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!

 

Justin Black Interview with PhotographyTalk.com

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.

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.

 

Nikon D810 Follow-Up

Secondary-1b-Handling

As promised, here is the follow-up to the post in which I shared my first impressions of the new Nikon D810. During Visionary Wild’s recent safaris at Maasai Mara, Kenya, and Chobe River, Botswana, I put the D810 to the test as a camera for wildlife action. The camera got covered in dust, rained on, knocked around, and performed flawlessly through 10,000 exposures. In a nutshell, I am most impressed.

Autofocus: I had expected the AF system to be improved over the D800E, but this is a whole new animal. As anticipated, the “Group” sensor array worked well, but it was the 3D 51-Point Dynamic mode that was most improved. It did a superb job of tracking fast-moving birds against complex, contrasty backgrounds, and when it did lose track of the subject, it reacquired it much faster than the D800 or D4 would. Chalk one up to the D810. I would still like to see the AF sensor array distributed across more of the frame.

African skimmers at sunset, Chobe River, Botswana. Nikon D810, 500mm f/4, ISO 1600, 1/1600 sec @ f/5.6. Photo © 2014 Justin Black

 

Optically optimized sensor: The D810 sensor, free of an optical low-pass filter and newly equipped with microlenses over the photosites does indeed appear to deliver marginally more resolution and sharper edges than the D800E’s. I haven’t had a chance to test whether the sensor responds better to older lenses that weren’t optimized for digital (wide-angle lenses in particular should benefit), but I am eager to do so.

Dust Repelling Sensor? Despite spending two weeks on safari in locations with lots of dust and plant particles in the air, I can hardly find any dust specs in my D810 image files. I’m not sure what to attribute this to, particularly since I tend to be pretty cavalier about changing lenses in dusty conditions, and I didn’t clean the sensor or even blow the camera out because I saw no need. Is it more effective in-camera sensor cleaning at start-up and shutdown? Does the sensor have a new anti-static coating that is better at repelling dust? I don’t know yet, but I’m going to try to find out whether Nikon made a change here or if I was just lucky.

Dynamic Range, High-ISO and Low-Light Performance: My plan for Africa was to use the D810 in “good light,” but to switch to a D4 for low light, high-ISO situations. What I found amazed me. The dynamic range is a little better overall, but beyond that Nikon has significantly improved the performance of the D810 sensor at higher ISOs, so much so that I would be happy using it as my only camera for everything I do. You might be asking, “But, isn’t the D4s still better at the highest ISOs and in the murkiest conditions?” Yes and no, depending on what you mean by “better.” The reality is that the noise, detail, and tonality in D810 files made at higher ISOs look a lot better than in comparable D800 images. Also, you can make a D810 file made at ISO 6400 look just as clean as a D4s file made at ISO 6400, simply by downsizing the file from its native 36MP resolution to the 16MP resolution of the D4 (along with some basic noise reduction of course). The image below was made at ISO 3200, but our recent Safari Update post features a portrait of a lioness that I made at ISO 6400. Talk about a versatile camera!

Malachite kingfisher in last light, Chobe River, Botswana. Nikon D810, 500mm f/4 + TC-14EII (700mm), ISO 3200, 1/640 sec @ f/5.6. Photo © 2014 Justin Black

Malachite kingfisher in last light, Chobe River, Botswana. Nikon D810, 500mm f/4 + TC-14EII (700mm), ISO 3200, 1/640 sec @ f/5.6. Photo © 2014 Justin Black

 

Processor – Buffer – Speed: Everything on this camera runs faster and less intrusively than on the D800, and even shooting long bursts of fast-and-furious wildlife action at 5 frames per second (14-bit, 36MP NEF raw files) I never buffered out. The increased frame rate was greatly appreciated, and I found myself using the 1.2x crop mode at six frames per second with some frequency. Score another point.

Balanced mirror: As mentioned before, I love the quieter and better-damped mirror. While this might seem like a small tweak, in practice it is a major improvement.

Electronic first curtain: I tested this feature (accessible only in Mirror-Up advance mode) and confirmed that it works. Gone is the subtle motion blur introduced by the inertia of the mechanical front shutter curtain. I found that the issue was only really noticeable when working in high magnification scenarios (telephoto or macro work) on a tripod, but this is a legitimate improvement nevertheless.

Highlight Priority Metering: As anticipated, this did indeed prove to be a very useful solution for holding highlight detail in wildlife subjects in dynamic lighting situations, particularly set up to be activated instantly on demand with the “Fn” button on the front of the camera.

