Photo tips

Open your eyes

So a thing happened on this trip. It’s happened before. I’m taking pictures of something, and a man (it’s always a man, don’t @ me) feels the need to point out that I shouldn’t bother photographing it. He knows better.

It happened again in Greenland. A man on the ship, of a certain age (they are always of a certain age), pops out on deck, snaps one image and looks at me and says “That’s nothing special.”

I looked at the steep, heavily glaciated mountain gliding by and the small icebergs in the water, the way the milky sunset light was just glancing off the snow that had just fallen a couple of days before and thought: “Alright. If you can’t see it, I’m not going to point it out to you.”

The picture I was taking when he said that? This is it:

Greenland. Scoresby Sund.

Yep. Nothing special. Why do I even bother?

Moral of the story:  If you don’t see what someone is so excited about photographing, you can always ask them. You might learn something. Two photographers can be looking at the same scene and see two totally different things. It helps to open your eyes.

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.



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.



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.



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.

fur seal

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.



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?


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.




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.


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.




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:


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.

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.

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

Polar Photography Tips

Or, why I’m so cavalier with my gear and how it sometimes bites me in the ass.

1. Condensation is a function of dew point, not a matter of temperature change, so the humidity is what matters, not the cold.  In the polar regions, unless its actively raining it’s probably going to be pretty dry, both inside and outside the ship. Therefore going to the trouble of putting your camera and lenses in ziploc bags before bringing them inside is probably not going to be necessary; I’ve always just left them in a closed-up camera bag for an hour or so and I’ve never had a problem with condensation.

2. You’d be surprised how wet your gear can get with no ill effects. I’ve shot in drizzle countless times and never had any problem with anything getting fogged up or shorting out. That being said, it’s good to have some kind of rain cover with you at all times in case it starts really coming down. Sometimes, a ziploc bag with a holes cut for the camera strap is enough. Sometimes you want one of these rain covers. When it’s just spitting, you can get by with adding a lens hood and keeping a chamois handy to dry off the front element and the barrel of the lens.

Wandering Albatross in the snow

3. Bring backups. There are no camera stores on the Antarctic peninsula. I rarely keep my lenses in any kind of bags or cases (aside from the camera bag itself), and while I was reorganizing gear in my camera bag one day, one of my lenses rolled off the bed and hit the floor. The filter cracked and the filter ring was so bent by the impact that I could not get it off. Good thing I had a backup – I just tossed that lens into a drawer, grabbed the backup and I was good to go. Once I got home I took it in to a camera store and they got the filter off. The front element was fine; the filter took the impact… which is why every one of your lenses should have a filter on it, especially on a boat.

4. On a moving ship, an image-stabilized lens is a lifesaver. My recent trip to Antarctica is the first time I’ve really shot with one, and I was amazed at how sharp some images were – even of birds flying behind the ship.

Giant Petrel

5. Don’t be afraid to change lenses. Yes, every once in a while why you’re doing that some bits of dust are going to blow in and get on your sensor. It happens. Just don’t be that guy on my recent trip who only ever seemed to have his 100-400mm on his camera. You will miss shots that way. You’ve paid all this money to get there, now you’re missing shots cause you don’t want to change lenses. It’s a cryin’ shame. At one point, one of these long-lens guys commented; “I just gotta wait til that iceberg is a little further away!”

6. Bring sensor cleaners.  When you get a bit of dust in there on your sensor after changing lenses, you can use one of these swabs to clean off the dust. They work like a charm and are easy to pack.

7. Bring some really thin gloves, eg: liners like these, and slightly heavier gloves like these: both enabled me to tweak controls on my camera with gloves on, which was essential. I really found I rarely needed more than one of these on anyway – it was not as cold as I’d expected.

8. Stay out on deck.  I spent hours on deck just watching the landscape roll by, and it enabled me to get a lot of great shots I would not have gotten otherwise. When you spy that great iceberg from the lounge, its too late. By the same token, carry your camera with you to meals. It can be a bit of a drag in a crowded dining room, but when they spot that whale it’s great not to have to run down to your room to grab your gear.


9. Bring two camera bags. To Antarctica I brought a backpack (and dry bags) for our shore excursions because you need to have two hands free to get in and out of the zodiac. At the last minute I decided to bring my regular shoulder bag too. I was so glad I did — it’s so lightweight and easy to have at your side all the time while on board.

10. Look at your pictures (especially to check for spots on the sensor), but don’t really edit during the trip. You want to take enough of a look to figure out if you screwed something up, or have some setting wonky on your camera, but you don’t want to get so deep into editing that you miss additional photo opportunities while you’re doing that. There’s gonna be plenty of time to edit once you get home.

11. The last zodiac is the best zodiac. On most of our landings, I was one of the last people back to the ship.  Given how changeable the weather is down there, you really never know what is going to happen. One day on South Georgia, as I was slowly making my way back to the landing site, the sun started to come out, and sea turned a light turquoise blue. It was gorgeous. The expedition team literally had to chase me into a zodiac so we could leave for the next location. But the pictures I got in those last few minutes are great.

South Georgia. St. Andrews.