Visionary Wild, LLC • 2200 19th St. NW, Ste 806, Washington, DC 20009
E-mail: email@example.com • Tel: 1-202-558-9596 (9am to 5pm, EST).
Justin Black – Managing Director: 1-202-302-9030 • Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sara Robb – Operations Assistant: email@example.com
We look forward to hearing from you!
by John Shaw
Yes, I bought a D5 to use as my action/fast AF/high ISO camera. My D810 bodies will continue as my landscape/lower ISO cameras. I’ve had the new D5 all of two days now, but I’m already getting emails about one feature: how to use the automatic AF fine-tune. OK, so here goes…and to make it work you need to follow these steps precisely.
That’s it. Easy. It took more time to write this out than to do the actual process.
And I now have two D4 camera bodies for sale. Both in great shape, will all the goodies from Nikon. Make me a reasonable offer for either (or both!).
In April 2015, Justin Black sat down with PhotographyTalk.com founder Alex Schult. Here’s the full interview.
Alex: Hi Justin, welcome to Photography Talk.
Justin: It’s a pleasure to be here, Alex.
Alex: I understand that 2015 marks your 20th year as a professional photographer. How does that feel?
Justin: Well, it’s been a wild ride, and I’m very fortunate to still be doing what I love.
What inspired you to become a photographer?
The power of the still image. It both communicates information and evokes emotion instantly, and it also invites inspection and interrogation over time. It allows us to look at the world in a way that we don’t directly experience. A photograph renders the fleeting moment eternal.
When I was in junior high school, I took a communications class called Media Arts. Among other things, we learned the basics of developing black & white film and making prints, which was magic to me. There’s still nothing quite like seeing an image emerge on a sheet of paper in the the glow of a darkroom safe light. I wish I had access to a traditional darkroom and the time it takes to use it, but I digress… After that, I became increasingly interested in photography and started devouring books and magazines on the subject and going to photography exhibits at the many art galleries in Washington, DC. At the same time, I was generally interested in art.
Early on, there were a few photographers whose work particularly got me excited about photography as an art form and as a career: Eliot Porter, André Kertész, Minor White, Wynn Bullock, Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, Cartier-Bresson, Galen Rowell, Frans Lanting, David Muench, and Jack Dykinga. I’ve since had the privilege of working and teaching with the last four of these.
Tell us about your first sale.
You mean besides photographing a friend’s Bar Mitzvah when I was thirteen? I don’t remember my very first photo sale after I started my career in 1995, but my first memorable photo license around that time was a picture of classic storefronts in downtown Mansfield, Ohio, that was used on Mastercard credit cards. That sale netted me about $7,000.
Fast forward to today, you run a very successful photography business, tell us how that started.
Well, I guess you could say it was what I call “the upward spiral” – one experience leading to the next, to the next; one supporting the other, until everything comes into alignment. Over the last two decades, my work has included being a landscape, travel, and wildlife photographer, a contributor of photo-text packages to publications, a stock photo licensing specialist, image archive manager, gallery curator, photo workshops director, photo business general manager, book editor, and the executive director of a global conservation photography NGO. Over the years, I’ve developed a following for my editioned prints, done both commercial and editorial photography on assignment, and licensed my work for publication and advertising. One area I’ve found that gives me the tremendous satisfaction, however, is creating exceptional learning and travel experiences for other passionate photographers.
In late 2010, I left my position as executive director of the International League of Conservation Photographers to create Visionary Wild, which is in some ways a continuation of the workshops program I rebuilt at Mountain Light Photography from 2002 to 2009, after the deaths of my friends Galen and Barbara Rowell, who perished in the crash of a chartered airplane. Of course, with Visionary Wild we’ve now gone way beyond what we were doing at Mountain Light, both in terms of international scope and quality.
What has been your proudest moment as a photographer?
That’s easy. Helping to save the pristine Flathead River Valley in southeast British Columbia from a massive mountain-top-removal coal mine that threatened to wreck the entire trans-border watershed. I collaborated with a great team of photographers on that project when I was at ILCP, and its very clear that our photos turned the tide in the conservation campaign to save the place.
Tell us about your book.
Both my photography and my writing have been published in several books, though I haven’t produced a monograph yet. I’ve edited and managed several photo book projects for Galen Rowell and the International League of Conservation Photographers. The ones I’m proudest of are Galen Rowell: A Retrospective (Sierra Club Books), and Freshwater: The Essence of Life (ILCP)
Tell us about time in your career where you failed at something and how did you pivot to overcome this?
