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by John Shaw

20120120-_JBX4007-2_300How does one coordinate Lightroom used on a laptop when traveling, with a master Lightroom catalog back in the office?  I’ve written about this before, but the topic keeps coming up at workshops and on tours, so….

I have one main master Lightroom catalog for all my images, which resides on my desktop computer in my office.  That master catalog is on an internal drive (a different drive than the internal SSD drive I use for all my programs).  A backup copy of this master catalog is made to another internal drive (automatically done by Lightroom when I exit the program), and a third copy of the catalog is on a small external USB drive.  Yes, I’m a bit paranoid about loosing all that data.

I have another Lightroom catalog named Travel on my laptop.  When I’m on the road, I download images using Lightroom, in the exact same format structure I use for the image files back in my office.  As the files are downloaded, Lightroom automatically renames the files and adds my copyright information, using templates I’ve created in Lightroom.  My naming template is a YYMMDD_camera-generated-file-name-and-numberformat, so individual files appear along the lines of 150624_D4S_4752.  Nikon lets you set camera names in the menu system to a three character code, so my cameras are named D4S and D8T.  Yeah, real original thinking there.  Image files are always downloaded into a  _Photos folder (the underscore makes it the topmost folder in my laptop’s directory), into a subfolder named by month and location of shoot.  06 Namibia would by a June trip to Namibia while 09 Denali would be a September shoot in Denali.  Each day’s images are automatically sorted as Lightroom reads the file metadata, makes YYYY-MM-DD folders as needed inside the month-shoot folder (the 06 Namibia or 09 Denali folders), and puts the correct images into the correct folders (I always have my cameras set to the local time, which in turn means all images will be correctly sorted by date).  Once all these parameters are checked in Lightroom they remain as set, so the only thing I ever have to change is the name of the month-shoot folder.  I flag any images I work on in Lightroom, highlight those images, and save all metadata to file by doing Ctrl/Command + S.

While on the road I copy every day’s take to two small external USB powered hard drives, so that by the end of the trip I have three duplicate copies of all my images.  Since the files are already in the organization I use in my office, all I have to do once I get home is to copy the image files to their correct location on my master hard drives, and to add the trip catalog to my master catalog.  I open the Travel catalog on my laptop, select the folder with the trip images, and do File > Export as Catalog, saving the exported catalog on one of the small USB drives.  I make sure to include the image previews.  Since the image files on the USB drive are all current with the correct metadata saved to them, there is no reason for me to do what Lightroom calls Export negative files (“negative files” is Adobe-speak for the actual images).

Back in the office I plug this drive into a USB port on my desktop computer, and use my operating system to copy the image shoot folder, which has all the photos, over to the correct date location on my main hard drive array.  Then I open my master Lightroom catalog, and do File > Import from Another Catalog, and select the catalog on the USB drive.  When this is finished working, I disconnect the small USB drive, at which time Lightroom want to know where the files are located since the imported catalog still thinks they are back on my laptop.  I point Lightroom to the correct image folder I’ve copied over, the 06 Namibia folder or whatever it is, and I’m done.  The backup software on my desktop computer automatically kicks in, and backs up my new images.

When I’m positive that all is well with my desktop system, I remove all the photos from the Travel catalog on my laptop, so that I can reuse the catalog shell again with all my preferences still set.  I reformat the USB drives, reset the time in my cameras, and I’m good-to-go on my next adventure.

Using Manual Exposure

By John Shaw

20120120-_JBX4007-2_300In my photography I use Aperture Priority metering most of the time.  I take a shot, look at the histogram, and use Exposure Compensation (EC) to add or subtract light as needed.  Yes, this works great most of the time…but most of the time does not mean all of the time.  There are shooting situations where it is best to not use an autoexposure mode (aperture priority mode, shutter priority mode, or program mode).  This means selecting both the shutter speed and the lens aperture; that is, using manual exposure mode.  In this mode, you have to physically set both the shutter speed and the aperture, and the camera remains at those settings — and exposes at those settings — no matter where you aim the camera.  What you set is what you get, period.  EC does nothing to change the camera’s settings.  It affects the meter readout, but it does not in any way change the shutter speed or aperture on the camera, so turn EC to zero.  In manual exposure mode, what you set is what you get.  If you want to lighten or darken the image, you have to physically change the shutter speed or the aperture or the ISO.  The camera itself does not change anything.  What you set is what you get.

