Welcome to (The Occasional) Photo Tip of the Day! Please also visit my main site jeffwignall.com. Text and photographs Copyright 2016 Jeff Wignall.

“The best way out is always through.”

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Visualize Your Dream Vacation with Image Searches

I am one of those people that loves to plan trips. I actually enjoy all the time that I spend on airline sites, hotel sites and reading other people's travel experience on places like Trip Advisor. The problem for me though is that I'm very much a visual person--I need to see what a place looks like to get excited about going there. For years that meant that I spent Saturday afternoons sitting on the floor of the local bookstores but these days, of course, the Internet is awash in great photos of places--and finding them is very easy.

One of the best reasons for doing visual research if you're traveling largely to take photos is that it helps you to uncover lesser-known shooting treasures that are near your primary destination. If you're going to Tuscon primarily to shoot the saguaro cactus, for example, you'll be within minutes of the spectacular San Xavier del Bac mission church just south of the city. To visit Tucson and not devote a morning to photographing this incredible church would be a crime. You might also want to drive a bit south and west to visit the very touristy (but fun) OK Corral. Once you start doing visual research these places will pop up and then you can decide which ones look like they're worth a side trip.

Here are some of the places where I do visual research for a trip:

  • Flickr  For me, Flickr.com is the mother load of photo research sites. There are something like four billion photos on Flickr and you can find pictures of almost any place on earth. What's really cool about this site is that you will often find photos by people who live in that are and they usually have far deeper coverage. Also, since there is contact information on the site for each photographer, you can easily write and ask for advice on exactly where they shot a particular photo or to see if they have any destination suggetions. That doesn't mean they'll answer you, but most people are glad to share their favorite places. I wrote to a Canadian photographer about what hotel he was in when he when he shot a night skyline of Chicago (the caption said it was shot from a hotel room window) and he not only gave me the answer, he told me what room to request!
  • Google Image Search While this is a somewhat less personal place to search, doing a Google Images search will often lead you to great websites and blogs about a place. Also, be sure when you do a Google search to look under the "more" pulldown menu at the top of the page and then select "blogs" as a search criteria. This will let you search for incredibly current destination info and photos. When I'm trying to find out if the wildflowers are blooming in the Southwest, I always do a blog search and often find photos shot that very day. Amazing.
  • State Tourism Sites  While these sometimes tend to be a bit static in their content, often official state tourism sites have videos of popular destinations and parks and links to private websites. You'll also usually find a list of all state and local parks and that can be a real catalyst for trip planning.
  • YouTube There's nothing that brings a place down to reality like a video shot through someone's rental-car windshield and YouTube is just overflowing with this stuff.  Just type in the name of the place and the words "drive" or "driving video" and you'll find plenty. I've been planning a trip to Yellowstone and I  typed in "Yellowstone Drives" one night and spent the next two hours watching things like elk bashing into other peoples' cars and dusty drives from the Grand Tetons to Yellowstone all shot through car windows (if you're going to create one, do me a favor and bring a bottle of Windex along!). I love watching these vids because I like to know what the roads look like, what you can see from the road and the general lay of the land. 
  • Old Fashion Books Finally, don't forget there are some very visual and useful books in print! The Insight Guides like the Insight Guide Bermuda (Insight Guides) are just packed with great, if somewhat outdated, photos and lots of good travel info. And there's nothing like being inspired to plan a trip while you're sitting on the couch flipping through the pages of a real book. They'll be extinct soon, so take advantage while you can.
Once you get started planning a trip by looking at photos of places you'll undoubtedly find lots of cool places you never heard of, so take the time to click a lot of links and explore a lot of blogs and picture sites--you may find yourself creating a whole new list of destinations based on your research.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Plan Spring & Summer Shooting Trips Now

 First, sorry that the postings have been spotty lately, I'm in the last few weeks of finishing up a new book and the last few weeks of a book are always the panic time when all of loose ends have to (miraculously, sometimes) come together--and everyone involved has to agree on what's left to be done. I'm also in the midst of doing the first major revision of the Joy of Digital Photography. Both of these books are due out in September, so the pressure is on! In the meantime, back to the tips...

As I write this it's 19-degrees outside and with the windchill factor it's easily in the single digits. That's another reason that I haven't been posting much--I'm not brave enough to go out there and shoot! Tomorrow, in fact, I'll be shooting some indoor pictures in my impromptu studio and can't wait to do that. (Almost any day shooting pictures is a great day compared to sitting at a computer all day.) The other thing I've been doing, of course, is daydreaming about traveling and taking pictures in the coming spring and summer months. One of the places I'd really like to get to this year is Yellowstone Park and based on my past experiences at trying to get reservations in the lodges there, the time to start making plans and reservations is now.