Back in 1995, I was trying to get a contract to have my work represented by Pictor, a UK-based stock photo agency that I worked for as a picture researcher. I was a naïve kid, but I guess I had enough passion and raw talent that their creative director, a jolly Italian guy named Alberto Sciama, decided to give me a chance. He gave me a few rolls of film and a simple assignment to go out and make some marketable images.
When I brought him the results, he patiently looked them over with a loupe at a light table, and then said in a lilting Italian accent, “Justin, you are a lovely boy, but this is crap.” I knew it too. I learned three important lessons that day. The first was to set high standards for my work and to always push myself to do better. The second was to shoot what I love, rather than what I think other people want me to shoot. The third is that well-informed, forthright feedback on one’s work is immensely valuable, especially when it isn’t what we want to hear.
Have you had an “I’ve made it moment”?
I’ve had a few, I guess. The first was when Alberto actually gave me a contract to shoot for Pictor. That was a gateway to a steady, livable income from my photography, though it would only be another six years before Pictor went belly up because they couldn’t adapt fast enough to the new digital paradigm in the stock photo industry. In the bankruptcy chaos that followed, I lost most of the original film I had shot for them, so in the end it was a mixed blessing. Another high point was a few years later when some significant galleries started to exhibit my work. The most recent was when I realized that Visionary Wild was actually going to be a success.
How do you balance a demanding photography career and your family?
My wife, Lena, is the most wonderful, insightful, and supportive woman in the world, that’s how. Two years ago, our young son wasn’t very understanding of my travel schedule, but now, even at age five, he takes it in stride pretty well. I travel at least a third of the year, I miss them, and they miss me. It’s not a simple thing, but as you say, it’s about balance. When I’m home, I try to focus on family as much as I can.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to the 21 year old you?
Make pictures for yourself, not for the market. In other words, be true to your own vision, interests, and passions. In the 1990s, I spent a lot of time and resources making images that were designed to be highly salable in the stock photography market. They did sell, but most of that early work is totally irrelevant to me now because it isn’t representative of what I have to say and what I want to do with my photography. Thematically, my work has gone in a very different direction.
I’m a big believer in the notion that artists and communicators ought to aspire to find a market for the work that is true to them, rather than tailoring their work to fit the demands of the market. It’s important to understand the market, but it’s become clear to me over the years that photographs with meaning and longevity arise from the photographer having something to say and a unique vision to share, not from cynically engineering images for maximum payback.
Of course, most young aspiring photographers need some serious advice with regard to the fundamentals of operating a business, valuing their work, copyright management, etc., but I am lucky to have had a pretty good education in those areas very early on.
What is the best photography business advice you have been given.
It’s really just good business advice in general: “Be your brand.” In other words, your professional identity will ultimately become whatever it really is, not what you assert it to be or what you wish it were. For your brand to be what you want it to be, you have to live it and be authentic. Be honest, be reliable, don’t make promises you can’t keep, always put in the hard work to do the best job you can, and value what you do.
Another bit of advice is to make five-year and ten-year business plans, know your cost of doing business, and to price your work in a way that positions you to meet your goals for your business and your personal life. Learn to negotiate in such a way that communicates the value of your work, and don’t compete on price at the expense of the viability of your business or your long-term goals. Be willing to say “no” and walk away from bad deals – you’d be surprised how often I’ve had clients call back to accept a price quote after initially saying that they can’t afford it.
If you want to own a house or put your child through college, you’re not going to do it by simply accepting whatever scraps lowballing clients want to pay you. Don’t believe the notion that you have to work for free to pay your dues. Rather than starting at the bottom and working your way up, figure out how you can effectively target and deliver a great value proposition at the higher end of the market. Build a base of clients who see the value in what you do, and don’t bother with the ones who can’t afford the fees you need to charge to be successful. The obvious flip side of this is that if you can’t pull off charging the fees you need to meet your goals, you’ll have to rethink your career choice. There is no shame in being a talented amateur photographer. For one thing, amateurs are free to make whatever photographs they like with no regard for any market or audience at all.
Oh, and diversify revenue sources so if one part of your market dries up, you can focus more on the others.
We live in a world of carbon copies, what advice can you give to those seeking to be unique and unlike others in a congested industry?
