It’s easy to get caught up in taking photographs of things. After all, that’s how your brain works. You look at things. Categorize things. Evaluate things. But making photographs is about capturing light.
You want to find good light, then take pictures of the things you find in that light. Here’s an example. These images are of the same grounded iceberg in Kong Oscar Fjord in Northeast Greenland. The top image shows the flat, steely light we had right before our shore excursion.
The bottom image was taken just afterwards when the fog descended down and the snow began to fall. That light too might have seemed bad, but one thing living in San Francisco has given me is a lot of experience shooting in heavy fog.
So you let the fog be fog. You let it be dark. You let shapes emerge from it.
And you get a good picture.
Previously, I explained how I went about finding a photo safari in Africa that would give me a good chance to take a lot of images and visit places that offered more freedom than just staying in National Parks and Game Reserves.
Here are a few images from that trip, which I am still in the process of editing:
Apropos of nothing at all, except that I just remembered how much I like photographing monkeys, here are three of my favorites.
Not all animals are comfortable making eye contact with humans. Some, like house cats, even actively avoid it. But monkeys don’t seem to mind one little bit.
Highly social creatures, they often watch what other monkeys are doing. This one has classic catch light in his eyes. I also like how the light is catching on all his long monkey face hair. I have another shot of this one where he bears a striking resemblance to Dubya, but that’s a different story.
This one I just absolutely adore. She looks at me so calmly, so evenly. The macaques on Mount Popa make a game out of terrorizing tourists into dropping their water bottles and snacks on the ground so they can swoop in and grab them. This one seems to have better things to do with her time.
A retirement home for old logging elephants (and one young orphan) in the mountains of Shan State, near Kalaw, Myanmar.
I came late to digital photography. I recall quite clearly telling someone with all the
bravado stupidity of youth that I would never, ever go digital because it could not capture the nuances of color found in nature that film could easily render. Of course, at the time that was pretty much true. Early digital cameras that were in the realm of affordability were scandalously expensive and required a photographer pretty much toss their entire kit and buy a new one, plus a raft of cards and a powerful desktop computer to boot. Making the change was a big commitment. So I waited.
One of my last film-based trips was by last trip to Myanmar (Burma) in 2005. From here out I’ll use the more familiar name Burma, because it conjures up history, culture and the weight of its time as part of the vast British Empire and I just like the way it sounds.
So in December of 2005 I went to Burma, laden with 100 rolls of Fuji Velvia and Provia and shot the lot of them, pointing my camera at any old Buddha that got in my way plus a lot more besides. I loved the country, the people and the food. I vowed to return.
Shooting slide film requires you to be on the top of your game, photographically speaking, in order to get anything good. Your hand must be steady to be shooting ASA 50 film, your eye has to be sharp to edit all the distractions from the frame before you click the shutter. And exposure? Oh, yes. That has to be right on as well. Of course with digital, all of these considerations are basically moot. Need more light? Crank up that ISO! Got a bright spot in the corner? Crop that out in LightRoom! Exposure, oh just tweak that a bit in LightRoom too. Or take 3 dozen versions. Who cares, its just more bits! They don’t weigh a thing!
Which brings me to this. The top photograph here is one I shot, probably on Velvia, in 2005 then scanned.
An interesting image, but that light! It’s so weird! This is clearly caused by all the light reflecting off the turquoise blue-green walls but there was not that much that could be done to fix it (unless it were printed).
The same scene today, photographed on my Nikon D7100:
Of course I’m using a wider lens which has caused some distortion, but the colors are much cleaner after a few tweaks in LightRoom and it’s much easier to render the image as almost exactly what I saw in the viewfinder… which is after all what I’m after.
So 2003 me was dead wrong, and 2015 me has no problem admitting that.
I’ve been very remiss lately in posting updates and new images. Here are a few sneak peek images from my recent trip to Myanmar (Burma), a place I first visited back in 2005. A lot has changed there over the years, but the unique culture and stunning scenery remain very much intact. As I edit my images I’ll be posting stories and some technical tips for photographing in Southeast Asia.
I’ve been really busy the past couple of weeks with family visiting, work and doing a whole lot of captioning for my agent. As a result I haven’t had much time to write up anything. But while adding keywords to a bunch of images from the Falklands, I came across these images of a fierce wind and rain/sleet storm that came up out of nowhere while we were visiting Saunders Island. As the trip was just getting started, this was the first time most of us had experienced the insane changeability of the weather in the Southern Latitudes.
Out of nowhere, a giant cloud appeared and the wind strengthened considerably.
It began picking up the sand and whipping it against our waterproof pants.
You can see the haze here, which I think was equal parts water and sand.
Some penguins hustled up to the safety of the colony while others took one look at the wind and just went back into the ocean.
Needless to say, my camera’s sensor needed a good cleaning that night.
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.
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: