Posted on June 21, 2016
Visual “Truth” is more relative than real
“Is that the way it really looked?” What photographer hasn’t heard that question by skeptical viewers? For years I used to feel slightly defensive when answering, as if my honesty was in question. Now I simply try to educate the skeptic.
Without getting too philosophical, it’s important to understand that, like the camera’s, the human view of the universe is both limited and interpreted. In other words, there’s no such thing as absolute visual truth. Instead, we (you, me, and our cameras) each have our own view of the world that’s based on many factors, some we can control, others we can’t. When you look through a viewfinder, the more you turn off your visual biases and understand your camera’s, the more successful your photography will be.
Complaining about the camera’s limitations—its dynamic range, low-light sensitivity, distorted perspectives—is a popular pastime among photographers who feel obligated to reproduce the world as “it really looks.” But before wasting too much time lamenting your camera’s limitations, pause to consider that what you and I see is incredibly limited as well. And while the camera can’t do some things our eyes can, it can do other things our eyes can’t.
Every square inch of the Universe is continuously bathed in an infinite range of electromagnetic frequencies. We humans, and our cameras, are completely oblivious to the vast majority of this radiation. For example, X-ray machines “see” waves in the one nanometer (one billionth of a meter) range, far too small for our eyes to register; TVs and radios “see” waves that are measured in centimeters—much too long for our eyes; we humans (and our cameras) can only see electromagnetic waves that fall between (about) 400 and 750 nanometers.
Knowledge of these “missing” wavelengths enables astronomers to peer into space using tools designed to see objects at wave lengths invisible to us, doctors to harness X-rays to view bones hidden beneath opaque skin, and military and law enforcement to see in the dark by detecting infrared radiation (heat). In other words, in the grand scheme of things, there’s no single absolute visual standard—it’s all relative to your frame of reference.
Recording more or less the same visible spectrum our eyes do, the camera is sometimes mistakenly assumed to duplicate human vision. But the camera has its own view of the world. For starters, it’s missing an entire dimension. And not only does it not record depth, a still camera only returns a frozen snap of a single instant. And we all know about our camera’s limited dynamic range and depth of field. Yet despite these differences, photographers often go to great lengths to force their camera to record what their eyes see. Not only is this impossible, it ignores camera’s potential to see things in ways we don’t.
About this image
Several things about this Columbia River Gorge wildflower image are different from what my eyes saw. First, this scene was a little brighter to my eyes than what I captured—I chose to slightly underexpose the majority of the scene to avoid completely overexposing the extremely bright sun and sky, and to keep the color from washing out. Another benefit of underexposure in this case is the way the nearly black shadows enhance the scene’s rich color.
I couldn’t see the sunstar, which (in the simplest possible terms) is caused when light passing through a small opening is bent and separated. Of course the scene’s extreme depth of field required a small aperture anyway, wanting to give the left side of my frame visual weight to balance Mt. Adams on the right, in this case I’d have opted for a small aperture anyway.
And finally, going with an extremely wide focal length exaggerated the size of the flowers that were just inches away, and significantly diminished the size of the distant Mt. Adams.
What is real?
Is this image real? While it’s not what I saw, it is a very accurate rendering of my camera’s reality. Understanding how my camera’s vision differs from mine, and how to leverage that difference by controlling the available focal length, exposure, and compositional options enables me to create a perspective that expands my limited vision and transcends human reality. Pretty cool.
Posted on June 9, 2016
As a professional photographer with a pretty large social media following, I get a lot of questions from complete strangers. What camera (or lens, or tripod, or whatever) should I buy? What were your settings for this picture? Did you use a filter? What’s the best time to photograph such-and-such a location? Because I don’t believe there should be secrets in photography, I do my best to answer these questions as quickly and completely as my time permits (though it seems that the time I have to answer questions decreases at about the rate the volume of questions increases).
Among the most frequently asked questions is, “Where did you take this picture, and how do I get there?” But, despite my “no secrets” policy, I’m no longer as free with location information as I once was. I can cite (at least) three reasons, none of which is a desire to prevent others from duplicating my shot (the best photography requires far more than location knowledge anyway).
I’m disappointed by the laziness of many photographers who simply want to duplicate an image they’ve admired. (No, I don’t think that simply asking for a location automatically makes you lazy, and in fact have been known to ask for location details when something about a spot interests me—but identifying a location should be the photographer’s starting point, not the goal.) I’ve seen enough duplicate images to know that I don’t want to perpetuate the epidemic.
Sadly, the quickest way to ruin a location is to invite photographers. It seems that as soon as the word is out about a new spot, it becomes impossible to visit in peace, and even worse, to enjoy it without having to face the damage done by photographers who preceded you. You’d think that people who photograph nature would take better care of it, but that doesn’t appear to be the case, at least not for everyone.
It’s unfortunate that the actions of a few can ruin things for everyone, but these disrespectful few are far more visible than the respectful majority. The more photographers try to squeeze into spaces too small to accommodate them, spilling into fragile areas, crowding out tourists with just as much right to be there (“Hey, you’re in my shot!”), the more fences and rules are installed to keep us out.
