Visionary Wild, LLC • 2200 19th St. NW, Ste 806, Washington, DC 20009

E-mail: info@visionarywild.com    •    Tel: 1-202-558-9596 (9am to 5pm, EST).

Justin Black – Managing Director: 1-202-302-9030 • Email: justin@visionarywild.com

Sara Robb – Operations Assistant: sara@visionarywild.com

We look forward to hearing from you!

 

Photoshop Technique: Cloning in Darken Mode

By Charles Cramer

Photoshop Technique – Cloning in Darken Mode
This is a technique that I’ve used for years, but I’ve just learned a new wrinkle!  Above is a  photograph I made of some trees in Yosemite. In the upper part of image, you can see a slight problem—the sky peeking through the leaves is the brightest thing in the image, which I find distracting.  It was made in May, around 6 PM in deep shade, and since the upper branches were very close and I wanted most everything in focus, I stopped down to f/16. This  required an exposure of around 2 seconds (it was dark in there!)  Thus, any sky or granite cliffs showing through the leaves would be completely white and blown-out.  Since you cannot effectively darken these areas, they must be cloned out.  (Short diatribe:  “Cloning” like this is not  unique to digital!  When I printed a similar image in my dye transfer days, I would take a retouching brush to the print and darken out such bright parts with dyes—accomplishing the exact same thing.  Except I had to do it on every print—in Photoshop, we only have to do it once).  Here’s a tiny detail of one of the problem areas below, showing before (on left), and after (on right):
                 
How do you clone just the leaves and not mess up the many dark branches?   Actually, very easily.  The area of leaves I was cloning from (not seen in the detail above) was lighter than any of the branches.  So I used Photoshop’s Darken Mode.  This allows the clone tool to only change pixels that are lighter than the sampled area.   Since the branches are darker, they will not change, but the bright spots will.  This technique can be very handy!
The previous way I used this technique worked fine.  But, at my recent “alumni”  workshop, I learned an even better way to implement this technique from Cindy Walpole.  Here’s what to do:
You’ll need to create a new empty layer in Photoshop—this should be immediately above the background/image layer and choose “darken” instead of “normal” for the blending mode.   I’ve named it appropriately:
And, since you’re practicing “safe computing”  by cloning into a separate layer (which keeps changes reversible), you need to select “current and below”  in the cloning tool options at the top of the screen:
The options for the cloning tool itself should stay in “normal”.  This new cloning layer, since it is in a special blending mode, will only work as I described above:  The only pixels that will change are those that are lighter than our sampled area.   If you want to do “regular”  cloning, then you’ll need another cloning layer in normal mode.  In this image, be sure that the sampled areas of leaves is sufficiently brighter than the tree branches to avoid any partial clones or ghosting.
This technique can also help with problem masks.  I try to avoid “accurate”, hard-edge masks, but they are necessary in certain cases.  Below is a mountain peak before dawn, and I wanted to lighten the mountain, but not the sky, and thus had to create a hard-edged mask selecting just the mountain.  I made the mask from one of the color channels, and even using various tricks, I still had a slight haloing in certain areas.  Below is a section seen at 200% magnification:
By cloning from the sky into the ridge line using this darken mode technique, you can easily clean this up.  The halo is lighter than the sky, so the halo gets darker.  But the mountain is darker than the sky, so it doesn’t change:
If you want to fix this in your “master” file,  you’ll need to put this special cloning in darken mode layer above the mask that caused the problem in the first place.   I always advise that any cloning layers be directly above the image layer, but in this case it will need to be above whatever adjustment layer has that problem mask.

The Normal Lens

What is your “normal” lens? Have you ever determined if there is a single lens focal length that you naturally use more than others? It can be an enlightening exercise.