Simple, I’ll quote Polonius: “To thine own self be true.” It’s important for photographers to be honest with themselves about what their own genuine passions are. We all do our best work when we are photographing subjects and themes that are deeply important to us, and doing it in a way that feels right to us as individuals. I’ll give you an example from my own personal experience. You have to understand that I went to work for Galen back in 1999, it was a dream come true. I was 25 and he was one of my photographic idols. I experienced a little anxiety because I hadn’t yet climbed in the Himalaya or undertaken bold rock climbs of new routes in Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada as Galen had done. I thought I would never catch up to his achievements. Gradually, I realized that while I admired Galen and his work, I wasn’t personally interested in photographing the adventure sports, mountaineering expeditions, and other types of adventure-oriented work that Galen had done over the course of his career. There was already a Galen Rowell, and I needed to be Justin Black.
Do you believe technology is making better photographers?
It depends on what you mean by that. For instance, I don’t think that technology has made the best photographers today better than André Kertész, Ernst Haas, Minor White, or Eliot Porter. A truly great photographer will always find a way to make the medium say what they want, and having something to say is the important thing. I do think that these days it’s easier to make more pictures at a higher standard of technical image quality, in part because technology has made the process easier and more forgiving, and in part because the internet provides incredible access to information about photographic technique.
When comes to seeing, composition, having a meaningful point of view or voice, however, the benefits of technology seem to be limited to the advances in communication and access to media. Via the internet, photographers can study more pictures and engage in more conversations about photography, art, and other media than they may have been able to in the past, but they ought to be choosy about the way they engage these resources. Arguing online over which camera brand is better or how much digital manipulation is acceptable doesn’t move the art forward. Since photography was invented, a gulf has always existed between those who are merely technicians on the one side, and those who use the medium to communicate in a meaningful and interesting way that contributes something new to human culture and understanding.
Of course, digital cameras and workflow are great tools for learning. The opportunity for quick feedback is wonderful, but one still needs to be able to thoughtfully analyze the work to learn from mistakes. This takes a certain visual vocabulary, to enable the photographer to understand what to look for, what works and what doesn’t. We try to teach this in our workshops.
What do you see photographers doing today, that if done differently tomorrow would improve their success?
If every photographer started demanding fees and contractual terms that enable them to operate a growing, sustainable business, and that support raising a family, buying a house, putting the kids through college, and a reasonable retirement, then you had better believe conditions and opportunities would improve significantly for photographers. By and large, photographers undervalue their work. Too few…
• Develop and follow a business plan, much less one designed for success and growth.
• Determine a CDB (cost of doing business)
• Learn to negotiate terms and fees in a manner that is beneficial to them over the long term
• Walk away from bad deals.
• Charge appropriately for valuable rights that clients may hope to be given for no additional charge.
While I do occasionally donate my work and time for charitable causes I believe in, this is almost always in the context of a scenario where many other parties (other than photographers and artists) are likewise donating time, labor, materials, content, etc. If the project has a budget for things like advertising space, graphic designers, writers, editors, PR staff, development staff, travel, and the electric bill, I generally expect to be paid fairly also at rates that I set based on the needs of my business. The artist too often is the only party expected to donate or heavily discount their work and in the process diminish its value. In general, photographers ought to feel perfectly justified in charging fairly for value delivered, rights granted, and services rendered, even when working for charities doing important work.
Unfortunately, there are also an increasing number of photographers out there who don’t actually rely on sales of their photography for their livelihood, and who offer work for sale at unsustainable rates, primarily for the sake of tax write offs or the empty ego boost of referring to themselves as “professional photographers.” Most have never had their work vetted by professional editors or curators, and they typically never net a profit on their photographic activities. I don’t have anything at all against new photographers entering the market, but I do have a problem with undervaluing one’s work to make a sale at any cost, as the cumulative effect over time is to diminish opportunity even for the most talented and business-savvy photographers who do rely on photography for their livelihoods.
Many folks are trying to re-invent themselves as photographers. Assuming you had camera, lens and lighting gear already. If you had to start over and only have $500 budget to get your business started. How would you spend that $500 budget?
If the person in question was mostly interested in trying to sell a little photography on the side but wasn’t relying on it as their primary source of income, I’d recommend they spend the money on a website. If they hope to change careers to photography as a full-time profession, I would recommend that they spend the money on a meeting with an expert business consultant who would explain that the proposed business is insufficiently capitalized to be successful. I’m serious about this. To seriously undertake photography as a competitive full-time business takes some financial resources and a well-thought-out business plan.
What are some resources that you use regularly for your photography business?
These days, my most important resource is communication with my network of professional peers and clients. It’s a big ongoing dialog and we share a lot of information. Besides that, I use Fotoquote, the Editorial Photographers’ forum, and Negotiating Stock Photo Prices a lot.