I’d love to be wealthy enough to make myself available as a fount of photography information to all who ask. But because photography is my livelihood, I have to balance the time I spend against the income it generates.
When people pay me for a photo workshop, not only do I like to guide them to all the locations they’ve seen in the pictures, I also like to be able to give them perspectives a little off the beaten path and less heavily photographed. For that reason (and the fact that I just plain enjoy doing it), I spend a lot of time researching: Scouring maps, studying books, and googling before I visit for sure, but more importantly, polling locals and exploring independently (Hmmm, this road looks interesting…) once I arrive. This takes time, sometimes a lot of time.
About this image
I bring all this up because the image today was captured at a location that Don Smith and I “discovered” (it’s not as if we’re Lewis and Clark, but you get the point) while scouting before this year’s Columbia River Gorge workshops (back-to-back, collaborative workshops organized by Don and me). Despite our familiarity with any location, Don and I always allow time to explore for more spots on every visit. Which is how we found ourselves bouncing along dirt roads and traipsing up and down remote hillsides on both sides of the gorge earlier this spring.
When we found this spot, Don and I immediately agreed on two points: 1) We have to take the workshop groups here 2) Too many photographers would destroy this place. And since the surest way to invite a trampling hoard of photographers is to share directions to a location, I won’t do that. But here’s a tip: some of my favorite photo spots have been found while searching for other spots.
So, after cautioning our groups to treat each destination with care, we did take them to this new spot. The first group had to contend with 30 MPH winds—we made those shots work by bumping our ISOs and concentrating more on views wide and distant enough to minimize motion blur. The second group landed here in a gentle breeze that ranged from slight to nonexistent, allowing us to get up close and personal with the flowers.
The image I’m sharing today came right at the end of the second group’s visit. The sun had been down for about ten minutes, but because the light was so nice, and the color seemed to linger in the sky above Mt. Adams, I just couldn’t bring myself to leave. With my lens just inches from the flowers, even at 16mm and f18, complete front-to-back sharpness was impossible. Forced to choose between foreground or background sharpness, I opted to make the trio of yellow balsam root in my foreground sharp, and let the background go a little soft. By this time it was dark enough that I bumped my ISO to 3200 to ensure a shutter speed fast enough to avoid motion blur.
Posted on March 9, 2016
Last year, a busy spring schedule and mediocre wildflower bloom conspired to thwart the wildflower photography I love so much. Vowing not to let that happen again this year, a few days ago I packed my gear and headed for the hills with fingers crossed. My goal was a familiar canyon off of Highway 49 in the foothill Gold Country south and east of Sacramento.
This would be the maiden voyage for my brand new Sony 90mm f2.8 macro, and I was really looking forward to seeing if it’s as good as everyone says it is. Not only that, this would be my first wildflower shoot since switch from Canon DSLR to Sony mirrorless nearly a year and a half ago (!).
It’s a sign
On the drive I’d been streaming a Giants Spring Training game, but turning up the canyon I lost my signal, so I opened the Music app on my iPhone, put it in Random mode, and was immediately distracted by an entire hillside of poppies unfolding before me. Each bend in the road seemed to be trying to outdo the one before it, and I was several curves up the road before my ears caught up with my eyes. Of the 5000 or so possibilities on my phone, what I heard was Tom Petty telling me, “You belong among the wildflowers….” (true story). A sign, definitely a sign.
I followed the road to the end to identify the places I wanted to return to. On the drive back I stopped at my first choice and stayed until darkness and rain (not necessarily in that order) drove me out. I started with the macro, but before I was done I’d used every other lens in my bag too: 16-35, 24-70, and 70-200 (and would have used the 150-600 if I hadn’t loaned it to my brother a couple of days earlier)—with and without extension tubes.
With the sun already behind the hills and rain on the way, light was limited, and fading. There wasn’t much wind, but there was just enough flower-swaying breeze to concern me. My f-stop choice was completely tied to the creative side of my composition (selective depth of field), leaving ISO as the only exposure variable for controlling my shutter speed. Rather than guessing before each shot exactly how fast the shutter needed to be and dial in just enough ISO to get there (and remember to adjust each time my f-stop changed or I added extension), I just cranked the ISO to 4000 and went to work. Problem solved.
I found lots of things to photograph, from entire hillsides to individual poppies like this one. Regardless of my depth of field, I took extreme care to ensure that my background complemented my subject. In this case I maneuvered my tripod until my subject was framed by background poppies. It took several frames to get the composition just right; once I was satisfied, I tried it with a variety of f-stops and focus points. (I can’t imagine even attempting this without a tripod.)
More love for Sony
The Sony 90mm macro was as good as advertised. And I can’t tell you how pleased I am with the high ISO capability of the Sony a7RII. Putting my wildflower images up on my large monitor at home confirmed that everything that was supposed to be sharp was indeed sharp, and the noise at 4000 ISO was minimal and easily managed without detail loss—even the images I shot toward the end, in a light rain and fading light, at 6400 ISO were just ridiculously clean.