Pied kingfishers fighting over fish, Chobe River, Botswana. Nikon D810, 500mm f/4 + TC-14EII (700mm), ISO 1250, 1/2000 sec @ f/8. Photo © 2014 Justin Black.

Pied kingfishers fighting over fish, Chobe River, Botswana. Nikon D810, 500mm f/4 + TC-14EII (700mm), ISO 1250, 1/2000 sec @ f/8, Highlight-Priority metering. Photo © 2014 Justin Black.

 

And finally, a HUGE improvement from a landscape photographer’s point of view…

Split-Screen in Live View: The feature isn’t of much use for wildlife, but it is immensely useful for my landscape photography, for which I use Nikon’s PC-E tilt-shift lenses 90% of the time. This enables us to zoom into separate points in the foreground and background simultaneously, facilitating the process of setting the position of the focal plane, both in terms of speed and accuracy. I will be using this feature a great deal.

The D810 goes way beyond simply being a refinement of the D800E. I have found it to be a very worthwhile upgrade with new capabilities that meaningfully enhance my ability to successfully execute the photographs I want to make. Well done Nikon!

Justin Black

Safari Update

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Nikon D810 – First Impressions

Secondary-1b-HandlingThe 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?

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Vote for Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Dawn Lift-Off

The judging panel of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition (operated by BBC Worldwide and London’s Natural History Museum) have selected photographs by Visionary Wild instructors Jack Dykinga and Justin Black from among 41,000 entries for inclusion in a set of fifty top images open to public voting for the inaugural People’s Choice Award.

Dykinga’s photograph, Dawn Lift-Off, is an explosion of snow geese taking flight en masse at New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache wetlands, while Black’s Apex Predators, made last year in Brazil during our Jaguars of the Pantanal expedition, captures the peak action of a mature male jaguar capturing an eight-foot yacare caiman, clearly demonstrating the power, grace, and hunting prowess of this remarkable animal. Voting is open until September 5th, 2014, and the winner will be announced at the Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards ceremony to be held in London in October.

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For more information on next year’s Jaguars of the Pantanal expedition, please click here.

 

JACK DYKINGA STATUS UPDATE – May 22, 2014

News of Jack’s hospitalization has been spreading, and outpouring of well-wishes via cards, email, and other means has been amazing. Jack is deeply touched by the tremendous expression of love and support! He does however ask that friends and fans PLEASE REFRAIN FROM CALLING. Jack’s iPhone has been ringing off the hook, but he is generally not in a position to take calls. Also, please keep in mind that he isn’t able to respond to inquiries or messages that require a reply, due to the volume of correspondence that is pouring in.

Jack remains in the hospital waiting for the green light from his medical team to proceed with a lung transplant. He is upbeat and in generally positive spirits. We will update his status here as we are made aware of significant developments.

Trip Report: Jaguars of the Pantanal, August 2013

Photos and text by Justin Black

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Last month, photographer Jeff Foott and I led a small group of six passionate photographers on a photo expedition to Brazil’s Pantanal wetland, where we enjoyed an experience that I would have thought to be a ridiculous fantasy just a few years ago. Back then, I shared the common perception of jaguars as shy, reclusive, and mostly nocturnal animals, extremely wary of human approach and rarely seen even by life-long residents of their native habitat, despite having a wild population of between 50,000 and 100,000 in a range spanning from Arizona to Argentina. What we experienced in the Pantanal turned that notion on its head.

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Working from two stable flat-bottomed boats, our group photographed multiple cats each day as they hunted and patrolled their territory along the banks of the rivers, and two members of our party even managed to document a mother jaguar and a yearling daughter that were previously unknown to scientists, earning the right to assign nicknames – “Sally” and “Elli” – to the new cats in the process. In this part of the Pantanal, however, our experience wasn’t unusual. All the cards were stacked in our favor.

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The jaguar and their prey occur at maximum biological carrying capacity, the cats aren’t hunted in this particular area, two of their major prey species – caiman and capybaras – are on the riverbanks during the daytime, and sport fishermen have been plying the rivers in motor boats for years. So, there are a lot of cats drawn to the rivers by a lot of prey, they aren’t afraid of humans in boats, and they’re active and visible in good light. Nowhere else are the conditions so good for seeing jaguars, much less spending considerable time with them and photographing them from relatively close range.