This blog post comes about because of a photo trip I recently led.  We were standing on the top of a cliff overlooking the ocean, preparing to photograph birds flying past.  If they birds were above us, the background was a pale milky blue sky.  If below us, the background was a dark navy blue ocean.  So what’s the right exposure?  Any autoexposure mode would be biased by which background was in the frame.  One solution would have been to work only those birds against the pale sky, or only those against the dark ocean.  But the birds were not cooperating in that manner.  They would swoop around, at one moment be above us and the next moment be below us.  When I mentioned that this situation called for a manually set exposure, to compensate for the different background tonalities, the response I got reminded me once again how many photographers have never used a camera in the manual exposure mode.

If the light remains the same, once you correctly set a manual exposure, it is correct for all subjects in that light regardless of their tonality.  OK, but how to set that exposure?  Pick something, it doesn’t matter what, in that constant light, and adjust for it’s tonality.  When you set the camera to manual exposure, an analog display will appear in the viewfinder with a “zero” point in the middle of a “plus” and “minus” line.  “Zero” is the starting point.  Change the shutter speed and/or aperture until this mark in highlighted, and you have set the camera to render whatever you aimed it at to be rendered as a medium tone.   Go to a “plus” mark, and you have added light.  Go to a “minus” mark and you have taken away light.   So, aim the camera at a single tone, and meter it and only it.  Physically change the shutter speed and/or aperture to render that area at whatever tone you want it to appear.  Here’s a quick and dirty way to think about this.  At the “zero” mark the camera will render that subject you metered as a medium tone.  At the “plus one” mark, one stop open, the metered subject will be rendered as a “light” tonality.  At the “plus two” mark, two stops open, it will be rendered as a “very light” tonality.   At the “minus one” mark, one stop down, it would be “dark” subject; at “minus two” it would be an “very dark” subject.

Suppose you meter a blue area.  Here’s what would happen as you change the shutter speed/aperture combination:

+3, whitish blue
+2, very light blue
+1, light blue
0, medium blue
-1, dark blue
-2, very dark blue
-3, blackish blue

Back to those birds….  The solution would be to pick an easy area to meter:  either the pale sky, or the dark ocean water.  Let’s use the pale sky; it was roughly “very light blue.”   Set the camera to manual exposure mode, aim it at the area of sky where the birds would be, and adjust shutter speed/aperture until the “plus two” mark was highlighted.   It doesn’t matter what combination shutter speed/aperture you use to get started.  Pick the equivalent combination that gives the shutter speed needed or the aperture needed.  Suppose you aimed your camera at that sky and the exposure combination that yielded “plus two” was 1/125 sec. at f/11.  Well, you know that 1/125 sec. is way to slow a shutter speed to freeze a bird in flight.  1/125 sec. at f/11 is exactly the same as 1/250 sec. f/8, or 1/500 sec. at f/5.6, or 1/1000 sec. at f/4, etc.  Need a faster shutter speed?  Raise the ISO one stop, and you could shoot at 1/2000 sec. at f/4 (or any equivalent combination).  Set the shutter speed/aperture combination you want to use, and fire away.  So long as those birds remain in the same light, and the light itself does not change, the exposure will be correct no matter the background.

I can think of a number of situations where using manual exposure would be best.  Consider working a black sand beach, with waves breaking white over it.  The camera meter would read a black subject at one moment, a white subject at another.  Or imagine you’re using a zoom lens to photograph a dark buffalo standing in the snow in Yellowstone.   As you zoom the lens, the image changes from primarily snow to primarily buffalo.  Or a situation I faced back in February while photographing red-crowned cranes.  The white cranes were standing in a snow-covered field, but as they took flight the background became leafless winter trees, a dark toned area, and then to medium blue sky as the birds rose higher.  In all three situations, so long as the light remained unchanging, the solution was to meter one area, set the exposure using manual mode, and shoot away.

If you’re not familiar with the manual exposure mode, I would strongly suggest some practice.  But let me add one final statement:  with all digital cameras, you cannot evaluate exposure or color via the LCD on the back of the camera.  The histogram is your friend, whether shooting manual mode or one of the autoexposure modes.  Learn how to use manual exposure mode, and learn how to read the histograms.

Getting Lucky on Safari

By Justin Black

For Outdoor Photographer, October 2014

One of my most important photographic mentors, Galen Rowell, grew accustomed to being told how lucky he was to capture the stunning natural events that he photographed. He would chuckle politely, and respond that he tried to be prepared to receive luck. In other words, he went to great lengths to be in the right place at the right time, well-practiced with his tools and technique, familiar with his subjects and surroundings, and able to anticipate and account for as many variables and technical challenges as he could. Galen knew that if he stacked the deck in his favor making pictures would be easy.