A 50mm lens on the 35mm film format is often referred to as “normal” because it renders a magnification and angle of view (about 40 degrees horizontally) that approximates the field that we can comfortably observe in some detail at a glance. It obviously isn’t meant to represent the breadth of our entire visual field (our binocular vision covers a field of about 114 degrees horizontally and our peripheral vision is much wider), nor does it represent the very narrow central area in which we see truly sharp focus at any given moment. You could think of it as a the “snapshot” field of view of human vision. It is also close to the 43mm theoretical ideal “normal” focal length for the 35mm format (also called “full-frame” in digital cameras), exhibiting neither telephoto compression of subject matter, nor does it expand the scene and visually push things away like a wide angle.

Many photographers find their own “normal” lens, whether it be Gary Winogrand’s 28mm wide-angle, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s 50mm, Sebastiao Salgado’s 60mm, or Tom Mangelsen’s 600mm.

Personally, I find that when I review the metadata of images I’ve made with my 24-70 zoom on Nikon FX format cameras, it seems the focal length I’m most comfortable with is 44mm. For whatever reason, I make far more images at 44mm than at any other focal length in the zoom range. This happens to be a single millimeter away from the true optically normal focal length for the 35mm format: 43mm.

This preferred field of view even extends to stitched compositions that I can’t even view through the viewfinder all at once. For a long time, I have used Nikon PC-E tilt-shift lenses to shoot three overlapping frames that are stitched together in processing, creating a higher resolution image about twice the resolution of the camera’s sensor. In the process, the field of view of my 24mm wide-angle PC-E becomes like a 16mm super-wide; the 45mm normal PC-E become more like a 30mm wide-angle; the short-telephoto 85mm PC-E becomes closer to a 50mm “normal” field of view. So, which PC-E lens do I use most for stitched compositions? Perhaps not surprisingly, I use the 85mm twice as much as the other two lenses combined.

It would seem that my preferred normal lens is really a normal lens, in the range of 44mm to 50mm, though yours may well be different.

–Justin Black

Nikon D5 Adds Automatic Focus Fine Tuning

by John Shaw

20120120-_JBX4007-2_300Yes, 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.

  • You need a flat target with distinct high contrast printing.
  • Mount your camera on a sturdy tripod, on a hard surface floor, with the target parallel to the camera back.  Have the camera/target distance about 25 times the focal length of the lens you’re using.
  • Turn off VR.
  • Set the AF mode on the camera to AF-S.
  • Have the Movie Record button set to None (in Custom Settings f1)
  • In Custom Settings f2, set the multi-selector center button > shooting mode > reset > select center focus point.
  • Turn on AF fine-tune in the Setup menu, with the default value at 0.  Leave AF fine-tune turned on from now on.
  • Turn on Live View (make sure the Live View selector switch is set to camera, not video), and select the center focus point by pressing the multi-selector center button.
  • Autofocus on the target using either the shutter button or AF-ON button, and make sure the focus box in Live View turns green, indicating that focus has been achieved.
  • Hold down the AF-mode selector and movie-record button simultaneously, and keep them pressed until a message appears on the LCD (this should appear in about two seconds).  Make sure YES is highlighted, then press the OK button.
  • When a second dialog message appears, press OK again.

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!).

 

“Hidden” Auto-Exposure

 

By John Shaw
20120120-_JBX4007-2_300Many current cameras have a “hidden” autoexposure feature, an option I use quite often when working wildlife.  If your camera has ”auto ISO” buried someplace in the menus, you probably can use this feature.

Three choices control exposure:  shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.  We generally lock in two of these, and vary the third.  In aperture priority you select the f/stop and ISO, and the camera sets the shutter speed.  In shutter priority you select the shutter speed and ISO, and the camera sets the f/stop.

With most cameras it’s far easier to change shutter speed and/or aperture than it is to change ISO.  After all, with both Nikon and Canon that’s what the command dials by themselves do as default behavior.

