Month: August 2014

Portraits by Another Name

Every time you take a picture of an animal, that’s not all you’re doing. You’re making a portrait.

I think this is something that most photographers don’t realize when they’re starting out. At first, it’s a WIN just to have an image of a wild animal that’s in any way sharp. Later the successes are when the animal is doing something interesting, or in a good looking environment. The thing to remember is: whether you’re photographing a cat or a person, the same basic rules apply. This is not some generic “critter” you’re capturing, it’s one very specific animal.  Therefore, much “wildlife photography” is actually portraiture.

Because of that, a whole other set of rules also applies:

If the eyes are sharp, the image will read as “sharp”. This may not be intuitive and I think it had never occurred to me until someone explained the mechanism. When looking at a photograph of any creature, the first place you look is the eyes.  It’s an instinctive action; you’re not thinking about doing it at all. Yet you are. And that is why if the eyes are in focus, you will perceive the image to be in focus. It’s that simple. So when you’re shooting, that should be what you’re looking for.

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Catchlights! Catchlights are especially powerful when the subject is not looking at you. For those of you new to that term, the catchlight is the little white reflection on the surface of the eye, shown below on Mr Arctic Fox. This provides the “spark” that the viewer is looking for, and makes the eyes look ‘alive’ regardless of where they’re attention is focused.

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Always weight your compositions so that there is extra space in the direction the animal is looking and/or moving. This is so subtle that most people don’t even notice when you’ve done it, but it really helps allow a viewer to feel comfortable in that image. It can be hard to train yourself to do this. It’s most important in very close up shots but it can be valuable to think about using this all the time; having an image that has extra space to one side allows you more choices in cropping later should you have not noticed something in the corner that needs to be cut out. The first example below is pretty subtle, it’s more obvious in the bottom image.

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A portrait is about capturing personality as much as it is about conveying what someone looks like. Therefore, some random fur seal is not as compelling as “Badass Fur Seal” whose look and posture convey all that he’s about.

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Whale Watching in Monterey Bay, California

I realized several years ago that sometimes, between trips, I needed a way to get out and practice my photography. And by practice, I mean shooting in situations that are new, or not that familiar, in order to get myself up to speed before a big trip. I’m not one of those that carries my camera around with me all the time. That’s what my smartphone is for (results on Instagram). There really isn’t that much that taking photos of graffiti around San Francisco can prepare you for when you’re heading to the Arctic, you know what I mean?  So the trick is to find something near by that approximates some of the shooting conditions you’d find in the place you’re planning on going and then go and shoot there.

So before heading to Antarctica, last fall I went out whale watching to get some more practice shooting from a boat (and really exercising the VR capabilities on my new lens). It was so much fun, that I decided to do it again this summer when word got around of the big run of anchovies in Monterey Bay and all the humpbacks that had some to take advantage of it.

So I ended up going out two weeks in a row, and here are a few of the shots I got:

Editing Basics: how engaging is this image?

There’s a mysterious thing that happens with images: sometimes, the light we capture on the sensor (or on the film) somehow is missing the one thing that made the moment so spectacular. It’s not out of focus, it’s not terribly under exposed, the composition is okay, there’s just something…. not there.

The thing that’s not there of course, is your feelings the moment you took it. That is something that can be very elusive. The viewers of an image are not cold, they are not windblown, they are not out of breath from hiking up to that ridge, they are not among exciting new friends. All of that is basically impossible to convey in a static image, and that may well be what makes that image special to you.

The very hardest thing for any photographer to do is to look at their images objectively. It’s maddeningly difficult sometimes. I didn’t really understand this mechanism until I worked for Galen Rowell. There were a few images that he absolutely adored, had marked as his Best Images, and yet they were… just a picture. Not a great picture in any objective sense. Most of the time he was spot-on at knowing which images of his would really resonate with people, but every once in a while, he was wrong. There was just no way we would know what it was like to be in that dark, smoky Tibetan house high in the Himalaya, to meet these sweet gentle people who were so kind, and whose picture he took at that moment while the fire burned brightly in the corner.

This is one reason why I think it’s a bad idea to do any sort of real editing while you’re on a trip. You’re too close to the action, emotionally, to tell if a picture is really good or not. There’s time enough when you get home for all that. And your pictures will be better for it.

So when you sit down to edit, ask yourself these things about every picture you’ve taken:

  • Is it engaging to look at?
  • Is it quickly understandable?
  • How long do you want to look at it?

Is it engaging to look at? – Is the composition flat or dynamic? Is there a tension to the composition that will engage the viewer?

SVA_0779The texture of this berg is interesting, and I like how it’s reflected in the calm water beneath it, but it’s just sitting there, really. Compositionally this is a bust. There’s nothing dynamic happening here. There’s nothing technically wrong with this image, it’s just not that interesting.

 

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This is much more engaging. First of all the texture is really fascinating: this ice looks like frosted glass! And the deep grooves in the iceberg give a diagonal line to the composition that really help the picture stand out. Add to that the smaller grooves at a perpendicular angle to that and all of a sudden this is much more interesting compositionally than the one above. And the color, who knew one iceberg could have that many shades of blue?

 

Is there enough going on inside the frame to allow you to spend some time with it, or is it the kind of picture where a single glance is all you need?

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This one is really borderline to me. There’s enough going on visually, but the composition is missing any dynamism. Nice to have brash ice, but the ice floes are too far away and your eye has to kind of reach in order to get any of the detail in the mid-to background.

 

 

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THIS is what I’m talking about. The brash ice (and even a bit of pancake ice!) litter the foreground.  The ice floes lead your eyes into the frame, and the light  and clouds give lots of varied color and texture to the scene.

 

This is essentially separate from the question above, and is a lot more difficult to explain: do you want to just stare at it?  The longer you want to stare at an image the better.

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This image definitely has texture, but it’s all pretty much the same texture. Perhaps the light was a bit too flat, or this was just not the best iceberg to shoot. You’re kind of at the mercy of nature at times like this; there’s only so much you can do to position an iceberg for a portrait at its best angle. Maybe we need to just go find a different iceberg.

 

 

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This is much more like it. The ship in the distance gives some interest, and the triangular shape of the berg leads the viewer’s eye right there. The berg itself has both bizarre dappled texture and is run through with thick bands of moraine which gives some depth of color. The water is rippled by a breeze and that mimics the texture on the ice. The light that day was relentlessly flat but since the iceberg itself has so much texture it still works.

 

Let me give you another example of the “stare at an image” idea:

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This is one picture from Antarctic that I’m absolutely in love with. The texture of that snow, the light hitting it at an angle like that to really  show off the texture and the sculptural nature of it… oooh. Just love it. This is one image I can just stare at. It’s not that complicated of an image, there’s not that much going on compositionally, but the way the different elements (the side light, the color of the light, the yellow light paired with the deep blue clouds) really pops.

 

Oh, and yeah, I’m totally obsessed with ice and icebergs now. I know it. I won’t try to hide it.