Each year, tens of thousands go on safari in Africa, hoping to bring home wildlife photos that capture the drama and beauty they’ve seen in the pages of National Geographic. Too often, though, the deck seems stacked against them. A photographer’s first African safari always comes with a steep learning curve. Even with the benefit of a good guide and abundant wildlife, it takes a while to get a feel for the place and animal behaviors. For many, it’s their first time with a big telephoto, introducing a range of technical challenges that they may not even have the opportunity to identify, much less overcome, during their trip of a lifetime. It’s no surprise when many people leave Africa disappointed with their photographs, wondering what they did wrong, or thinking they were plain unlucky.

The good news is that with a little preparation, awareness of the situation you’re going into, and practice of a few techniques in advance of your trip, you can radically improve your chances of “getting lucky” on safari.

Shutter Speed: If your goal is to make sharp, detailed wildlife action images with a long telephoto on a high-resolution DSLR, the common advice to use a shutter speed that is the reciprocal of focal length (i.e. 1/500 of second with a 500mm lens) isn’t going to cut it when things are in motion. Instead, try to use shutter speeds around three times the reciprocal of the focal length. For instance, with the 500mm f/4 and 1.4x teleconverter (a 700mm combo) that I commonly find myself using for wildlife, I know from experience that I’ll often need at least 1/2000 sec to truly freeze the motion of the animal, the safari vehicle, wind, my adrenalin-driven heartbeat, and so on. At the other end of the scale, you could instead choose to embrace creative blur of animals in motion, panning with them at slow shutter speeds in the range of 1/30th to 1/2 second.

ISO: It’s often said that low ISOs maximize the quality of the digital image data, but what about maximizing the photograph itself? Photographs sink or swim based on qualities other than a little noise or compressed dynamic range, so don’t be afraid of using higher ISOs if you need them. With wildlife, using a low ISO could result in too slow a shutter speed or too little depth of field, and hence a lousy photograph (though a noise-free one to be sure). I consider ISOs in the range from 800 to 1600 as “normal” for fast-moving wildlife. It is of course preferable to use lower ISOs if you can still achieve the shutter speed and depth of field that best serve your photograph, but don’t limit yourself with the notion that low ISOs are the only way to make a quality picture.

Setting Proper Exposure: It’s very easy to overexpose highlight detail in animals with light-toned fur or feathers, so make sure that you are properly evaluating your exposure for the highlights. You can do this by playing back a test image with the RGB histogram displayed on the camera-back LCD, and then magnify the image to display the brightest highlights in which you want good texture and tone. The histogram you see will be derived only from the portion of the image displayed, so you’ll be able to see whether or not your highlights are clipping. In some circumstances, such as when photographing a sun-lit bird against a dark background, you may find that you need to dial in as much as -2.0 stops of exposure compensation to avoid blowing out whites. Keep in mind that today’s RAW conversion software gives you more highlight “headroom,” so a highlight that looks mildly blown out on the camera’s histogram may be just fine in Lightroom.

Exposure Mode: Just as with my landscape work, I use either Aperture Priority or Manual modes for wildlife. You might also consider using manual exposure mode to select the specific shutter speed and aperture you need to freeze motion and achieve the depth of field you want, and then use your camera’s Auto ISO feature to adjust exposure value. This is a very powerful technique that puts tremendous creative control in the photographer’s hands.

Controlling the focus point: Virtually all DSLR cameras these days have multi-point autofocus to help you track moving subjects, but it’s important to understand how they work so you can judge when and how to use their various modes. For instance, Nikon’s 21-point Dynamic continuous focus mode makes it easy to track a flying bird, but be aware that the camera won’t necessarily find focus on the focus point that you have highlighted in the viewfinder. Let’s say you position the highlighted focus point over the bird’s eye as you follow it through the air. The camera will focus on the eye, right? Not necessarily. If the far wingtip of the bird is the area of greatest contrast falling under one of the 21 active sensors, the camera may focus there. In this case, to better control the actual point of focus, you might do better switching to single-point mode, or at least the tighter pattern of the 9-point Dynamic mode. I don’t mean to pick on Nikon either. An AF system that can read your mind to select point of focus has yet to be invented.

Depth of Field:  As always, you’ll want to consider what aperture you need to stop down to if you wish to keep the subject sharp from front to back. If we imagine the bird flying by us from the previous example, let’s say we want it sharp from wingtip to wingtip. One wingtip is toward us, and the other is behind the bird’s body, so they are in different planes of focus. The priority for sharpest focus is typically the bird’s head, so that’s what you’ll probably choose to focus on. In this scenario it isn’t uncommon to need fairly small apertures to keep everything sharp. For example, if the bird in this example has a three-foot wingspan, is sixty feet away, and you’re photographing it with a 600mm lens on a full-frame DSLR, you would need to use f/16 to keep it sharp from tip to tip. This is one of the reasons those higher ISOs are so handy.