Look in your camera’s menus to see if you have “auto ISO.”  If so, turn it on for this test.  The way auto ISO normally works is that you set a minimum shutter speed and a maximum ISO value.  So long as you’re shooting at that shutter speed or higher, the camera will vary the ISO needed for the situation.  If the light level drops below this range one of two things happens: (a) in aperture priority the shutter speed continues to slow below your preferred minimum, while the highest ISO value is maintained, or (b) in shutter priority, once the aperture is wide open the camera underexposes, usually with some sort of viewfinder warning indicator, but still using the highest ISO.

But here’s the catch for bird and mammal work: setting a minimum shutter speed for wildlife means you’re probably going to choose a fast speed in order to stop any possible action.  What if you intentionally want a slower speed?  At the same time, at any given light level you don’t want to work at any higher ISO than necessary; you always want to use the lowest ISO you can get away with, given the situation.  That fast minimum shutter speed you selected may force you to shoot at a high ISO even in good light.

OK, back to those three variables that control exposure.  Reread that paragraph up above, and you’ll notice that I did not mention the manual exposure mode in which what you set is what you get.  In this exposure mode you have to manually set both the shutter speed and the f/stop.  Now here’s the kicker: if your camera has auto ISO, most likely you can use auto ISO while the camera is in manual mode, and let the camera vary the ISO needed for whatever shutter speed/aperture combination you select.

However — and this is a major “however” — you must know how to work in the manual mode.  I’m always amazed at how many photographers today do not know how to do so.  If you’re not sure, read my June 2015 blog post, and your camera’s manual, and practice.

So, switch to manual exposure mode, and turn on auto ISO.  Set the highest ISO value to whatever maximum ISO you’re comfortable using with that camera.  Set the camera itself to its lowest native ISO.  For Nikon cameras, the “minimum shutter speed” choice in auto ISO does not apply when the camera is in manual mode (and I’m pretty sure this is also true for Canons, but not being a Canon user myself…).

What you have basically done is turn the manual exposure more into an autoexposure one.  You select the f/stop and shutter speed you want, the camera sets the necessary ISO.

But how can you add or subtract the amount of light (for example, in order to reposition the histogram when shooting RAW) if the camera adjusts the ISO for any given shutter speed/aperture combination?  Just as in any autoexposure mode, you use the camera’s autoexposure compensation.  This does not affect the shutter speed or aperture you’ve set; after all, in manual mode what you set is what you get.  Instead, it changes the ISO the camera selects.  Dial in a +1 autoexposure compensation, and the camera raises the ISO by one stop; dial in a -1 compensation, and it drops the ISO by one stop.  Since the camera is in manual mode, the shutter speed and aperture displayed in the viewfinder will not change, but there will be some sort of indicator that exposure compensation is in effect.  You’ll have to pay attention to what you’re doing, and remember to return the compensation back to “zero” when no compensation is needed.  If the light level drops so low that the camera maxes out ISO, your set exposure values will be too low.  Just watch the meter display, which in this case will show underexposure.

Should you use this “auto ISO with manual” mode all the time?  Heavens, no.  As with all modes on your camera, you use what is appropriate to the situation.  I personally find auto ISO in the manual mode extremely useful when I’m working wildlife.

LIGHTROOM AND TRAVEL

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.

 

HDR (A Different Way)

By John Shaw

I’m not a fan of HDR images.  Well, let me clarify that statement.  I’m not a fan of the all-too-typical HDR images I see.  Over-saturated cartoonish colors, with halos around edges, and lots of noise.  No thanks.

But there is a quick and easy way to create naturalistic looking extended dynamic range images, by using Photoshop’s HDR Pro to first create a 32-bit file, and then using the adjustments in either Camera Raw or Lightroom’s Develop module to work on that file.  To be honest, I thought many photographers already knew this trick, but on a recent Van Os Photo Safari which I was leading I discovered that very few of the participants seemed aware of it.  So…OK, here goes, step-by-step.