I think that is probably true of any popular summer destination--unless you start to make plans and hotel room reservations at least by early spring, you may find out that it's impossible to do. In my experience the best time to see any popular destination (like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, for example) is just prior to and soon after the peak summer season. Probably the best months to travel (in the United States or Europe) are May, June and September (and early October if you're willing to risk a few chilly days). The great thing about these months is that rooms tend to be cheaper and easier to get, the crowds are way down and flights are usually cheaper.

Also be careful in planning your vacation schedule to avoid any kind of holidays or school vacations. Again, by traveling before school is out for the summer you'll have far less competition for rooms, cars, flights, etc. Last week, in fact, I tried making reservations to go to Florida in February and the airline prices were just outrageous--largely because of school vacations no doubt. My mistake for choosing that week without doing more research.

Getting more info on destinations is pretty easy these days and tomorrow I'll talk about some clever ways to find and research interesting and lesser known places. In the meantime, start thinking about your spring trips now--you'll not only save money and have more fun, but the daydreaming will get you through these cold winter days!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Quick Clutter Cutter: Paint Away the Edges

The best way to eliminate clutter from your photos, of course, is to recognize it before you snap the shutter and then avoid it or crop it away in the viewfinder. That's easier said than done because a lot of times when you're shooting casual pictures it's about capturing the moment and not perfecting the composition. One good example of this is when you're sitting around the dinner table at a holiday gathering or an informal party. I love to keep the camera with me at dinner and shoot informal or candid portraits--particularly when people are relaxing during the after-dinner tea and desert.

The problem with shooting portraits around the table, however, is that there are usually a lot of used dishes and half-empty glasses, crumpled napkins, etc. If you stop to clean up the table before you shoot, you'll lose most of your subjects and probably get tricked into clearing off the table. It's safer to just keep shooting and rely on your clever editing skills to clean up your shots later.

There are a couple of different ways to tidy up a messy shot in editing. You could, of course, crop away some things and perhaps clone away others, but I've found a quick-fix solution that takes only a minute or two and that is to simply paint away the areas you don't want to show. Granted, it's not the most refined method of cleaning up a photo, but it's fast and it works and if it's done well it can actually look quite artistic. To prepare for painting I first duplicate the background layer (Command J on a Mac, Alt J on a PC) and then do my painting in that layer. That way if I don't like the effect, I can simply trash that layer and create another--much faster than going back and erasing strokes you don't like.

Also, before I begin to paint I do my basic set of corrections by cropping, adjusting the color and exposure and then sharpening the image. Once that's done I simply grab a paintbrush from the brushes palette, choose a color and then quickly paint away the edges of the frame as I did here. In about a minute I was able to get rid of two stray hands (one on either side of the table), an extra wine glass, a butter dish and a few napkins--the typical remnants of a dinner party.

The trickiest part of the using this technique is choosing the right style of brush while also paying close attention to both brush hardness and size. I actually tried about five different brushes for this shot and finally settled on one that painted a broad swath (to make things faster) but that had an artistic paintbrush edge to it. As you paint, remember that you can "pull" the stroke from any direction--up/down, side-to-side, curving swoops, etc. Once you start painting in one direction though it's usually best to keep working in that same direction--but that's really something you can decide as you paint. I've just found that if you change the direction or angle of your strokes, things start to get a bit chaotic looking and end up looking more like a kid's finger painting (which is fine if that's the look you're after and might be fitting if it's a shot of a kid's birthday party). 

You can also choose a color of paint to match your subject or, as I did here, just white it out and you can also adjust the opacity so that you can see through the paint if you like or make it 100-percent opaque as it is here. You can even paint it a few times while changing the opacity of the brushes--doing the far edges at 100-percent to completely cover the background, for example, and then fine-tuning the inner edges with, say, a 75-percent brush. Experiment and you'll find tricks that work for you.

As a final step, particularly if you're using white around the edges, I like to create a black frame around  the image to separate it from the white background of the printing paper (or in this case the screen background). To do that simply use the rectangle tool to draw a box around the edges of the frame, then go to Edit>Stroke and use a two-pixel wide stroke using black as your color; that will turn the box you've drawn into a frame--it's very simple.