Also, when making head-on animal portraits, try focusing in front of the eyes and just behind the tip of the nose, and then stop the aperture down so depth of field covers the tip of the nose back to the eyes and ears. If you focus precisely on the eyes, the nose of the animal could be disturbingly soft.

Camera Control and Setup: The ability to react quickly is critical for wildlife photography, so you’ll want to set up your controls and presets for efficiency, and then you’ll want to spend time familiarizing yourself with them. For instance, for landscape work I focus using my camera’s thumb-operated AF button and deactivate autofocus activation on my camera’s shutter release so it won’t re-focus when pressed. For wildlife, however, I turn shutter-release AF back on, because I can simultaneously focus track a subject and change AF point or aperture with my thumb via the controls on the back of the camera. I’ve learned that my favorite AF modes – single-point, 21-point, and “auto” – are all three clicks of the dial apart so I can set them by feel. Special features that you like to use frequently can often be assigned to function buttons for instant access, such as your camera’s crop mode, which gives you greater magnification and faster frame rate on some cameras. It’s a good idea to use your cameras’ personal menu features to provide quick access to menus that you access most frequently.

Attentiveness: I have real difficulty following baseball games at the ballpark. The action is so intermittent that I end up chatting with friends rather than paying attention to the game, so I always miss the peak moments. Some people find wildlife photography challenging for the same reason. If you want great wildlife photographs on safari, you’ve got to pay attention to animal behavior, be aware of what is going on around you, and be ready to react quickly and decisively. Peak action sometimes comes on fast and with little warning, but often, the attentive and perceptive photographer can improve their changes by anticipating opportunities and staying ahead of the game. It goes without saying that it is a lot easier to get a great shot of the bird in flight or the sprinting impala stretched flat-out in mid air if you saw it coming toward you ten seconds ago, as opposed to trying to catch up with it when you notice only as it zips by.

Tracking the Subject: Speaking of zipping by, the ability to pan a fast-moving animal with a long tele while keeping it where you want it in the frame is not one that most people are born with. Photographers who are good at this make it look effortless, but it takes a lot of practice. For the first time safari photographer, I recommend going out with your longest lens to find subjects that you can use to practice panning, even if its just pigeons in flight or dogs playing at a local park. The goal is to decide where you want the subject in frame, lock tracking focus on it, and try to keep it sharp and in the right position as you fire off a series of frames. It may not be easy at first, but after some practice it will become child’s play, and your safari images will be much better for it.

Predicting Animal Behavior: Studying up on the behavior of the animals you’ll be photographing will help you anticipate what an animal might do in a particular situation, but if your local safari guides are knowledgeable and experienced in the area you visit (as they ought to be), you should be able to rely on them to advise you about wildlife activity and the position the vehicle properly to take advantage of the opportunities you encounter. The selection of local guides is tremendously important, since few first time visitors will be able to adequately anticipate animal behaviors and habits.

Safari vehicle photo setup: The arrangements for photography in your safari vehicle significantly influence the quality of a photo safari experience. A safari operator who understands the needs of serious photographers will limit the number of photographers per vehicle to provide plenty of space for you to maneuver with a big telephoto and work unobstructed. The bar has recently been raised, however, in the form of state-of-the-art safari vehicles (both 4WD land vehicles and boats) with a small number of customized swiveling photographer’s chairs positioned along the centerline for maximum visibility and stability. Each incorporates an integral 360-degree revolving camera mount that is height-adjustable with a gas-assist lift, and mounted with a Wimberley head to balance a long telephoto for effortless handling for hours on end. This setup delivers smooth and stable panning of fast moving animals, quick repositioning, and an incredibly stable and user-friendly camera platform. I’ve found that vehicles equipped this way absolutely revolutionize the experience, enabling even relative novices to take home a surprising number of great images. The traditional camera mount solutions for safari vehicles – bean bags, window brackets, or clamp-on mounts – may provide decent stability, but in general they can’t compete in terms of capability, flexibility, and performance.

When to go? Now!

Finally, you’ll want to give some thought to the timing of your safari, and I’m not simply referring to the month or the season. The sad reality is that wildlife in Africa is facing tremendous pressures and is experiencing a startling decline. Anyone with an urge to see African wildlife in a diversity and abundance that we associate with “wild Africa” ought to do so sooner rather than later.

Lions, for example, are 95% gone. Numbering in the hundreds of thousands in the early 20th century, over the last century they have been decimated – as few as 15,000 may still remain in only 14 of the 49 African nations that were once their home. The fundamental cause of this crisis is the rapid growth of human populations in Africa, along with the accompanying pressures on wildlife: expansion of agricultural land and fragmentation of habitat, persecution of lions by herders, hunting of both lions and their prey species, and more. Since they need expansive territories, large predators like lions are “canaries in the coalmine” of habitat loss. They are also essential to maintaining healthy balance in the ecosystems they inhabit. As go the lions, so goes wild Africa.

