Month: July 2014

The wildness around us

This past week has been crazy busy, so I’ve fallen behind on the blog-writing, but it seemed like a good time to remind everyone (living in North America that is*): we have amazing wildlife, and great opportunities to photograph it, all over.


I think some of us, myself included, get a little jaded since we can just drive a couple hours (or even less), sign up for a whale watching trip, and photograph humpback (or gray) whales like it’s no big thing. It is a big thing! Just ask anyone from Europe. I didn’t understand this til I was on a whale watching trip in Iceland, and when we spotted a whale spyhopping in the distance, a French woman half-gasped, half-screamed when she saw it. She had never seen a whale. I see them often enough that if it’s not close, if it’s not in good light, I can hardly be bothered!


The trip photographed here was last year during a sardine run — there were so many humpback whales in Monterey Bay that we simply lost count of how many we saw — it got to the point that people would just gesture into the distance and mutter under their breath “whale” every time they saw one, as opposed to the excited pointing and yelling that were going on at the beginning of the trip.


So while dreaming of faraway destinations where you can view and photograph exotic wildlife…. don’t forget that you can go out and photograph whales, flocks of migrating birds, deer, bears, eagles, coyotes, etc in pretty much every part of the United States and Canada — we have so much wildness around us.

And with that note, I’m going down to Monterey Bay to try and spot some humpbacks feeding on big schools of anchovies.


*I know there are lots of places in Europe with wildlife very nearby, but I feel it’s more immediately available in North America, with it’s shorter history of cities and large groups of people. We really did move into wildlife’s territory and that’s very clear sometimes when they come and take it back

Editing basics: Giving a sense of place using scale

I realize that with my first post on editing basics I might have in fact gone a little too advanced. There are a few things going on in that image that I totally glossed over without mention, the most noticeable one being the use of scale.

One of the things people find difficult when photographing the great outdoors is conveying the sense of place in their images. “Sense of place” can be a bit squishy, but the essence of it is: what does it actually feel like to be there?

For example, I think this image gives a clear sense of “cold”, even though it was not really that cold at all at the time (about freezing). However, pictures of Antarctica are supposed to read as “cold” – it helps make the scene seem real and is more transporting than an image that is less evocative.

Brr, cold!

Part of it has to do with all the brash ice that the ship has cut a path through, part of it has to do with the fact that all the ice has a definitive blue cast, which reads as “cold” (the same way a sunset of yellows and oranges reads as “warm”).

Other things that help give an image a sense of place is scale. Using people is a great way to do this, but its important to understand a few things: plopping a person in front of something does not in itself convey scale. Using our innate understanding of the basic “person size” does. So don’t worry about having to make your traveling companion get into all your pictures, use the people who are already there:

Image on the left: random people. On the right: people giving scale

Image on the left: random people. On the right: people giving scale

Making people small and the landscape (or the building) large makes it really easy for people to understand what it’s like to be there. By the same token, to show how small and intimate a scene is, the subject should take up a good portion of the image, with just a bit of scene around it to give context, like you see below:

Large cat in a small cemetery

Large cat in a small cemetery

Or like this — the addition of the house makes the volcano look massive and imposing. Without that house you simply have no way of really getting that.

Iceland. Eyjafjallajokull.

Tiny house, big volcano

When you want to convey the scope of something, that is the time to bring out the really wide angle lens. But be careful — a 10-36 mm super wide angle also has the effect of “pushing” everything away from the viewer, and the elements that you think are anchoring the scene may be rendered too small to function that way, like here:

Whoops, everything is waaaay over there

Whoops, everything is waaaay over there

Done correctly though, a wide angle lens can make a landscape seem larger and more grand than it appears to the naked eye:

Black sand that goes on forever

Black sand that goes on forever


By the same token, if you want to accentuate how tall something is, shoot it vertically but make sure that there is something in the frame to give that height come context. Shout-out to hikers who wear brightly colored rain jackets, it really helps make them pop:

Iceland. Skogafoss.