1) Shoot a series of images varying the exposure by one or two stops between shots, just as you would for any HDR composite.
2) In either Lightroom or Camera Raw make whatever basic adjustments are necessary.
3) Select all the images, and open all in HDR Pro.  From Lightroom: Photo > Edit In > Merge to HDR Pro in Photoshop.  From Bridge: Tools > Photoshop > Merge to HDR Pro.
4) In HDR Pro, check Remove ghosts, and select 32 Bit as the Mode.

JS_HDR1

 5) And now, you have a choice to make.  If you normally work in Camera Raw, check the box to Complete Toning in Adobe Camera Raw.  If you normally work in Lightroom, just click OK at the bottom of HDR Pro, and then save the file as a TIFF.  Make sure you save it as a 32-bit file.

JS_HDR2

6) If you’re going the Lightroom route, import this new file into Lightroom, and then open it in the Develop module.

7) With either method,  process the file in Camera Raw or Lightroom as you normally do… but check out the range of the Exposure slider.  It’s now plus or minus 10 stops either way, double what it was before.

Wow!  That’s a 20-stop exposure range, definitely an extended dynamic range.

Choosing a Tilt-Shift Lens

By Justin Black
There is a good chance that the gear question I hear more than any other is, “If I were to buy just one tilt-shift lens, which one should I get?” Unfortunately, the question begs another: “What do you want to do with it?”  There is no “best” tilt-shift lens, and no dominant favorite among pros or regular users, but if you can define why you need one,  that should suggest which one will best serve your needs.

The Offering, Dead Vlei, Namibia – 85mm PC-E Nikkor, Nikon D800E

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.

Kokerboom tree forest. 24mm PC-E Nikkor, Nikon D800E

Kokerboom tree forest, Namibia – 24mm PC-E Nikkor, Nikon D800E

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.

Nocturne, Kolmanskop, Namibia – 45mm PC-E, Nikon D800E

Nocturne, Kolmanskop, Namibia – 45mm PC-E, Nikon D800E

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.

Blending Exposures – Lightroom to Photoshop and Back Again

JB_Bio_JCB8775-2By Justin Black
Today’s digital cameras have the ability to capture a tremendous tonal range, which in the case of the Nikon D800 is 14-stops, an incredible 1:16,000 brightness ratio. Even so, from time to time we find that we wish to optimize the exposure for different parts of an image, much the way we used to with graduated neutral-density filters when we were using color transparency film. These days, Photoshop has proven to be a better solution in most cases, so my grad-ND filters tend to languish in the closet. Here’s the technique that I use when I need to blend two exposures with distinct areas of widely differing brightness.
1)    In the field, shoot two RAW exposures on a tripod and without changing camera position, zoom, focus point, or aperture between exposures (as these will affect the pixel-for-pixel registration of the image). One exposure should be exposed to just barely keep the highlights from clipping (exposed to the right, or ETTR). The other should be exposed even lighter to capture more shadow detail. The highlights will probably clip in this lighter exposure, but just make sure that the light mid-tones don’t clip. The judgment as to how light to make the second exposure is subjective and can only be made on the spot based on reviewing the camera histogram. It’s a good idea to shoot a few bracketed exposures to cover the bases.

2)    Import images into Lightroom (LR).

3)    Process each image as you normally would, paying attention primarily to the highlight values in the darker image, and the shadow and mid- tone values in the lighter image. You generally don’t need to worry about correcting clipped highlights in the lighter image or clipped shadows in the darker image, since you probably won’t be using them.

4)    As a starting point, it’s a good idea to set identical values for the following settings:

• White Balance (Temp and Tint)

• Presence (Clarity, Vibrance, Saturation)

• HSL and Color sliders

• Detail (Sharpening, Noise Reduction)

• Lens Corrections

• Effects

• Camera Calibration

The easiest way to set these identically is to select both images and use the Sync Settings function. You can always depart from the synced settings if you wish.