Despite the challenges, there are credible efforts being made to protect lion populations and habitats that are also depended upon by countless other species. The international non-profit organization Panthera is at the vanguard of coordinating conservation of important big cat habitats, and numerous other conservation NGOs are working tirelessly to make the connection between sustainability of biodiversity and the sustainability of human societies.

Responsible eco-tourism is critically important to this equation, as nature-loving tourists (and many readers of this magazine) convey a compelling economic value on healthy ecosystems and sustainable wildlife populations. Visitors to Africa can vote with their dollars by giving preference to nations, communities, safari operators, parks, and preserves that are doing the most for sustainable resource management, protection of biodiversity, and the well-being of local communities that benefit more from protecting the resource than from destroying it.

I remain optimistic despite the challenges. Years from now, perhaps others will look at the pictures from our latest African safari and tell us how lucky we have been to capture them. Hopefully we’ll be able chuckle like Galen, amused in the knowledge that an abundance of wildlife served up endless photo opportunities ripe for the taking. If so, the trick will have been two-fold: we were prepared to receive luck, and did what it took to ensure that there was still luck to receive.


Safari Update

Sikio, Morani, and Scarface (from left to right). Photo by Justin Black (Nikon D4, 400mm f/2.8 AF-S)


On our recent safari in east Africa’s Maasai Mara / Serengeti ecosystem, we encountered three very special lions – Sikio, Morani, and Scarface (as viewed left to right above). These powerful brothers are the leaders of the Marsh Pride, made famous in BBC’s Big Cat Diary documentaries. They had crossed the Mara River to follow the bounty of the wildebeest herds, and made most of their foray into “foreign” territory by mating with the lionesses of the Oloololo Pride.

One morning, we spotted Morani returning to a tree they seemed to use as a rallying point, carrying a young wildebeest that had likely been taken down by one of three lionesses that followed close behind him.

Morani struts and scent marks after stealing a wildebeest from the lioness in the background.


After setting his stolen prize in the shade of the tree, Morani strutted, scent-marking the tree with an expression on his face that gave the impression of immense self-approval. One of the lionesses used this moment of apparent distraction to sneak in and attempt to snatch the kill away, but Morani chased her off. While the big male continued carrying on, she sat across a small ravine, glaring at him.



To watch this drama unfold just a few meters away was a tremendous honor.

In June 2015, Visionary Wild returns to this incredible savannah ecosystem for Serengeti: A Dream of Wild Africa – an all-inclusive luxury photo safari led by Roy Toft and Justin Black. We hope you can join us! 
All photos © 2014 Justin Black, made with Nikon D810 and D4 cameras, Nikkor 400mm f/2.8 and 70-200/4 lenses

Photographing with Purpose

The November 2011 issue of Outdoor Photographer magazine features an article by Justin Black about ways to add greater meaning and purpose to your photography. You can read the full text and see the accompanying photos here:

Photographing with Purpose by Justin Black

Snow-covered bristlecone snag in the Schulman Grove, Inyo National Forest, White Mountains, California

An Eye-Opening Twilight

by Justin Black

The very American artistic tradition of celebrating the concept of wilderness, associated so closely with photographers like Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell, reached an early zenith in the mid 19th century with the Hudson River School painters. Their work attempted to capture exceptional qualities of light, topography, and weather to render idealized visions – not always far from the truth ­– of sublime landscapes across the continent, from the Catskills to California, in which humanity is often permitted to be present but never dominates.

It is hard not to characterize the light captured with oil on canvas by the likes of Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Church, and Sanford Gifford as “photographic” while we often refer to comparable light in photographs as “painterly.” We still see and photograph similarly sublime scenes in wild areas across America today. A key difference is that the Hudson River School artists experienced a view of nature and our place in it that was entirely new, but our vision still works the same way theirs did 150 years ago.

In fact, this piece by Gifford once helped to open my eyes to the way we see and go about capturing images of the world around us.

A Winter Twilight, 1862, oil on canvas, by Sanford Gifford

His painting depicts three tiny figures on a frozen pond, with a fence line and shrubbery in the foreground, and a row of trees in the background. The trees’ bare branches are silhouetted against a colorful evening sky. Something about the way the artist rendered the highlights and shadows in the image seemed oddly familiar…

Back in the film days, frustration with the limited range of tones that photographers could capture led to the development of solutions like graduated neutral density filters that enabled us to easily balance differences in brightness between two or more areas of a composition. The apparent flaw of grad ND filters, however, has always been that when an object is itself entirely in shadow but crosses over from dark to bright backgrounds within the composition, the filter gives away its effect because the section of the object that is against the brighter background (the area being darkened by the dense part of the filter) ends up going black, while the part of the same object that falls against the shaded background (not being effected by the filter) shows good mid-tone detail.