This may not be the most refined method of cleaning up a shot, but knowing that you can paint away a lot of clutter with just a few minutes work will make you more likely to shoot fun family photos regardless of how neat the setting or background happens to be.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Now You See It, Now You Don't: The Magic of the Clone Stamp

If I was stranded on a desert island and had to choose just a few Photoshop tools to bring along with me (assuming this desert island had laptop computers and digital cameras), the cloning stamp tool would definitely be on the short list. As mystical and magical as I find almost everything about digital-image editing, I am most enchanted by the ability to "clone" pixels from one part of an image (or an entirely different image) to another. Essentially what the clone stamp does is replicate, exactly, the pixels you tell it to copy and then places them wherever you want them. Just how cool is that?

There are a lot of practical applications for using a clone stamp and the more you use the tool, the more uses you'll find and the more your admiration of this profoundly helpful tool will grow. One of the most common uses for cloning is to "erase" things that you don't want in a shot. If, for example, you've taken a great and very pristine-looking shot of a saguaro cactus in Tucson only to find on closer examination that you've inadvertently included someone's discarded coffee cup, you can literally erase it from the photograph and no one will ever know it was there (and don't you wish we could clean up the planet as easily).

You can also use the clone to erase larger things that you no longer want in your photos--like taking dear old Auntie Maude, who wrote you out of the big will at the last minute, out of your holiday photos. She never smiled anyway, the old hag, banish her. In the photo here, for instance, I was able to completely eliminate the treasure hunter from this Florida beach. Not that I have anything against my fellow treasure hunters, but it makes a good demonstration point. And just so you don't think that I waited until he left the scene and shot a second picture, when I cloned him out, I carefully left his shadow. I repeat: How cool is that?

Using the clone stamp is a lot easier (and even more fun) than you might think. If you were sitting here next to me, I could have you erasing select relatives in a matter of moments. Basically what you do is decide which part of the image you want to hide and what you want to hide it with. You then "sample" the replacement material (again, you're just copying pixels from one area to another) by clicking on that area (Option-click on a Mac, Alt-click on a PC) and then use the cursor to paint those pixels over the area that you're covering.

The only real choices you'll have to make are what size brush to use when cloning and what level of hardness to use. It takes some experience to know which size brushes work best with certain subjects and what level of hardness makes the cloned areas most invisible, but you will quickly see what works and what doesn't. I suggest always working with the image at around 100% enlargement so that you can work in greater detail but with a larger image, that way when you shrink it back to it's printing size you are far less likely to spot any minor flaws. Also, work slowly and with a smaller brush; this takes more patience and makes the work go more slowly, but the results are usually more precise.

There is more to the cloning technique, but most of it you will learn through trial and error. For example, when I erased the treasure hunter I continually resampled my source area and took that source material from immediately to his left or right. By doing this you keep the same level of sharpness in the replacement material as you had there before. If your sourced material from a different lateral area you might be in a different sharpness zone (in terms of depth of field, for example), so you'd be cloning material that was more or less sharp than the area you were replacing and that would show. Once I had the man erased, I then looked carefully at where he'd been and cloned in some bicycle tire marks, stones and footprints to make the beach where he "had been" look like the remainder of the beach around him. I know, it's magic, it really is--but it relies on your skills too.

By the way, yes, you can clone from one photo to another! (Need I say a third time: How cool is that?) Just have both images open, sample from one and deposit in the other. I've taken flowers from one garden scene and placed them in another and it takes just seconds. You could, quite easily (and gleefully), place old Auntie Maude's head on the body of a wild goat.

OK, one last time, all together now: How cool is that?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Do (or Don’t Do) These 10 Things with Your New Camera