 

5)    Once you’ve made LR adjustments to each image, select them both. In the LR menu at the top of the screen, go to Photo > Edit In > Open as Layers in Photoshop.

6)    In Photoshop (PS), you’ll see that both images are open as layers, one above the other.

7)    Add a mask to the top image by going to the Layers window, clicking on the top image, and then clicking the mask icon, which looks like a grey box with a white circle on it.

8)    In the Layers menu, click on the white mask symbol to the right of the top image layer. This will set you up to work on the mask.

9)    Select the brush tool, and set the color to black, opacity to 100%, and hardness to zero.

10) Paint on the mask anywhere that you want to hide the top image and let the bottom image show through. You can vary brush size, hardness, and opacity, and switch back and forth between white and black to refine the mask.

11) You should now have two exposures blended into one. At this point, you can add adjustment layers above the original images and proceed with your normal PS workflow to finalize the image, or simply Save As the file back to the original folder that they came from. The composite image will be automatically added to your Lightroom catalog.

Ten Photoshop Tips

20120120-_JBX4007by John Shaw

1.  To tone down the whites in an image, select them using Color Range.  Add any adjustment layer, and change the layer blending mode to either Multiply or the slightly stronger Linear Burn.  Then drop the layer opacity to taste.

2.  When shooting frames for a panoramic, manually setting camera exposure is more precise than using an autoexposure mode.  Use the middle of the panoramic scene to set the base exposure.  If you’re shooting RAW files, you can leave white balance (WB) set to Auto.  When processing the files in Adobe Camera Raw, or Lightroom’s Develop module, select one image and drag the WB slider from the “as shot” position to a distinct number.  Now sync all the other frames to that WB.

3.  Make a preset to rename your files in Bridge or Lightroom based upon the capture date.  When you travel, reset the clock in your camera to the local time zone.  This way, all your image captures will match up with your itinerary and there will be no confusion as to location.  Just remember to reset the clock when you get home.

4.  Photoshop’s Ctrl/Command+Z undoes the last step you’ve taken.  But using it immediately a second time simply undoes the undo you just made.  To step backward more than once, use Alt/Option+Ctrl/Command+Z.

5.  When preparing an image for printing, as the final step add a 3 pixel black hairline around the perimeter to define the edge.  Three easy ways to do this:

  • Select the entire image, Ctrl/Command+A.  Then do Edit > Stroke, and set pixels to 3, the color to black, and the location to Inside.
  • With the image layer unlocked, add a Layer Style, Layer > Layer Style > Stroke (or click on the fx icon at the bottom of the Layers Palette).  Set pixels to 3, Position to Inside, and color to black.
  • Increase the canvas size, Image > Canvas Size.  Select pixels for the unit of measurement, 3 for the number of pixels, black for the color, check the Relative box, and make sure the middle square is the anchor position

6.  Opening several similar images as layers in Photoshop (from either Bridge or Lightroom) aligns the outer dimensions of the images.  To align the contents, select all the layers, and then do Edit > Auto-Align Layers.

7.  Make a brush to add your name and copyright to images.  Make a new white document no larger than 2500 pixels long dimension.  Add the copyright symbol and your name.  Then do Edit > Define Brush Preset.  For a signature brush, write your name on white paper using a black marker, photograph it (jpeg, small, fine), and size the image to no larger than 2500 pixels.  Using Image > Adjustments > Levels clip the image to pure white and pure black.  Save as a brush, Edit > Define Brush Preset.  If you use either of these brushes on a new layer, you can add Layer Styles (drop shadow, etc.) to that layer.

8.  Caps Lock toggles the cursor display — for example, from standard to precise.

9.  Use the often overlooked Image Processor (from Bridge: Tools > Photoshop > Image Processor) to quickly create new file types.  Select the images, choose an output location, select the file type you want, specify the quality and size, and click Run.

