photography

Sneak Peek: Botswana Safari

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:

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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.

 

SVA_0858

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?

ANT_3016

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.

 

 

ANT_2728

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.

SVA_0918

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.

 

 

SVA_3950

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:

ANT_6125

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.

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.

Iceberg

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.

 

Poll: Help me pick which images to submit to the 2014 National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest, part 1

Which ones should I pick? Click on any of the images above to open the gallery.

I’d like to submit three images from this trip, plus a few others from other trips as well (to come in a later post). I’d like to submit a total of 5 images to the contest. The entry fee is $15 per image, so I can’t go too crazy.  If you have any write-in candidates, please let me know in the comments!

 

Thanks for your help.  Though I do have a lot of experience editing photos, sometimes it is hard to separate out one’s emotional connection to an image from it’s actual worth as a picture. Hearing others’ opinions is really helpful.