Whenever I get a new camera, I have this tendency to leave it still sealed in its box and eye it warily for a few days--or even a few weeks--before I take it out to play. Even though I've owned dozens of cameras in my life, I still find myself somewhat intimidated whenever there's a new addition. As familiar as I am with what most camera features do and what new surprises I can expect to find, there's still that awkward "new gizmo" hump that I have to get over. Over the years I've developed a list of tips for making the process go faster, however, and this is the exact list I hand out to students when I teach adult continuing-ed classes:
  1. DO read your camera’s manual. It’s one of the few books that was written expressly for the camera that you own. Also, see if there is a Magic Lantern Guide  published for your camera—they’re much better written and well illustrated. Keep your camera with you as you read and find each control or feature as you read about it. 
  2. DO read all of the menu screens. Granted some menus are kind of obtuse, but the menus are the dashboard of your camera and the more familiar you are with the menu choices—and sub-choices—the faster you can custom set your camera to a particular situation. 
  3. DO take your manual with you when you’re out shooting. If you’re out on a Sunday afternoon cruising for snaps and you encounter a question about camera controls, you don’t want to wait until you get home to find the answers. Keep the manual in a plastic zipper bag. 
  4. DO take lots of pictures. Photography, like any craft, is a learn-by-doing process and since you’re shooting digitally, hey, no film to buy. The more photos that you take the more comfortable you’ll feel with new camera and the more likely you are to experiment. 
  5. DON’T, however, just shoot carelessly because it’s free. Take the time to think about each photograph that you take; think quality, not quantity. 
  6. DO feel free to leave the camera in the Program or Auto exposure mode while you’re getting used to it. Better to shoot pictures right away than to avoid the camera because you’re intimidated by its complexities. Lots of pros, including me, use the program mode regularly (you need only look at the EXIF data in this book to see that). 
  7. DON’T be afraid to experiment with all of the controls. Try out different exposure modes and see what happens. Search for and play with unusual modes like flash exposure compensation. Again, just read the manual and have fun. Short of dropping it on concrete, you can’t hurt the camera. There’s a reset button (see your manual) to take you back to all of the default settings if you get hopelessly tangled. 
  8. DO print your pictures frequently so that you can see your mistakes and successes more clearly. There’s nothing like seeing a nice 8 x 10 of a great shot to boost your confidence (or to show you your technique flaws). 
  9. DO look for a basic (or advanced if you’re past the beginner’s stage) digital photo course at your local adult continuing education program. I’ve taught continuing-ed programs and I’ve taken classes, they’re a great way to learn and I’ve made a lot of good friends there. 
  10. DON’T live in a creative vacuum.  Join a photo-sharing community like Flickr or Digital Image CafĂ© and see what others are doing creatively and get advice from others who own the same camera.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Take a Spin on the Color Wheel, Theoretically Speaking

Tracing the history of "color theory" (and the theory of color is actually made up of many theories) is one of those roads that, once you start off exploring, you find yourself feeling a bit like Alice who, after eating a strange piece of cake and growing so enormously tall that she could no longer see her own feet, uttered the famous words, "Curiouser and curiouser." Indeed.

Depending on which books you read and how far in history you're willing to go back, the story of color theory includes, among other notable charcaters,  Leone Battista Albeirti (c. 1435), Leonard da Vinci (c. 1490) and even Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who, in 1810, published a 1,400-page treatise on color (and an abridged version is still in print, by the way). If you want to go back even further, of course, you would have to drag in the ancient Egyptians whose color theories were so strictly tied to religion that artists were told which colors they could use for certain subjects--and any variations from those options were severely frowned upon. And we all know just how severely the ancient Egyptians could frown upon things they didn't like.

For photographers, however, perhaps the most significant study of color begins with Sir Isaac Newton who, in the late 1660s, used a prism to divide light into the color spectrum with which we are all so familiar (but that probably had some of Newton's contemporaries muttering the word "witch" behind his back). Newton, not being one to let a good thing lie half done, then joined the ends of that linear spectrum into a circle, thus creating the prototype for the color wheel that artists and photographers use today. The color wheel is essentially a visual representation of the colors in the spectrum and it has many interesting uses. The primary practical use for photographers is to help us study the visual and psychological impact of various color combinations. It's a fascinating topic and one you could spend a lifetime studying, but being aware of just a few of the potential combinations of colors will enable you to choose themes to enhance and manipulate the mood of your photos. Here (very basically) are the main color themes:

  • Monochromatic Color is the use of a single color (or very closely related colors) on the color wheel in various intensities and levels of saturation. If you were photographing ferns on the forest floor, for example, you might tighten the composition to  limit your palette to a variety of shades of green. Monochrome color schemes are often interpreted as very soothing or calm.
  • Analogous or Harmonious Colors are colors that are adjacent to one another on the color wheel. In the photo of petunias here, for example, the pinks and violets are very close to one another on the color wheel and, in fact, gradually merge into one another on blended color wheels. As with monochromatic colors adjacent colors tend to create a feeling of harmony and peacefulness. Because these color pairs are often found occurring naturally in nature, landscape designers and florists are big on analogous color combinations.
  • Complementary Color is made of up two colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel and that typically compete with one another. You might photograph a warm tone (yellow) ball of yarn contrasting with a cooler one (blue), for instance, in a still life. Complementary colors draw attention because of their inherent visual contrast.
  •  Split Complementary Color uses a particular color and the two colors adjacent to its complement. If green were your main color, for example, then red would be its complement. The two colors on either side of red would be the adjacent colors. A split-complementary color scheme provides good contrast but without being as brash as a straight two-color contrast.
  • Triadic Colors consist of three colors that are found equally spaced around the color wheel--red, yellow and blue, for instance. The combination of these three colors tends to create an interesting feeling of both contrast and harmony and tend to make compositions look more balanced. Still life and product photographers often use a triadic color scheme for that reason--it's both vibrant and attractive.
There are actually a few more color combinations that you can read about online or in a good color book, but like I said at the top, the farther in you go, the more your head may begin to spin. But not to worry, like Alice, eventually your thoughts will shrink back to normal size and the world will start to make sense once again.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Another Fisheye Shot: The Bullfrog Garbage Cans

After my posting about fisheye lenses two days ago, I got a few emails asking me to post some more fisheye lens examples, so here's one that was shot the same day. This is a shot of a pair of garbage cans that looks to me like a giant bullfrog. Shot with a 10.5mm Nikkor Fisheye. By the way, look to the right in this image and you can see a shadow of me taking the picture. I'll be doing a lot more shooting with this lens--I'm totally addicted--so I'll post a few more photos soon. See the tip below for more info on the lens.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

For a Romantic Look, Try the Gaussian Blur (and Skip the Petroleum Jelly)

Back in the 1970's when the SLR craze was exploding and photographers were all exploring the creative potential of photography, one of the odd things that you were likely to find in almost every photographer's bag was jar of petroleum jelly. It wasn't for soothing the scrapes and scratches encountered while climbing around in nature, but rather for softening focus to give subjects like landscapes and portraits a more romantic look. Perfectly rational photographers (well, maybe not perfectly rational) would smear an otherwise perfectly good UV or skylight filter with a liberal coating of the jelly to give their photos a soft, or more likely a blurred, look--and art directors were eating it up. Using petroleum jelly was so prevalent back then, in fact, that if you looked at the photo cards on the Hallmark card racks, it must have seemed the entire profession was suffering from some sort of communal glaucoma disease.

Still, the romantic look was popular and I sold a lot of photos thanks to that little jar of petroleum jelly--and I ruined a lot of good filters. You can create the same look, of course, in editing and you'll waste a lot fewer filters and your fingers won't be slimy the whole time you're shooting. In Photoshop (and in most other editing programs) there are a number of blur filters available but the one that I use most often is the Gaussian blur (Filters>Blur>Gaussian Blur) and it's very simple to apply. Once you open the dialog box for the tool all you have to do is adjust the intensity of the blur using a slider.

The real trick to controlling the degree of the Gaussian blur, however, is not to apply it to the background layer itself, but rather to a copy of the background layer. (The keystroke command for creating a dupe of the background layer is Command J for Macs and for Windows it's Alt J.) This creates an exact duplicate of the background layer and any changes you make to the copy layer will not permanently affect the background image layer. Now apply the Gaussian blur to the duplicate layer. I usually apply a much heavier degree of blur than I'm going to use in the final image because once that blur is applied to the copy layer, you can tweak its intensity by adjusting the opacity of the blur layer. (The opacity control is in the upper right-hand corner of the layers palette.)

In other words, you're getting a second chance to apply the blur to the image, but rather than just seeing the effect in the tiny preview window of the blur filter dialog box, you're able to watch as it is applied to the whole image--and you can adjust it with settings from 0-100 which provides far greater control. I used a 33-percent opacity for this image with the actual blur set to 9 in the Gaussian dialog box. The blur is probably somewhat difficult to see (a good thing) because you always want to be  light-handed on the filter or you just end up with an out-of-focus image (a lesson we had to learn many times back in the petroleum jelly days when we equated more jelly with more creativity).

Just to recap, the process is very simple: Duplicate the background layer, apply the Gaussian blur (fairly heavily) to that copy layer and then use the opacity control to adjust the blur intensity. It's a much more precise way of adding a bit of romance to your images and you can also apply it selectively by just selecting specific areas of an image (applying it just to window box full of flowers in a photo of a house, perhaps). And just think of all the money you'll save on petroleum jelly (not to mention those expensive little filters).