10.  When making selections, remember that the “marching ants” only show pixels that are at least 50% selected.  Outside of the “ants” are pixels that are also selected, just at a lesser amount.

These tips originally appeared as part of an article John wrote for Photoshop World magazineJohn co-leads our Vision Workshops series with Jack Dykinga and Justin Black, and in 2014 will lead trips to New Zealand, Iceland, and Patagonia for Visionary Wild.

Click here to learn more about John Shaw

John Shaw’s website is www.johnshawphoto.com

Tools and Techniques for Creating Fine Prints

Our friends at Hunt’s Photo Video and Ilford are sponsoring a free webinar on fine print making,

Join the Live Video Broadcast on March 29, 2013 at 1:00pm EDT

What are the aspects and qualities that make for a Gallery-Quality Fine Art Print? Exacting color, smooth tonal transitions, a well-balanced contrast range and the best paper choice for the image all come together to make a print worthy of hanging in most any venue or location. Color workflow, soft-proofing and what fine edits to make will all go a long way towards making your results both accurate and repeatable. In this presentation, we’ll explore the process, tools and techniques from edit to output that allow you to produce a print both you and your collectors will be proud of.

Eleven False Statements

by John Shaw

Editor’s note: There’s a lot of photo-mythology floating around out there. Visionary Wild instructor John Shaw puts a few of his favorite myths to rest.

1.  Images for the web should be sized at 72 dpi.  First of all, “dpi” refers to dots per inch, and computer screens have pixels, not “dots.”  But “72 ppi” is also false.  Pixels dimensions are the only criteria for computer images.  1200 pixels are 1200 pixels, whether they be 1/inch or 1200/inch.  You still have 1200 pixels.  Say you have an image that’s 1000 x 500 pixels at 72 ppi.  How many total pixels is that?  1000 x 500 = 500,000.   Resize to 1000 x 500 pixels at 300 ppi.  How many total pixels is that?  1000 x 500 = 500,000.  Exactly the same.  If you’re resizing web images to 72 ppi, you’re simple adding a useless step to your workflow.

2.  Mac monitors use 72 ppi while Windows ones are 96 ppi.  Sorry, this is a myth.  If it were true, a monitor would have to change resolution depending on whether it was connected to a Mac or a PC.  Want to know roughly what the resolution of your monitor is in ppi?  Measure the horizontal width of the screen and divide this into the horizontal pixel dimension at the monitor’s native resolution.  My laptop’s screen is 1920 pixels wide, and measures about 13.5 inches horizontally.  1920/13.5 = about 142 ppi.

3.  You should set Adobe RGB in your camera if you’re shooting RAW files.  While this might affect the image displayed on the camera’s LCD, it does not directly affect a RAW file.  After all, if Adobe RGB were actually applied, the file would no longer be RAW data.

4.  For the best RAW file results, set a specific white balance in the camera.  Don’t use Auto White Balance.  RAW files have no white balance.  Just as I said above, if a white balance were applied the file would no longer be RAW.  A specific white balance is only set when the file is processed into a standard graphic file format such as .psd or .tiff or .jpeg; that is, when it is no longer a RAW file.

5.  This RAW image is how it appears right out of the camera.  Not true.  A RAW image has to be rendered in some way before you can even see it.   Exactly how it is rendered depends on the default settings of the RAW conversion software you use.

6.  You can evaluate exposure by looking at the image on the camera’s LCD.  You can adjust the LCD’s brightness on almost all DSLRs, so exactly which level of brightness would be “correct?”  Sorry, not true at all.  For that matter, the camera LCD most certainly is not a color corrected and calibrated monitor.  You can evaluate composition; you cannot evaluate color or exposure.  You definitely should use the histograms for exposure information.

7.  Always use a UV filter to protect your lens.  From what?  Dirt and fingerprints?  Then you must take the filter off for every shot, otherwise you’re shooting through a dirty, fingerprinted filter.  Use one for “protection” only if you can state from what it is you’re protecting the lens.  Salt spray?  Yes, this might be an answer, but I live about 100 miles from the ocean and on the other side of a mountain range, and if there is salt spray here, protecting my lens will be the least of my worries.

