. Compose your picture based on the various ideas discussed in this and other chapters, then look for a way to incorporate your object so that it contrasts with the rest of the picture but does not start to look like the subject. When you’re using an object for scale, it needs to be a supporting character for the scene, never the star.

In general, things used for scale work best near the edges of a composition or along the bottom. Don’t slam them against the edge of the picture; that looks awkward; put a little bit of space between them and the edge. By placing these objects well away from the center of the picture, you are telling the viewer that there is an important relationship between this object and the rest of the scene.

This lesson and much more included in “The Art of the Photograph“.

Polar bear, Svalbard, Norway 500mm lens + 2x extender, f/8 for 1/640 sec., ISO 100
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Technique Tuesday: Diagonals

Often you’ll hear artists talking about diagonal lines within a composition. Diagonal lines can be very important to an image because of how they affect the mood and visual impression of a scene. However, diagonals are not just about line. You can have diagonal shapes and patterns as well.

Diagonals are always dynamic elements within a picture. They create a strong feeling of movement because the eye wants to move along a diagonal. There is something about the human mind that wants to follow a diagonal line. We will also follow a vertical line up and down, though we won’t really follow a horizontal line. Putting a diagonal line in with a vertical or horizontal line will create a very dramatic contrast. That can be a dynamic way of using a composition, but it can also be very distracting and disturbing for the viewer. You have to be careful about how you are using diagonal lines, shapes and patterns.

Diagonals also give a very strong dynamic feeling to an image because most diagonals in the real world are objects that have some sort of tension to them. A diagonal will typically be something that is moving or has the potential of movement. Diagonal objects in real life can look like they are ready to fall down so there is always a certain tension there. In addition, we know that if something that can move is placed on a diagonal surface, it is going to move down that surface because of gravity. That doesn’t mean that diagonals used in your photograph are looking like things are going to fall or roll down – it just means that there is a tension and movement there that people react to.

There is something very interesting that happens with diagonals when they are combined with horizontal and vertical lines. They can look like they are a support beam. Think about when you play the game, hangman. Most people draw the hanging post with a diagonal line between the vertical and horizontal lines to make it look like it has more support.

Okay, all of this can seem very esoteric and not very applicable to that landscape with a stream running through it. Yet as you start to look at that scene, you will start to see diagonals there that can help structure your composition and create a stronger design. Once again, becoming aware of these elements of design will help you use them within your composition.

Excerpt from “The Art of the Photograph” – pick it up today in my online store!

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