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Consider the Strange Beauty of the Fisheye Lens

If you happen to be a Nikon DSLR shooter, are completely bored with all of your lenses and have (roughly) an extra $700 burning a hole in your equipment pocket, the Nikon 10.5mm f/2.8G ED DX Fisheye Lens may be just the lens you need. That's exactly the situation I was in when I bought mine and I have to tell you, as unnecessary as owning a fisheye lens is, it's still a lot of fun--and actually, there are some practical uses (just in case you need to justify owning it to a nit-picking spouse), though you may have to stretch the word "practical" a bit to find them.

The fun part first: The Nikkor 10.5mm fisheye lens is an ultra-wide-angle lens that provides a whopping 180-degree (measured diagonally from corner-to-corner) angle of view and that is far wider than even our own peripheral vision which is about 120-degrees. This is also what's known as a full-frame fisheye lens because it does not provide the cropped circular angle-of-view that some fisheye lenses produce. The result is a wild and distorted (but again, full frame) view of the world that can't be obtained with any other lens. Photos taken with this lens have a curved (bowed) distortion that, combined with the super-wide view, produce some really interesting and, I think, creative images. At the moment I think that Nikon is the only lens manufacturer making a full-frame fisheye and it can only be used on cameras with a DX-size sensor (D80, D90, etc.) and it can't be used on a full-frame DSLR body because it won't cover the field of the sensor.

Another side benefit of such a wide lens is that it has incredible depth of field--you barely have to focus this lens and if you shoot at a mid-range aperture like f/8 or smaller, everything from your feet to the horizon will be in sharp focus. In fact, I shot the frame here at f/6.3 and everything is in sharp focus from the bench that's about a foot from my knee to the far horizon. And, by the way, as you can see here, when you include the horizon in a fisheye shot you get a wickedly curved horizon line that looks like the edge of the earth (which, from where you're standing, is exactly what you're seeing).

OK, so now that you have yourself convinced you absolutely need one of these lenses, what are the practical applications? Because these lenses produce such a super-wide angle-of-view and because they have enormous depth of field, you can use them in tight spaces (like photographing your beautiful newly remodeled bathroom so that you can show it off to the relatives--you see, a perfect argument in favor of owning this lens) to provide very inclusive and very sharp images. You can also photograph large groups of people (like all of your wife's relatives gathered on your front steps--you can see where I'm going with this) without having to back up three blocks.

But won't these images be horribly distorted? Ahh, there's the fun part (oops, this is supposed to be the practical part): there is software available that can correct the distortion and leave you with an optically correct image that still retains the wide-angle-view and great depth of field. The Fisheye-Hemi Plug In from Image Trends is probably the most popular and sells for just $29.95 and works with both Photoshop and Apple Aperture software. Once you've run the image through the software the curved lines and image distortion are totally removed. Neat, eh?

To be honest, as much as I wanted this lens, it sat in my camera bag and was only used infrequently for the first few months that I owned it. Since then, however, I've been carrying it with me everywhere and though it doesn't fit into every situation, it's a ton of fun to have around. It's also a tiny lens physically and will easily fit into a jacket pocket. So if you're hiking it around Manhattan and shooting with all your traditional lenses and then suddenly you run into your spouse's cousin in their brand new car and you want to show everyone just how cool and spacious the backseat is...hey, I'm trying to help you get a new lens here, work with me.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Get Close to Wild Animals (in the Wild, Naturally)

Getting a great close-up shot of a wild animal is one of the most exciting (and often frightening) moments that you'll have as a photographer. Few subjects (three-year-old kids aside) are as difficult, unpredictable and potentially dangerous (this part doesn't necessarily apply to the kids) as an animal in its own environment--and few animals (and this does apply to the kids) could care less about you getting a good photograph. Animals in the wild are living their own lives and whenever you are close to one, you're the intruder and it takes a great deal of patience and skill to get near--or even see--them, let alone come home with some good photos. And though I don't photograph animals as often as I'd like, there are some things I've learned over the years (well, not that many years) that will help you:

  • Go to a wildlife sanctuary.  I've known photographers that grew up in rural areas and spent much of their childhoods tramping through wild places and they can get you within 20 feet of a wild fox almost at will, but for most of us the odds of seeing animals are greatly increased in a sanctuary. I photographed this bison at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, located in Jasper County, near Prairie City, Iowa and each time I've been there I've managed to get good close-up shots. While the bison are confined (for their safety) to the sanctuary, they are free to roam over an 800-acre drive-through sanctuary. That doesn't make it easy to get near them, but it helps. Look, in particular, for sanctuaries that have a driving loop since most animals are far less afraid of you when you're shooting from inside a car. And don't forget your local state parks and Audubon sanctuaries; I live near two Audubon sanctuaries and both provide great access to animals.
  • Take a wildlife tour.  Organizations like the National Audubon Society offer wonderful group tours that provide unprecedented opportunities to get close to birds and other wild animals. Some of these tours are simple afternoon hikes while others offer extended trips to visit particular types of animals. The longer trips are not inexpensive, but if you're a retired doctor or lawyer and have the time and means to take trips like these, they are often life-changing experiences (and if you need a personal Sherpa, let me know).
  • Hire a local guide.  It's funny that this never occurred to me as an option until I was on a camping trip in northern Maine and I started seeing "moose guide" signs along remote stretches of roadside. For a fairly reasonable fee these guides will take you one-on-one into prime wilderness areas and their ability to deliver the goods is extremely high. A lot of these guides work as guides for hunters much of the time (so you'll have to examine your own feelings about that), but they know more about the indigenous wildlife than anyone else on the planet. They can't guarantee you'll get close to a moose or a bear, for example, but they'll multiply your odds astronomically. The North Country Rivers outfitters in Maine, for example, offer outings ranging from three hours (about $54) to overnight trips.
  •  Study State Park Sites Online.  Every state and Canadian province has a state bureau devoted to wildlife protection and observation and they maintain online sites with great information and maps. Bureaucracies being what they are, the sites may or may not be current, but the will provide some basic information about a particular animal or region.
  • Take a wildlife photo workshop. Again, these are usually not particularly cheap, but they're a terrific way to get close to animals, hang out with other serious photographers and get into one of those fun "Canon vs. Nikon" debates over an expensive dinner. The best wildlife workshops are run by master photographers like Arthur Morris who is perhaps the best bird photographer and one of the best photography teachers on the planet. Again, a good workshop is a potentially life-changing experience.
  • Read, read, read.  You've heard this (from me, probably) many times, but the more you know about any animal the better your odds of getting great photos. It's an absolute publishing crime, but Leonard Lee Rue's How I Photograph Wildlife and Nature is out of print, but it's the best book ever written on the subject and you can get used copies on Amazon for under a buck. Buy it. 
However you get close to animals, it's an enthralling experience and no matter what the effort, coming home with one great shot makes it all worthwhile. Life is short (and animals are disappearing fast), if you dream about photographing wildlife, start making plans to do it today!

    Monday, January 4, 2010

    Look for Holiday Still Lifes at Home

    I am one of those people that actually likes to decorate for holidays. Whether it's Christmas, Thanksgiving or Halloween or almost any other holiday, given the slightest excuse to hang some fairy lights or make an arrangement from pine cones and candles and I'm there. I'm sure this is a gift (or a burden) handed down to me from my mother who decorated the house so overwhelmingly at Christmas that we used to joke that Christmas had "exploded" in our living room. There wasn't a candle stick or banister or picture frame (or cat) that wasn't adorned with at least one red bow--and often several. What was the purpose of a holiday if not to turn the house into a Hallmark card?

    I don't go as nuts as my mother did but, during Christmas at least, you would still be hard put to find a corner in my house that doesn't have some little holiday vignette. One of the nice things about having all of these little thematic nooks around the house is that they give me a chance to make some impromptu still life photos. Today, for example, while sitting at the dining room table reading mail, I noticed the pretty morning light coming through the blinds and illuminating this little candle dish and I had to photograph it. Much as I would love to ignore such moments and keep doing what I'm doing, it's nearly impossible: when a photo calls, I have to get the camera and respond.

    Shooting still lifes around the house, whether it's of holiday decorations or just some interesting objects on a table or a bookshelf, is actually a lot of fun and it's good photo practice. Turning your home into a still life studio teaches you to pay attention to the lighting and to appreciate the beauty of the shapes, colors and textures of the objects that you live with every day. I don't make a big production out of these found still life shots and I try to shoot them exactly as I first noticed them. For this shot I moved a few little sparkly plastic snowflakes out of the way, but otherwise the shot is just as I found it. I shot the frame in RAW and I did ramp up the warmth a bit during the conversion process, but again, otherwise it is as I first saw it.

    Most of the time with shots like this you'll be working either with existing daylight or a combination of daylight and artificial light from lamps. I shot a few frames of this scene with flash, even experimenting with using flash in a reduced-power mode (so it wouldn't overwhelm the daylight that was coming from a window to my right), but the shots made exclusively with window light were the best. The contrast from strong window light was a bit extreme and I was tempted to get a piece of white foam core out to reflect some light back into the dark side of this shot, but I got lazy and took care of the contrast later using a curves adjustment in Photoshop.