The highlight of the expedition was the hunt on August 25th of an eight-foot yacaré caiman by a 290lb., seven-year-old male, nicknamed “Mick Jaguar” by local biologists. An experienced and battle-scarred fellow, Mick’s right eye is partially obstructed by a membrane injury. During another “Mick” sighting a few days earlier, I had noticed that he had oozing puncture wounds on his left front leg – presumably from defensive bites by a caiman or territorial battle with another jaguar.

130825-JBD_5547On the day of the hunt we spotted Mick as he emerged at the far end of a long sandy beach upstream from a channel that connected the main river to a large oxbow pond. Basking in the sun on the banks of the river and swimming in the channel were a number of caiman, a favorite prey of jaguar in the Pantanal, despite the risk represented by their numerous two-inch teeth and powerful jaws. As he walked down the beach, Mick quickly switched to hunting mode, adopting a cat’s low, slow stalk. He would move forward a few steps, eyes locked dead ahead on the prey-rich area around the channel, then lie down and assess the situation for a minute of two before continuing on. He was deliberate and patient – covering the length of the 50-meter beach took him about ten minutes, during which time I had our boat driver position us just below the channel so we would have a better perspective if any action unfolded.

By the time he entered the hyacinth at the water’s edge, we still didn’t know exactly what he was after. He paused and sized up his options. Then, 130825-JBD_5673quietly but with purpose, he entered the channel and began swimming toward – unbelievably – the largest caiman on the beach, close to eight feet long and probably over forty years old. The reptile was directly in front of us, probably only 100 feet away, and right out in the open. We couldn’t believe our luck, but all of us in the boat were poised and ready to receive it!

130825-JBD_5681Mick’s profile in the water was very low, with only his eyes, ears, and nose above water… like a crocodile. When we had seen jaguars swim before, their backs typically broke the surface, so it seemed that this was deliberate. He crossed the channel in 24 seconds, moving into position directly behind the caiman in its blind spot. Mick’s feet once again found purchase on the sand and… 130825-JBD_5684130825-JBD_5687130825-JBD_5689

…he exploded from the water and onto the caiman’s back, swinging his right paw into its side to hook into it with his claws. His left paw followed immediately thereafter.

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As Mick’s momentum carried them both into the water at the river’s edge, he went for a killing bite at the base of the caiman’s skull. His angle was no good, so he pinned the caiman with his body while he turned his head into a better position.

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His jaws found their mark, and in one powerfully fluid motion, he lifted the front half of the caiman’s body off the ground, spun it around to his left, and started trotting back toward the channel. The caiman weighed around 150lbs., but Mick appeared to handle it as easily as a big dog with a chew toy.

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As the caiman looked back at his attacker, Mick pushed it into the channel broadside, pushing a bow wave ahead of them. Amazingly, this crossing took no longer than the first. Mick walked up the sandy bank, into the tall grassed behind the beach, most likely headed for the cover of the nearby forest. His prize would feed him for days during which time he would guard the carcass, so we realized we wouldn’t see Mick again before we had to head for home. He’s an amazing animal, and we all felt privileged to have be fortunate enough to witness that spectacular display of power, grace, and hunting prowess. After this experience of a lifetime, we had a new appreciation for each jaguar we were fortunate enough to see.

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The other denizens of the Pantanal were a joy to observe and photograph as well, of course. Giant otters, toco toucans, capybaras (the world’s largest rodent at up to 90lbs.), tapirs, yacaré caiman,  jabiru storks, kingfishers and an array of raptors competed for our time and attention, putting on a great show of their own. Honestly, even without the big cats, the Pantanal is a wonderful place to photograph, especially birds, with species numbering in the hundreds. The fact that added to everything else, we also saw jaguar every day we were on the river, with multiple sightings each day some lasting over an hour, and the discovery of new cats that hadn’t been known before truly made this the trip of a lifetime.

When I returned home, I was very pleased to find that a number of international news agencies and the Huffington Post were interested in my reportage of the event, and even happier that our friend Paul Donahue – a biologist and all-around great guy who had been photographing from our second boat along with Jeff Foott – had his photos picked up by National Geographic’s online news site. While it’s always nice to be published, I hope that the light we and others shed on how special this place is will play a part in its conservation. Visionary Wild is supporting efforts underway to use ecotourism to protect the Pantanal’s biodiversity in an area the size of New Jersey – including the most important jaguar habitat – while enhancing the local economy and reducing the killing of jaguars by ranchers seeking to protect their herds. It is our hope that it can be demonstrated to more of the local communities that the jaguars of the Pantanal, rather than being vermin, represent a valuable resource worthy of protection.