Tiny hikers, big waterfall

So that hopefully helps explain some of what was going on in that image… play around with it. I think sometimes I go a bit overboard with the “tiny people big landscape” theme — at least I did in Iceland. At the time however it seemed like the only way to convey the vast emptiness and open spaces of it.

African Safari Research – choosing an outfitter

These are not wild giraffes

These are not wild giraffes

So I’ve mentioned before how I have one last “big” thing to take care of travel-wise: I’ve never been to Africa. So that is one of the things on my shortlist for 2015. Now, given that I am so very into photography, I want to find a safari that specializes in doing trips for photographers. This means: fewer people on the trip, only 3 people per land rover for better photo opportunities, dedicated locations for charging up laptops and camera batteries, and most importantly: a schedule that is crafted around the animals, not people’s normal waking hours. This means we’ll be getting up before dawn, coming back for a clean up and rest in the heat of the day, and heading back out in the late afternoon to evening, all to have more opportunities to see the animals out and about doing their thing.

I’ve not been doing a huge amount of research for this trip so far, aside from perusing some travel brochures and reading up a bit about the different destinations one can visit. The preparations for my visit to the Arctic and trying to get some overdue photo editing done was taking up a lot of my time.

While I was on that trip I met people who had been to Africa several times. Everyone talks about East Africa being the place to see sheer numbers of animals, and while that’s interesting, I’m really drawn t0 two things: elephants and big big cats.

So it seems like Botswana is a great place to get both of those things. One guy on my trip had lived in Southern Africa and suggested that if you want to see elephants, Botswana is the place to do it. There are also several people running photo safaris that specialize in predators in Botswana as well:

I’m actually planning this trip with a friend that I met on my Antarctic trip, a woman who is very interested in photography and more importantly interested in photographing nature red in tooth and claw, which is awesome! I want to see nature, damnit, not a sanitized disney version.

So after much studying of websites and checking itineraries and looking at dates and locations and prices (prices for this kind of trip don’t vary too widely, but for sanity’s sake I don’t want to spend more than $10K), we’ve decided on Wildlight. Yes, you can definitely get safaris cheaper than that, but remember: this is a special photo safari — the last thing I want to do is to be in range rover with a half-dozen tourists who are hot, tired and want their dinner so we have to go back to camp just when the light starts to get good.

So incredibly excited I can hardly stand it! It’s well over a year away, but booking in advance is awfully useful sometimes, especially to lock in a good deal and to make sure you get something at the best time of year for you.

Now, comes all the planning. Another new wardrobe of khaki pants and floppy brimmed hats to add to my collection of long johns and fleeces from the polar regions. I’m gonna need a bigger closet.

Editing Basics: what does this image need?

Brunnich's Guillemot colony at Alkefjellet, Svalbard, Norway

Brunnich’s Guillemot colony at Alkefjellet, Svalbard, Norway

I’ve been looking at pictures the better part of my life. I began serious photography when I was 16, later studied it in college, then worked for years as a photo researcher for a top adventure photographer and then at a photo agency that specialized in travel imagery. I’ve seen millions of images, and spent an awful lot of time thinking about why some pictures “work” and others don’t. So much time in fact, that it’s usually just an automatic process that happens in the background, one I’ve pretty much ceased thinking about consciously.

But I do remember when I was starting out spending hours and hours looking  at images (my own and other people’s) trying to figure out what was missing, what would make the image come together. It might seem like an utterly precious navel-gazing exercise, but if you want to become a better photographer, it’s absolutely essential.

So when you’re looking at your images, there are a few things you need to ask yourself:

  • What is the image about?
  • Does it convey that?
  • Are there too many distractions?
  • Does it have all the details it needs?

There is more of course, but I’ll leave that for a later post.

Let’s break down this image and think about these questions one by one.

What’s the image about?

This is a bird colony on a high cliff in Svalbard, Norway. So, it’s about birds. But more specifically, it’s about thousands of birds. So the picture needs to show a — forgive my language– shit-ton of birds. I have several images from this location that show a million blobs in the sky, the trick was finding one where some of the birds in the background actually have a distinctive bird shape so that it would instantly read as “bird” not “blob on lens”.