    Taking photos of holiday still lifes has a few practical benefits beyond photography, too. For one, even if you're a sentimental fool (or especially if you're a sentimental fool), it's easier to put the decorations away if you know you'll always have the photos to recall how your house looked. Also, you can always turn your photos into greeting cards for the next year. Most important though, if you're the primary decorator, it's nice just to spend a few moments appreciating the beauty and creativity of your decor--even if the rest of the family teases you for turning the house into a Thomas Kinkade painting.

    Sunday, January 3, 2010

    Bring Home the Color Palette of Other Places

    One of the first things that I notice when I travel someplace new is that each place seems to have its own unique palette of colors, sometimes natural, sometimes man made, that permeates almost every view. In Bermuda, for example, all of the houses are painted in soft pastel shades and the entire countryside seems to be awash in a rainbow of pastel hues--even the stores in the commercial district along Front Street in Hamilton are painted in delicate pastel colors. It's hard to walk around Bermuda and not feel like you're in a giant artist's studio. In the Loire Valley in France, I was taken by how many shades of green there are in the landscape, and in the American Southwest (particularly parts of Utah and Arizona) the landscape seems to ooze with deep reds and gold--the dust that you bring back to your motel room on your clothes spreads those colors over everything you touch. (When my girlfriend wanted to add some red to one of her sketches of Utah, she literally took some of the red dirt and mixed it with water and painted it into her sketch.)

    Bringing home photos that capture the colors of a place goes a long way to making your photos more authentic and in conjuring what I call the "color spirit" of a place. While traveling near the Mexican border in Tubac, Arizona, for example, we walked among dozens of stores selling brilliantly-painted Mexican pottery and the entire town seemed to vibrate with intense reds, greens, yellows and blues. I tried for quite a while to compose a wider scene that reflected that festive palette but none of my shots seemed to capture it. Instead, I started taking close-up photos of individual pots and pieces of artwork and I ended up taking dozens of photos of hand-painted pots, pitchers, tin lizards, etc. The shot here is just a detail of one of those pots but for me it recalls all of the fun and cheerfulness of those colorful displays.

    Wherever you travel, look for colors that represent the mood and the feel of the place and then look for ways to capture that palette in your photos. Look for a mix of wide views, shots of people in costumes or local clothing styles and close-ups of art work and crafts. The more different objects and settings that you shoot that show those colors the more your photos will capture the color spirit of that place.

    Saturday, January 2, 2010

    Include Hands in Interesting Ways

    A friend's hands can be very useful things to have "handy" when you're out photographing--they can help you carry gear, point to interesting subjects that you might have overlooked and, if you're lucky, maybe even scratch your back occasionally. But having an extra hand or two nearby can also be a useful creative addition to your compositions. Hands can be used to show comparisons of scale and texture, they can hold unusual objects in your compositions for you (a plastic alligator dangling over Times Square, perhaps) or maybe just to point to a real alligator sunning in nearby in a stream (hopefully not too nearby). Hands are interesting because they add a human element to any type of composition and again, in terms of both scale and texture, they can be extremely helpful. Using my friend's hand touching this giant saguaro, for example, provides a great sense of scale to the massive folds of the ancient cactus (probably 100 years old or more) and her thin delicate fingers provide a wonderful textural comparison to the rough, time-worn skin of the plant.

    By the way, if you aren't lucky enough to have a cooperative friend with nice hands nearby, you can always use your own hands--just place your camera on a tripod, frame the scene and then use the self timer to get your hand(s) into position. Or, if you have long enough arms and a wide-angle lens, you can probably even just reach out into the scene and include your hand. I've photographed small stones and shells sitting in the palm of my hand this way and have even photographed a chipmunk feeding from my hand. But however you get a hand in the shot (and whosever hand it is), just be sure to frame the scene carefully so that people know you meant to include it and didn't just take a nap while you were composing the picture. You've got to hand it to hands--creatively and logistically, they're quite handy!

    Friday, January 1, 2010

    Have a Peaceful New Year's Day!

    Happy New Year's Day!

    I'm taking the day off but I'll be back with a new tip tomorrow. I hope you have a happy and prosperous 2010 and that you'll find the quote below an inspiring thought to start the new year.

    The Power of Commitment

    "Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.

    Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now".

    —J. W. von Goethe