We hope you can join us for our next visit with the Jaguars of the Pantanal, August 7-15, 2014. Click here to read more.

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Technical details: Nikon D800E and D7100 cameras, and Nikkor lenses.

 

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.

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.

Exposing to the Right… the FAR Right.

By John Shaw

If you’re a RAW shooter you should already know about ETTR, Expose to the Right.  The theory behind ETTR is that the best image capture for the most possible information is when the histogram is pushed to the right, to the “bright” side.  Just keep adding exposure until that histogram is over to the right side of the graph.

OK, but how far to the right?  You definitely don’t want to clip the highlights.  DSLR cameras have a clipping warning display, the “blinking highlights,” or “blinkies” as they are commonly called, which shows up on the camera’s LCD.  Many cameras will even display the blinkies for each individual color channel, besides the composite luminosity.  But remember that the image displayed on the LCD is not the actual RAW file; it’s a jpeg thumbnail created on the fly by the camera.  Camera manufacturers have coded in some headroom with the blinkies, as they don’t want customers to be angered at blown out highlights.

Fine.  But I would suggest running a test to determine exactly what the correlation is between when the blinkies start, and the actual clipped highlights in the RAW file.  You can easily run a test to determine this.  Set your camera to Aprerture Priority, lock it firmly on a tripod, and aim at any scene.  Increase exposure until the first blinkies appear.  Note this frame (probably the easiest solution would be to delete any previous frame you shot to get to this point).  Now shoot several more frames, using  Auto Compensation to add 1/3 stop to each successive frame.  Open this series in your RAW file software, such as Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw, turn on the clipping warning in the software, and check each frame.  I’ll bet that the starting frame, the one the camera blinkies said was clipped, is actually not clipped at all.  In fact, you might be surprised at just how much headroom you have.  With my particular Nikon D800E and a medium toned test subject, I have to add 1.3 stops beyond the blinkies before the RAW file has clipped highlights.

So what’s the point of doing this?  Why worry?  Well, with digital capture, noise lives in the dark exposures.  If you want the best possible data, start with the best possible exposure.  With my particular camera I’ll add some extra exposure whenever the subject is such that I can, especially when working at higher ISO values where noice is always a problem.  Recently I shot a landscape at ISO 1600.  I shot at both the metered ETTR exposure, and at my “extra 1.3 stop” ETTR settings.  The difference was remarkable.  The first image needed noise reduction.  When I looked at the second shot, the one when I had added 1.3 stops, the image on the LCD appeared almost washed out.  But when I reduced the exposure in Lightroom (my standard RAW file software), all the noise was gone.  In fact, my tests suggest there is even a slight difference when the camera is set at base ISO 100, where I use the camera the most.

Does this really matter?  The answer depends on how compulsive you are about quality, the realities faced in the field, and on how the photograph is to be used.  Just remember, ETTR is for RAW capture only.  And  you don’t want to lose an image by blowing out the highlights.  There are indeed some scenes with the highlights already maxed out.

Once you know how the blinkies in your camera correlate to the actual RAW histogram, a simple and safe solution — particular for static subjects such as landscapes – is to set your camera to bracket another  frame that is 2/3 stop more exposure than the ETTR histogram on the LCD.  When I shoot with my D800E, I know that I’ll be adding that extra bit of light whenever I can.

John Shaw is one of the most highly respected nature photographers in the world, and Visionary Wild is proud to include him among its instructors.

Click here to visit John Shaw’s website and blog

Visionary Wild supports the Sandy Hook School community

In memory of the innocent lives lost at Sandy Hook School in Connecticut, Visionary Wild has pledged to donate 5% of all new workshop enrollment fees received between December 15, 2012 and January 31, 2013. Funds will go to support organizations providing counseling and other vital services to the children, families, and staff of Sandy Hook School. If you are looking for ways to help but aren’t able to join us for a workshop, Newtown Youth and Family Services is a worthy charity that is presently providing much needed services to that heartbroken community.

John Shaw Interview

Visionary Wild instructor John Shaw talks about his forty year career in natural history photography, describing how he got hooked on photography, what keeps him inspired, and a little about his workflow.

Special Trips: High Sierra and Africa

Moonset at sunrise over Moonlight Lake and Picture Peak, High Sierra, California, by Justin Black

On occasion, we offer special photo expeditions outside of the “regularly scheduled programming” listed in the Workshops section of this website.