What are some ‘must have’ items in your camera bag?
My Nikon D810 cameras, the 24mm, 45mm, and 85mm PC-E Nikkor tilt-shift lenses, and 70-200mm f/4 Nikkor zoom. This combination has not only replaced the 4×5 film outfit I used to use for my landscape work, but – using stitching techniques – it has exceeded it. For wildlife, I use Nikkor 200-400mm f/4 and 500mm f/4 lenses plus 1.4x teleconverter. My macro lens is the wonderful Nikkor 200mm f/4. I also sometimes carry 18-35mm and 24-70mm Nikkor zooms. I’ve recently acquired a Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art Series lens, which is simply superb and a lot of fun.
If you were stuck on a deserted island, what is the ONE photography book you would want to have with you?
Diary of Light: 1912-1985, by André Kertész. I could look at his compositions over and over forever and always extract new insights and meaning from them.
Here’s a fun one: Life has been found on another planet and none-other than Sir Richard Branson is piloting Virgin Galatica and has put together a team of engineers, scientist, and doctors and has asked you to come along to document the journey. The challenge is you can only bring two lenses and one camera body and two other items. What would you bring?
I’d probably bring a Nikon D810, 14-24mm f/2.8 Nikkor for spacecraft interiors (assuming cramped quarters), 24-120mm f/4 Nikkor for general purpose photography, a powerful microscope, and a Nikon F-mount to microscope adapter. After all, life on Earth consisted entirely of single-celled organisms for 2.6 billion years until multicellular life evolved one billion years ago, so odds are that the aliens would be invisible to the naked eye.
What action steps can you recommend our listeners take immediately that will ultimately help them become a better photographer?
There are a few things I would recommend. First, I like to point out that photography is a practice. We take it for granted that a musical prodigy like Yo-Yo Ma still plays scales and practices on his cello frequently, and that top athletes like LeBron James train obsessively to stay at the top of their game. Photography is no different. Eliot Porter once said, “You learn to see by practice. It’s just like playing tennis, you get better the more you play. The more you look around at things, the more you see. The more you photograph, the more you realize what can be photographed and what can’t be photographed. You just have to keep doing it.”
I also suggest spending a little time every day looking thoughtfully and critically at two-dimensional art, especially cohesive bodies of work like a particular exhibit, project, or photo essay. Photographs, paintings, drawings, abstracts… anything. Why does it work? Where does it fail? How could it be better? Does it sacrifice longevity and deeper meaning in favor of immediate eye-grabbing impact? Think about point of view and perspective. Think about quality and source of light, line, form, texture, color contrasts, etc. It’s all about building visual vocabulary and familiarity so you can make good creative judgments when it matters.
Then, find other photographers with whom you can share your work and get meaningful feedback from. Make sure that everyone is willing engage in thoughtful and honest constructive critique. I find that doing this in person is far more productive and useful than doing it on an online forum if you can.
Finally, this is a self-serving, but if I am to answer the question honestly based on my observations and experience, I’d say take a Visionary Wild workshop. I’m serious. Our first-time workshop participants are consistently amazed at what an eye-opening experience our programs are. They often tell me that they learned more at our workshop than from any other source. Our workshops and trips generally include 50% to 100% repeat clients – folks keep coming back, time and time again. I have some clients who have taken over a dozen workshops with me, and their work has become very strong indeed over that time.
Thanks for taking the time to talk, Justin.
Thank you, Alex! It’s been a pleasure.
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.
The decision was made: I would keep my Nikon D800E camera bodies. The D800E has been such a superb solution for the bulk of my work that I’ve had a hard time imaging how Nikon would improve upon it. When I first heard that Nikon was releasing an updated 36-megapixel camera, I took a quick look at the specs and was underwhelmed. I had been hoping for a faster camera of the same resolution for wildlife work, but a frame rate increase of a single frame per second, from four to five, wasn’t terribly compelling to me. The most significant advancements seemed targeted at videographers, and I shoot stills almost exclusively. It seemed that I would be happily hanging on to my D800Es for a couple more years, until the next generation came along.
Then I actually handled a D810, and started digging into it a little deeper. What I found was a camera that isn’t merely a D800 with some minor tweaks. Its well-conceived refinements and highly useful new capabilities aren’t just insignificant hype. For me, they will solve real-world problems and facilitate my photography in meaningful ways.