8.  12 frames/second is better than 10/frames per second.  In what way?  Neither one guarantees you’ve caught the peak moment.  Consider this:  let’s assume a shutter speed of 1/1000 second.  12 frames/second captures 12/1000 of the action, and misses 988/1000 of it.  Holding down the shutter button at the highest frame rate yields lots of images, but not necessarily the one you wanted.

9.  Always underexpose a half-stop to richen the colors.  Intentional underexposure with digital cameras is one of the worst things you can do.  It simply adds noise.

10.  Professional photographers get all their equipment free from the camera manufacturers.  Boy, do I ever wish this were true, but it isn’t.   For that matter, I wish it were true for cars and houses also.

11.  All information on photography forums is true.  You might remember back when there was an actual discussion about using Scotch® tape to clean camera sensors.  I’m fairly sure someone fell for this, and actually tried it.  We all know that it’s not Scotch® tape you should use, but duct tape, right?  (Well, I read about using duct tape on the Internet, so it must be true.)

CLICK HERE to check out John Shaw’s blog.

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

Exposure Modes: Is Program OK?

A question recently came in asking if it is ok to use the camera’s program mode, as opposed to manual, aperture priority, or shutter priority. Other than being bound by the laws of physics, there is little or nothing in photography that requires orthodoxy, “right” or “wrong,” “ok” or “not ok.” Shooting in Program mode is fine if that’s how the photographer chooses to shoot and if it doesn’t get in the way of making the envisioned photograph. As with any photographic tool or technique, however, I’d always recommend that the photographer understand what the camera is doing and be able to express the reasons he or she is choosing to use that particular mode over another one.

I primarily do landscape work. Back in the days of shooting color transparency film, virtually all of my work was spot metered and shot in manual mode, because film was unforgiving and that level of careful precision was how I achieved the best possible results. Now, with digital, the way the medium responds to light is different, so calculating optimal exposure is different. The color Matrix meters these days are quite good at evaluating not only overall luminance, but also the tonal range of each color channel (red-green-blue), so they have certain advantages over traditional metering methods when it comes to exposing to match the performance of the sensor in the camera. We are also able to confirm the exposure we want with the histogram, so for many types of photography there is a good argument to be made that shooting in an automatic mode makes the most sense most of the time. It is always possible to bias the exposure one way or the other using exposure compensation, and to shift shutter speed and aperture as desired.

There are certainly exceptions, but since going [almost] all digital, I am mostly using aperture priority, auto white balance, and Matrix metering. I shoot RAW 100% of the time, expose for maximum data/minimum noise (biased toward overexposure without clipping color channels, otherwise known as exposing to the right), and set correct tonalities, color balance, black point, etc. in post processing. I could achieve the same results in Program mode, but it would require the extra step of shifting the exposure to the aperture or shutter speed I wish to use.

At the end of the day, it’s important to identify and understand a simple set of camera settings, tools, and techniques that are legitimately helpful in making the images you want to create, and then concentrate your attention on concepts, themes, light, composition, color, and gesture. As a photographer, one of your goals should be to get the camera out of the way of your vision and creativity.  –Justin Black

Jack Dykinga Interview Slideshow

Jack Dykinga on Mark Godfrey Selects

Nature Conservancy Director of Photography Mark Godfrey recently interviewed Visionary Wild instructor Jack Dykinga for this multimedia slideshow featuring some of Jack’s best work.

Pro Tip from Jeff Foott: “Shooting the Scene”

There’s a story behind every image. A combination of visual cognition, emotional response, thoughtful investigation, composition, technical judgments, and timing (among other factors) play into the creation of the best photographs. It’s a process of purpose.