In Gifford’s painting, objects in the area of shade at the bottom of the painting displayed good shadow detail, while the tops of the trees against the brighter sky and were painted as black silhouettes – exactly the sort of rendering I had seen time and time again in color slides made using a graduated neutral density filter. But the painter had never seen a color photograph, much less the effect of a grad ND filter, so why would Gifford paint the tops of his trees black when good detail is readily apparent in similarly illuminated subject matter within the scene?

Without resorting to complex darkroom masking, a film photographer attempting to render good color saturation in the bright sky behind the trees would have had no choice but to force the silhouette and the accompanying loss of detail in the branches. Gifford on the other hand, with the unrestricted palette of artistic freedom at his command, chose to paint the trees this way. It’s the way he visualized them and what looked most natural to him as he applied paint to canvas.

To put it simply, the silhouette of branches against the sky is precisely how he saw it – and how any of us would see  – despite the fact that the light source for the illumination of the treetops is the same as that in the shadowy parts of the scene that he chose to paint a bit lighter and with good detail. This makes sense: when we look at an object illuminated by diffuse indirect light against a dark background, our visual system sees good detail in it. The same object illuminated by the same light but against a sufficiently bright background will look black as our visual system responds to the increased overall brightness. This is precisely the reason why, when used carefully, graduated neutral density can make an image look more like what we saw with our own eyes.

Fast forward to the present day. Finally, digital technology empowers photographers in the early 21st century with a degree of control and creative freedom comparable to that of a 19th century oil painter. In comparison, however, photographers have it easy – no need to sketch numerous detailed studies in the field for use as artist’s references in the creation of the final piece later, and no need to labor for weeks on end to complete a single finished work.

The tradeoff of course for our powerful digital tools is a greater burden of creative and aesthetic judgments. As wonderful as they are, all the array of technological tools at our disposal are only as good as the eyes and brains used to apply them. High dynamic range processing (HDR), for example, can create visually striking images, but the lure to routinely over process can be seductive. When technology guides the creative process rather than serving as a tool under the thoughtful control of the artist, we can experience more difficulty in aesthetically and intuitively accepting an over-manipulated photograph of a real scene than we do a naturalistic 19th-century oil painting of a scene that only ever existed in the artist’s mind.

HDR and other new tools are not the problem, but we are faced with an broader array of decisions that influence the quality, relevance, and character of our work. We take for granted the immense power of post-production tools that enable us to radically lighten and enhance detail in a shadow area – that back in the film days might have been rendered as pure black by default – while simultaneously rendering finely detailed bright highlights. We have the technology to do it, but one has to carefully consider when, how, and how much to use the tools in the digital toolbox, and whether each modification really serves the image. We can boost saturation and contrast of the most banal composition to the point that it grabs visual attention, but will it mesh with our visual intuition and actually hold up aesthetically over the long term?

Finding ourselves with complete and easy control over the color and tonal value of every pixel in every photograph we produce, photographic artists can enjoy the freedom of total creative license. Like a painter, we have the option to render the treetops as silhouette, or instead can choose to depict them as richly detailed mid tones against the same bright and vibrant background. Gifford conspicuously chose the approach that is more in accord with naturalistic visual perception despite his ability to have depicted it any way he wished.

In the context of a world filled with high-definition digital animation and fantasy photo-illustration, it is truer than ever that the most meaningful nature photographs will be those that inform us in some way about real nature and our relationship to it. These images may be spectacularly beautiful; they may reveal situations, phenomena, and juxtapositions in nature that seem unbelievable, uplifting, or devastatingly depressing; but the greatest power of nature photography stems from the trust that the image we find so compelling is also representative of another human being’s authentic experience.

Interestingly, A Winter Twilight doesn’t depict an actual event in time and space. Concealed by Gifford’s masterful rendering of light and tone is the fact that it is an imagined composite of real situations that he sketched in various locations and at all hours of the day rather than during the fleeting twilight depicted in the final painting. His highly tuned ability to see and visualize a final composition, however, enabled him to create a fairly convincing illusion of reality back in his New York studio. Though we photographers work on location and in the moment, we can still learn a great deal from the impressive visual intuition, understanding of light, and thoughtful aesthetic choices demonstrated by Gifford and other painters like him. As fast as the times, technology, and tastes may change, we share a profound connection with our antecedents through the human visual system.