Here are a few of the features of the D810 that ultimately changed my mind:
Electronic Front-Curtain Shutter – freedom from sharpness-robbing shutter vibration: Here’s an anecdote than makes clear the real-world usefulness of this feature. On the recent Visionary Wild Iceland expedition, co-leader Daniel Beltrá and I conducted a little experiment. We mounted my D800E with a Nikon 70-200 f/4 VR lens (one of the sharpest zooms of all time) and shot two frames, both zoomed to 200mm, at 1/40th second and f/11. The first was shot with the lens solidly mounted on a tripod (Really Right Stuff TVC-24L, BH-55 ballhead, and lens collar), with the mirror locked-up, a three-second exposure delay, and with lens vibration reduction turned off. The second image was shot hand-held at the same zoom and exposure settings, without mirror lockup or exposure delay, but with vibration reduction on. When we compared the images zoomed in at 100%, the hand-held image was noticeably sharper and slight motion blur was clearly visible in the tripod-mounted image. We repeated this scenario several times and found the same result. The 70-200mm f/4 does have excellent VR, but still, the tripod rig was rock solid. Why was this happening?
Recently, Alex Schult of PhotographyTalk.com sat down with Visionary Wild’s Justin Black – virtually, via Skype – for an interview recorded for their Success Interviews series, revealing the creative inspiration and path to success of noted photographers working today. Click here to watch the full 39-minute interview.
In my experience, most people find that the longer focal lengths, like Nikon’s 85mm PC-E lens, are easiest to learn to use. The more limited telephoto depth of field makes the effect of tilting the focal plane more pronounced, so it’s easier to see clearly where the focal plane is falling sharply in the scene, and where things are out of focus. The 85mm is particularly useful for photographing compressed landscapes, isolated graphic details, and semi-macro compositions.
For classic wide-angle “near-far” type landscapes, the 24mm is the way to go. Most folks find at first that it’s a little harder to accurately set the tilt of the focal plane with the 24mm due to the greater inherent depth of field of the lens, but it is also a little more forgiving for the same reason. Still, one of the beauties of tilt-shift lenses is that you can control sharpness throughout a scene without stopping down excessively, so it’s best to learn to position the focal plane accurately.
The 45mm is an excellent lens with a normal perspective, and I know several photographers who consider it their favorite of the three. I love it when I need it, but my image archive reveals that of all the images I’ve made with the three PC-E lenses, I’ve only used it 22% of the time. In comparison, I’ve used the 24mm 31% of the time, and the 85mm 47%. All three lenses are optically superb and focus very close. They all are capable of tilts and swings for focal plane control, and shift, rises, and falls to control perspective, such as avoiding the converging vertical lines that you get when tilting a camera to look up at tree trucks in a forest.
I think is important to point out the primary reason that PC-E lenses allowed me to justify parting company with the 4×5 view camera system that I used to create the bulk of my work before I went fully digital in 2010. While I use the tilt features to optimize the plane of focus for nearly every composition, it’s the shift feature that facilitates most of my landscape work. By making overlapping exposures, shifting left-to-right or up-and-down, I can create a super-high-resolution file that compares favorably with the 4×5 film I used to use. In fact, with a D800e, this approach clearly exceeds the resolution (and vastly exceeds the dynamic range) of a 600MB 16-bit drum scan from 4×5 Fuji Velvia transparency film.
For a horizontal composition, I set the camera vertically and shift the lens left to right, shooting three to five overlapping frames that get merged later in Photoshop to create a single image that equates to roughly 72 mega-pixels resolution. The long dimension of the camera sensor becomes the short dimension of the final image. Because only the lens moves and the orientation of the camera’s sensor doesn’t change between exposures, this technique avoids the perspective distortion of rotating panoramic photography and makes merging the constituent image files in Photoshop dead easy. Shift-stitching also has the effect of making the lenses’ field of view wider, so I use the 24mm like a 16mm ultra-wide, the 45mm like a 30mm wide-angle, and the 85mm like a 50mm normal lens. All three of the images that illustrate this article were made using this shift-stitch technique, so the field of view represented by each of them is wider than a normal single frame would be (basically, about the same as two vertical frames side-by-side), and the image proportions are roughly 3:4 (which I tend to prefer), rather than the 2:3 proportions of a standard DSLR sensor.
Tilt-shift lenses are immensely powerful tools that offer a wide range of capabilities that are otherwise impossible or difficult to reproduce. They aren’t for everyone, however, so if you’re curious but aren’t sure which tilt-shift lens is for you, I recommend renting one for a few days when you have time to really put it through it’s paces. Be careful though, you might find that you need all three.