Visionary Wild instructor Jeff Foott recently shared with us a series of teaching images that he uses to as part of a lecture designed to shed some light on the process of, as he calls it, “shooting the scene.” While walking along a stream near his home in Moab, Utah, Jeff’s attention was captured by this frozen puddle among the rocks. His first reaction was to make a record photograph of the scene as he saw it at first glance – “frozen puddle among rocks” – isolated within the broader landscape.

Recognizing that it was the graphics, tones, and textures of the puddle itself that were what appealed to him visually, Jeff chose to make it a close-up, isolating the frozen puddle from the rocks.

The scene then became the puddle itself, and Jeff sought out compositions within it. He points out, “This is the kind of thing that you can shoot all day, looking for the new compositions and treatments. If you’ve got a great scene to work with, stick with it.” We would add that when looking for abstract close-up compositions, it can help to let go of preconceived notions of what the subject is supposed to look like. Be open to reframing the nature of the subject in new ways.

A good exercise in this sort of situation is to speak out loud what it is that you want to make a picture of, and then gradually modify that statement through a series of images. In this case, that statement started with the very literal “frozen puddle among rocks,” and ends with “abstraction of form, tone, and texture.”

All photos © 2010 Jeff Foott

Bioluminescence on the Sonoma Coast, by Jerry Dodrill

Bioluminescence

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 wunderground.com 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.

http://www.jerrydodrill.com

More info:

Bioluminescence: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bioluminescence

Sonoma Coast State Park: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=451

 

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.

View Full Record

Scouting the Olympic Peninsula

Last week, I joined my good friend, photographer Pat O’Hara, to scout locations in Olympic National Park in preparation for our Advanced Workshop in Port Angeles, Washington in July 2012.

With 200% of normal snowpack for this time of year, the Olympic mountains were positively stunning. Though Mt. Olympus, the tallest, is under 8,000 ft. in elevation, it seems like a much bigger mountain, supporting large glaciers and towering above the surrounding landscape. The old-growth temperate rainforest, lakes, waterfalls, driftwood strewn beaches on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and dramatic weather make for tremendous variety of landscapes in a compact area. It would be obvious to anyone why Pat and his family have chosen to live in this exceptional place.

Time was tight and I was there for logistics more than photography, but I managed to make a few images at some of the field locations that we will likely use during the workshop, like the one above at Sol Duc Falls. It will be a great pleasure to return for the workshop with Pat during the height of wildflower season next summer.

For those interested in technical details, the Sol Duc Falls image is from a 25-megapixel file created very easily using an old manual focus, manual aperture 35mm f/2.8 PC shift lens on a Nikon D700. A polarizing filter was used to cut glare on the foliage. Without moving the camera, the lens was shifted to expose three frames for the top, middle, and bottom of the composition. Toss the files into Photomerge in Photoshop, and voilá, you end up with an extremely high-quality image file with a field of view close to that of a 24mm lens, and format proportions close to 4×5.

My traveling camera kit on this trip consisted of my D700, 20mm f/4 AI , 35mm f/2.8 PC Nikkor, 50mm f/1.8 AF Nikkor, 135mm f/2.8 AI-S Nikkor, and Gitzo G1028 with Really Right Stuff BH-25 ballhead. Using the power of three-frame stitching to increase resolution, I could effectively cover a focal length range of 14mm to 90mm at a level of quality that equals 200MB drum scans from 6x7cm medium format transparencies, with the benefit of the D700’s excellent high ISO/low-noise performance. The fact that this level of quality can be achieved so easily with such a limited array of compact, affordable gear is truly astonishing. The total weight of my photo kit including the tripod was  3.046Kg, and the camera and lenses all fit inside a small waistpack that stashed neatly into my carry-on. I was able to travel for a week with only a Patagonia shoulder bag and a slim laptop case, and still make landscape photographs that could produce top-quality prints without feeling like I was hindered by my lens selection. What a wonderful time we live in.