High Sierra Mule Pack Trip

This September 20-26, we are offering a photo trip into the beautiful alpine High Sierra backcountry west of Bishop, California, for a small group of nine participants. The instructors on this trip are renowned Sierra Nevada landscape photographer Jim Stimson, and Visionary Wild’s Justin Black. Our good friends Mike and Tess Anne Morgan of Bishop Pack Outfitters will support the trip with expert mule packing service to carry all our gear into and out of the mountains, and guided riding mules to carry us! Our expert backcountry chef and camp manager will take care of meals so we can focus on photography. CLICK HERE for more information from our online newsletter.

“The Sierra Nevada has been my backyard and playground for over 35 years. There are few landscapes on the planet that are so gloriously appointed with soaring granite spires, crystal clear lakes, vibrant green meadows, rich beds of flowers, and autumn splashes of color, so I consider myself very fortunate to call the Range of Light my home. I enjoy the inspiring challenge of photographing the grand landscape or the intimate details at my feet. It’s one of the best places I can think of for an adventure with a camera.” –Jim Stimson

African Safari: Etosha – Chobe – Victoria Falls

June 3-20, 2013, we are offering a wildlife-oriented African Safari led by Justin Black for an even more intimate group of five photographers to visit Etosha National Park in Namibia, Chobe National Park in Botswana, Victoria Falls, and cheetah and white rhino preserves in South Africa. As of June 30th, 2012, only two spaces remain available. Our group will work with some of the best guides in the business and will use new, heavily customized safari vehicles at Etosha, and a highly specialized six-seat photo boat on the Chobe River. These platforms offer the best photographer positions available anywhere in Africa, with each photographer having his or her own 360-degree rotating photo chair with 360-degree revolving camera mounts that make working with big lenses a breeze. To top it off, we’re providing loan of big glass through Nikon South Africa, so you don’t have to lug it to Africa with you. CLICK HERE for more information.

Yucatan Expedition Report

Our January 2012 Yucatan Expedition was a great success thanks to the contributions of leader Jack Dykinga, our excellent guides Alfredo Medina and Sara Fuentes, and a superb group of participants. After meeting the group in Merida, we were welcomed by the friendly staff of Hacienda Itzincab-Cámara, a beautifully restored and updated 19th-century estate with lush tropical gardens an ancient Mayan pyramid rising just behind the main house. The hacienda served as our private base camp as we visited several stunning cenotes and caverns, working as a team to light paint the interiors when darkness prevailed. Once we had finished photographing, the cool, turquoise water of the cenotes often beckoned us to cool off with a swim. For the last two days, we made our way west to the Ria Celestún estuary, and made excursions by boat to photograph the flamingo colony, numbering in the tens of thousands. The following gallery of images were all made on the trip. We’re going back in January 2013, and we hope you’ll join us! CLICK HERE for more information or to register.

Jack Dykinga has written an article about his experiences exploring and photographing Yucatan’s cenotes, published in the June edition of the LiveBetter newsletter on the Center for a Better Life website.

 

Grand Canyon by Raft Trip Report

On May 13th we completed our ten-day, 226-mile raft trip down the Grand Canyon, that I led with Visionary Wild instructor Jack Dykinga. An amazing group of ten clients plus our superb AZRA boat crew, Randy Tucker and Katie Proctor, made the trip one of the best we’ve ever done. Drawing on insights gained on earlier trips down the Colorado River, we were able to pull off a phenomenal itinerary, including some well-known Grand Canyon highlights and some little-known spots that are nevertheless a photographer’s dream come true. All of the images in the following gallery were on this trip. Participant Chuck Turner has written a series of excellent blog posts on the trip, which you can read by CLICKING HERE.

On our last day on the river, our intrepid raft guide Katie Proctor kindly shared with us her original poem about the lingering impact of a Grand Canyon raft trip. She left most of us crying tears of joy. Katie has kindly permitted us to reproduce it here, and it appears below the image gallery.

We are planning another Grand Canyon raft trip for the second half of September 2013, and we invite interested parties to contact us at info@visionarywild.com to be added to the waiting list. We hope you’ll join us! –Justin Black

 

Raven Awaits You

by Katie Proctor

 

You were there

You newly fashioned Cowboys and Cowgirls

Where Water blasted over Rock,

careened through narrow canyons

and seeped quietly down salmon colored stone.