Bioluminescence on the Sonoma Coast, by Jerry Dodrill


For years I’ve heard unbelievable stories about people’s surreal night time experiences in the ocean with glowing plankton blooms, but until recently I’d never seen it myself. The tip off came from Ellen Cruz, a friend from Bodega Bay who sent a note about an experience she’d just had on the Sonoma County coast:

…the ocean was illuminated as if under a black light…so awesome, cannot describe in words…no need to drop acid on this one…every white particle of wave was iridescent, florescent, glowing like you can’t believe…step on the sand and your footprint glows and sparkles… there were banks of waves coming in, white caps in the distance just glowed, and when the waves connected it was elongated strips of fluorescent green stripes across the water… whew…

This strange oceanic occurrence is likely the root of ghost stories told by early sailors who saw the mysterious green fire in the water but failed to comprehend what they were seeing. Documented as far back as 500 B.C., most bioluminescent light occurs in tiny plants called dinoflagellates which live in the sea and gain energy from the photosynthesis of sunlight. In darkness they emit a blue light in response to movement within the water. The intensity of the light peaks about two hours after dark and is simply amazing to watch. During the day they turn red and can be the source of the neurotoxin that poisons shell fish during Red Tides.

After receiving Ellen’s note, and being somewhat fascinated by natural optical phenomena, my mind immediately began pre-visualizing how I could make an interesting photograph. I often try to imagine best-case situations that might occur in nature. The trick is to carefully consider the conditions which would be necessary for a scenario to occur and then consciously reverse engineer it and attempt to put yourself on location at just the right time while being prepared to capture the moment. Something magical often ends up happening, even if it is somewhat different than what you had imagined.

As I pondered the complexity of making an evocative image of the psychedelic tides I felt that the images would look very alien if there wasn’t an earthly land form with which the viewer can easily identify. I started piecing together two ideas that I thought I could achieve in the same night. I’d seen the first sliver of a moon the night before, just after sunset, and knew that the next day it would be about fifty minutes higher in the sky. So I wanted to first make an image of the crescent moon setting at twilight above the breakers and Arched Rock near Jenner. The second image I was visualizing was a long exposure at the cusp of night where I would have just enough light to see the arch, and enough darkness for the dinoflagellates to show up in the water.

I checked the weather satellite which showed crystal clear skies, then double checked the angle of the moon relative to the arch by using a very useful software for such things called The Photographer’s Ephemeris. All the elements seemed to align and it looked like a promising evening.

I pulled up at Goat Rock Beach in Sonoma Coast State Park right about sunset, (which-oops!- is when the Park closes), geared up in rubber boots and wind gear and headed south down Blind Beach in gorgeous light that I would normally have been shooting. This time I was on a mission for something more mysterious than a sunset but at one point I did stop and made a few exposures of boney rocks protruding from the sand with crazy beams of light coming over the horizon. This was an early and unexpected bonus shot. As the light diminished I came to where the convergence of the setting moon and the sea arch were just perfect.

The first set of images were exactly what I expected. In years past I’d made similar images here with the full moon setting at sunrise into the Earth’s shadow. What I didn’t expect this time is that my camera’s sensor was picking up the Milky Way directly above the Arch! This added a layer of intrigue to the image that was far beyond what I’d imagined. Soon the starry night was fully visible to the naked eye.

If the moon had been larger or higher I believe its light would have polluted the clear, cold night sky and blown out the reflection in the water. But it was just slight enough that the relative contrast between the starlight and reflections fell into a range which could be handled if I was careful. But it was the bioluminescence that was most incredible. Each waved rolled in looking like a million neon glow sticks had been dumped into them. The blue-green light shot across the breakers as they crashed, the more wave energy released, the more light emitted. The backwash on the beach left momentary trails of light which resembled a million little galaxies.

I was in “the zone” watching wave sets, adjusting exposures as it got darker and darker, moving south down the beach as the moon traversed to the north, trying to keep my juxtaposition with Arched Rock in alignment. It was a bit ridiculous to realize a shot like this had come together: crescent moon shining through the arch under the Milky Way with the glowing ocean. Then as if in a nod to affirm all was okay in the universe, I watched in awe as a brilliant shooting star streaked across the sky above the arch while I had the shutter open. All the while I was very aware that I should not have parked my car in the heavily patrolled parking lot.