Does it convey that?

I think so… I chose this image specifically due to the numbers of birds in the sky, and if you look more closely at the cliff you can see bunches of birds there crowded on the ledges. It helps that the rocks are a brownish color and not dark gray – if they were gray it would be almost impossible to make out the birds nesting there.

Does it have too many distractions?

This image is very slightly cropped from the original.  I had a bit too much water in the foreground and I felt that it was causing the composition to seem imbalanced. There are lots of ways to think about composition, but controlling how viewers move their eyes through the image is a useful one. Changing the internal dynamics of the picture changes that. You can do this by either framing carefully when making the image, cropping it later, or a combination of both. I generally shoot very tightly, because I learned how to photograph shooting slides. When shooting slide film, what you see is what you get. Any branch or out of focus rock is there and you cannot get rid of it later, so you learn how to see those things in the frame and recompose the image until they’re no longer there. I personally think its a good exercise to do this all the time, to spend one quick moment running your eye along the edges of the frame to look for anything distracting and recompose if possible to remove it. You don’t want to have to spend hours later cropping everything you shoot, and it’s a good way to train your eye to see these things more clearly.

Does it have enough detail?

I chose this picture over others simply due to the photo-bombing guillemot on the foreground. It was just chance that I captured that, but that is one of the reasons I snap a dozen (thirteen to be precise) images in this kind of situation; hoping for that kind of luck. The zodiacs are there to give the image a sense of scale, and the yellow and red parkas also help liven up the image.



If you want to read more about photography and learn about pre-visualizing how images will look, read Galen Rowell’s excellent book, “Galen Rowell’s Vision: The Art of Adventure Photography

Sneak Peek: Svalbard!

I’ve just returned home from my most recent adventure, to the land of the midnight sun* in arctic Norway. I’m still editing pictures, but wanted to be able to share a few images from the trip. There are many more to come. We had fantastic weather, and saw a wide variety of wildlife.

Atlantic Puffins, Fjortende Julibukta, Svalbard, Norway

Atlantic Puffins, Fjortende Julibukta, Svalbard, Norway

We saw quite a lot of birds, but everyone’s favorite is always the puffin. I’d seen them before in Iceland, but I never really knew the way they hop around on these cliffs — it’s as if they don’t quite know how to walk, so just improvise something to get some forward locomotion. It’s adorable.


Rich tundra at Varsolbukta, Bellsund, Svalbard, Norway.

Rich tundra at Varsolbukta, Bellsund, Svalbard, Norway.

The tundra here at Vardsolbukta was incredibly rich and varied – several species of tiny flowering plants, mosses of a half a different shades of green, various lichens and such. The ground in places was like walking on pillows, the moss was so soft. It felt really strange. Things take forever to decompose in the arctic, so there are all sorts of bones and reindeer antlers, skeins of shed reindeer fur and various feathers lying around to be studied. It’s the kind of place you want to walk around bent over at the waist so you don’t miss anything.

Polar bear on the drift ice in the Hinlopen Strait, Svalbard, Norway.

Polar bear on the pack ice in the Hinlopen Strait, Svalbard, Norway.

And of course: a polar bear! The trip would not have been complete without one…. in the end we saw seven, a very unusual number. This one was particularly photogenic in the bright sunshine and sporting a healthy sleek coat.

There really is something incredibly special about seeing a huge predator like this in the wild. There is that little chest-tightening frisson of excitement the moment you spot it: ” *gasp* BEAR!” — even more exciting if the bridge has not announced its presence yet.

There are many more images to come, including some surprises — things I never would have expected to see on a trip like this.

*A note on the “midnight sun” — I’ve never really experienced this before. What it really is could best be described as: “noon all the time” — there is essentially no modulation in the strength of the sun at any time of day. If the sun is out its at the same height in the sky all the time. Most disconcerting. Bring an eye mask. A good one.