You were there

Mouth agape in a kind of “Rock shock,”

looking at ancient wise Rock.

You got the suspicion that all the commitments and deadlines you thought so

mightily important

were embarrassingly trivial.

At least for now.

And now is all there is.

You were there

when you realized this place was not magic.

Its real!

Its affects, real!

Reality doesn’t hold a candle to the realness of this place.

You were there

in this place where clean becomes relative

dryer sheets ineffective

and the scent of your own self

familiar.

You were there

when the boat soared up

and crashed back down

water blasting

in your face

in your ears

up your nose

in the crevasses between your neck and jacket

down your pants

up your legs

down your throat

tousled your hair

wiped you clean

took your inhibitions with its cascade

released you of your droning thoughts,

the web of anxiety cramping your heart,

your steadfast visions and plans for the future.

Washed clean your idea of “The Way Things Ought to Be” and left you

There.

Here.

Alive and smiling.

You were there

when subtly, slowly

Rock revealed to you that something so solid and still

can move you.

Be moved.

You can move mountains.

You were there

in Rock’s presence when your power scattered and just before you uttered the word

to your friend that these walls make you feel “small”, “insignificant”

you remembered your place.

you may have previously thought that your average size footprint didn’t matter

much at all in this Grand Scheme.

But now,

Clarity.

These same Rocks will be a witness to your impact for a millennia

after the short decades you were here.

You were there

when the question was posed to you

from the silently serious Rattlesnake

from the peering and ponderous Big Horn

What will you do with your great power friends?

What did you leave?

How did you love?

What did you learn when the stars poured down through that sliver above and

invited you

beckoned you

To open your eyes and your soul?

When you think you are insignificant remember the stars are bearing witness to

your one miraculous life

 

Rattlesnake is watching.

Coyote waits to see.

You were there

When you realized that this was more than a check marked off your “bucket list.”

Eventually that crumpled article torn from that Magazine’s “Top 10 Things to Do

in North America”

will be

thrown away.

The Transformation has occurred.

And you will feel

even from far away

in an office building in a distant metropolis

under florescent lights at the supermarket

or in that space between breaths when you crave Earthy connection.

You will know.

 

Raven awaits.

Perched among soaring walls and quiet pools.

Near pink sand beaches and quavering Evening Primrose.

Hermit rolls.

Lava thunders.

Blacktail waits in stillness.

You were there

You are here

Be moved.

Move gently.

 

© 2012 Katie Proctor. All Rights Reserved by the author. Reproduced here with permission.

Grand Canyon by Raft: Multimedia

This video featuring photographs by Jack Dykinga and Justin Black from previous Grand Canyon raft trips captures the beauty, majesty, and intimacy of a photographic adventure in the canyon. Add marvelous camaraderie and bit of adventure and you’ve got an experience you’ll never forget!

Click here for details about our Grand Canyon by Raft trip, May 3-14, 2012

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

Being There

A new photography site called PhotographyTalk.com recently recruited me to serve as a professional contributor to their forums, and while browsing recent posts I came across a topic in one of the forums asking which is more important, the act of recording the original raw image or the post-processing necessary to create the final photograph that represents the photographer’s expression of the image. It got me thinking that there’s something more important than either of those options: the experience of simply being there.

Just being present to witness whatever it is we choose to photograph, even if no image is recorded, is of tremendous value. For instance, I tend to be out “in the field” before dawn only when I plan to photograph at sunrise, and I’m incredibly grateful that over the years photography has provided the motivation. The time I’ve spent out in the pre-dawn light watching the first rays of the sun play across the atmosphere and landscape is precious to me. I can’t count the number of places that photography has taken me, and I’d rather have those experiences and memories incorporated into my being than a set of perfect photographs but no memories or lessons learned. One of the greatest things about photography is that it encourages us to get out, look into the world, and be a part of events that we might not otherwise encounter.

Of course, I take for granted that every image for which I have a meaningful application will require some amount of work, be it basic RAW conversion or more involved Photoshop work, to prepare it for publication or printing. I also consider processing essential in terms of my expression of what I am trying to communicate to the viewer. So, yes, it is important, and as Ansel said (and I paraphrase) it’s like the performance of a musical score, but give me the personal memory of an exceptional moment in nature over a perfect finished print any day. In our long rush to master technology and technique, it’s important to remember to live life to the fullest and make the most of every new experience we’re fortunate enough to have.

–Justin Black

First light over the Owens River, Eastern Sierra, California, by Justin Black

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