The moon was finally setting so I packed and hiked across the beach toward the car, arriving just as two park rangers stepped out of their cruiser with spot lights on. “Hello!” I called out of the darkness in attempt to not get myself Tazed as I stepped into the blinding beams with a big tripod on my shoulder. I received the full lecture from them (the park closes at sunset…we don’t want to have to come looking for you…) and apologized sheepishly. They wanted to know what I was doing out there. Still buzzing from an incredible experience, I pulled out the camera and offered to show them. The three of us huddled in the wind with our heads close to the back of my Nikon’s LCD and looked through the entire image set frame by frame while dispatch ran my plates and ID. The officers have one of the best office views in the state out their front windshield and were excited to see my photographic interpretation of what they see every day. As it turns out we share mutual friends and a deep connection for preserving California’s wild coast. I didn’t get a ticket that night. Instead I walked away with a couple of new friends, some images with which I’m really happy, and the good info on where to park the car for my next outing.

-Jerry Dodrill

Sebastopol, CA

Visionary Wild instructor Jerry Dodrill will co-lead two workshops on the California coast with Jeff Foott in 2015, among the northern Redwood Coast in June and on the Sonoma Coast in September. We hope you can join us.

More info:


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Photo Salon: The Value of Critique

by Justin Black


The lone-wolf photographer is a concept with which we are all familiar. Many of us like to think of ourselves as self-reliant and passionately free-spirited, driven only by an innate creative vision. In my experience, however, most of the people I know who have mastered anything haven’t done it on their own. They’ve done it through interaction with others.

One of the most important experiences in my formative years was in George Washington University’s small but excellent photography program, founded by a landscape photographer named Jerry Lake. Professor Lake treated his students like family and regularly joined us on weekend photography outings, an act of “above and beyond” generosity to be sure. Back in the studio, students and professors alike would regularly pin up prints in a common area and critique each others’ work. The atmosphere was open and supportive, and everyone felt free to share their work and honest opinions. We all benefitted tremendously from the process of peer review and constructive critique.

One of the many prints that benefitted from critique by my peers in the GWU Photo Dept. "Dawn at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, Harper's Ferry, West Virginia." © 1994 Justin Black


In the early days of my photography career, I began to miss the honest and constructive feedback of other photographers, so a friend invited me to participate in Photo Salon, an informal group of serious photographers who met each month at a photo studio outside Washington, DC. Work prints were spread across a huge table, everyone would circle around, look them over, ask questions, share impressions, and offer suggestions.  Each of us would have the opportunity to say a little bit about what we were working on and what challenges we faced as we developed our body of work. There was a documentary photographer following the stories of cancer patients, a portraitist doing a book project on transvestites, a fellow who created beautiful abstracts in abandoned industrial sites, and my landscapes among several others. With so many different genres coming together in one place, we each left our comfort zone and benefitted from the insights of professional peers who were all sophisticated visual communicators despite coming from differing interests and backgrounds.

These experiences taught me the art of constructive critique that I regularly apply to this day as a workshop instructor, and they drove home the tremendous value of gathering with other serious photographers in a spirit of camaraderie to discuss aesthetics, themes, techniques, ethics, potential outlets and markets, and myriad other topics. As much as I value creative independence and cherish solitude when I can find it, it seems to me that engaging with a community of passionate and insightful peers is one of the most personally and artistically rewarding activities any photographer can undertake. It is with this knowledge that I look forward eagerly to every workshop critique session and the happy déjà vu experienced every time a participant tells me that they learned far more from the critiques than they ever imagined possible. I have indeed been there before.

On Assignment: The Dragon Run

by Justin Black


The Dragon rippled as I slid the kayak out into the swamp’s caramel-brown water. The still quiet of pre-dawn was broken only by the song of a prothonotary warbler, a croaking bullfrog, the sudden splash of a jumping sunfish. Gliding along on the glassy surface past lush swamp plants – arrow arum, water lilies, swamp rose, the lovely purple poker-like blooms of pickerelweed – and under the spreading branches of bald cypress, their conical “knees” emerging from the water in rows like the Dragon’s teeth, I felt completely removed from the Tidewater Virginia farmland that encircled me beyond the forest. Entering this place was like time-travel.

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Truth in Photography

by Justin Black


A recent dialog with a friend and fellow photographer got me thinking about truth in photography. For over 170 years, we have relied on photographs to document and share information about the world around us. How many books and documentary films have relied on photographs to connect us with the reality of events and the familiar humanity of lives long past? Using photographs we’ve seen, we construct a broader picture of the reality within which we live, though we may experience only a tiny percentage of it directly. I’ve never been to the Taj Mahal, and yet it’s part of my reality, in large part because of photographs.

Of course, it has long been said that photography routinely misleads us by means of the selective and exclusionary perspective of the lens and the agenda or tastes of the photographer, despite the noblest intentions of honesty. Before even considering the problem of manipulation in the computer or darkroom, some would even go so far as to say that every photograph lies the moment it is accompanied by the claim that it represents “truth.”

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