This ability to push my ISO threshold allows me to shoot scenes I’d never have considered before. Along with the dynamic range and night photography capability, it’s another Sony game changer for me. The a7RII is exceptional, but regardless of the camera you use, I encourage you to test its high ISO capabilities before you find yourself in a situation where ISO matters—you may be surprised by its capabilities.
Another thing I enjoyed about shooting macro with the a7RII was the ease of achieving precise focus. With depths of field measured in millimeters, sometimes fractions of millimeters, identifying the focus point and getting it perfectly sharp is imperative. With my recent Canon DSLRs (1Ds Mark III and 5D Mark III) I’d become a real convert to live-view focus, but glare on the LCD can sometimes make seeing well enough to get precise focus difficult. That problem disappears completely with the ability to view the scene in the viewfinder.
I’m not done
I had so much fun last week, I’ll be going back as often as possible, until the hills brown and the wildflowers fade. With all the rain promised for the next couple of weeks, that might be quite a while—maybe all the way until dogwood season in Yosemite. Life’s good.
Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.
Posted on April 27, 2015
In family Hearts games when I was a kid, I loved to “shoot the moon” (tremendous reward for success, extreme cost for failure). But simply wanting to shoot the moon wasn’t enough to make it happen, and I didn’t really start winning until I learned to separate my desires from the reality of the moment—I know now to evaluate my cards when they’re dealt, set a strategy, then adjust my strategy as the game unfolds. It’s that way for most card games, and it’s that way with photography.
So much of successful nature photography is about flexibility, an ability to anticipate conditions, establish a plan, then adjust that plan when things don’t play out as expected. That’s why, given nature’s fickle tendencies, I’m never comfortable photographing any location without backup options. I was reminded of this during my recent 10-day, two photo workshop trip to the Columbia River Gorge with Don Smith, where rapidly changing Pacific Northwest weather makes flexibility the name of the game.
The Columbia River Gorge offers a full deck of photo opportunities that include numerous waterfalls in the gorge’s steep tributary canyons, mirror reflections of Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams in small lakes south and north of the gorge, and spring wildflowers blanketing the eastern gorge’s more exposed slopes. Of course merely showing up at a spot and expecting great captures isn’t sufficient: Waterfalls are dramatic subjects the camera struggles to capture in brilliant, midday sunlight; towering volcanos are the first subjects disappear when it rains; and I can photograph wildflowers all day—as long as there’s no wind.
During our workshops, Don and I had to shuffle our groups’ photo locations and timing around snow, rain, and clear skies, temperatures that reached the 80s and dropped into the 20s, and winds that ranged from calm to 40 MPH. Our plan for clear skies was to head to the volcanos; if we were dealt clouds and rain, we would use the diffuse light (subdued dynamic range) to concentrate on the gorge’s waterfalls. And rain or shine, the wildflowers were ideally positioned for sunrise and sunset if the wind cooperated.
Somehow we managed to pull it all off, our trip culminating with a sunrise jackpot on the final morning of the second workshop. The plan that morning was a vast, exposed, wildflower-smothered hillside on the southwest end of the gorge. I’d been monitoring the weather obsessively throughout the trip, and with the morning’s forecast calling for clear skies and calm wind, Don and I were looking forward showing the group these wildflowers backlit by the rising sun’s warm rays.
Despite our optimism for the morning’s shoot, as the group gathered in the dark, a chilly breeze gave me pause. The breeze stiffened on the drive to our planned location, and rather than cling to our original vision and attempt to photograph dancing wildflowers in low light, I started considering options.
Don and I had done extensive scouting in the area on multiple prior visits, and had arrived two days before these workshops for more scouting and to get a handle on conditions. My mind immediately jumped to a sheltered location just a short distance from our planned spot. This location had wildflowers too, but instead of being all about the wildflowers, we’d have lots scenes with rocks and trees above the Columbia River, allowing the clumps of balsam root, lupine, and paintbrush to serve as accents. This location’s advantages were that its primary subjects (rocks, trees, river) would be less affected by wind, and its wildflowers would be a little more sheltered.
The group ended up with an absolutely wonderful shoot that made Don and I look like geniuses. The morning started with a pink sky that reflected beautifully in the river, and ended with an orange ball of sun floating low above the horizon. There were more than enough wildflowers go around, and wind was much less of a problem than it would have been on a more exposed hillside.
Honestly, there was nothing genius about what Don and I did that morning. It should be standard operating procedure for any photographer to base location and timing plans on the expected conditions, but to be familiar enough with the area to have options if the conditions don’t materialize as expected. Additionally, no photographer should get so locked in to a plan, regardless of its potential, that he or she fails to see that it might not work out. (Because what good are options if you don’t use them?)
No shoot is a guaranteed success—sometimes nature’s cards just don’t fall right. But the more options you have, the more you read and respond to conditions, the more winners you’ll come home with.
Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.
Posted on April 19, 2015
For wildflower photography I prefer the diffuse light and soft shadows of a cloudy day, but when Mother Nature delivers clear skies and harsh sunlight, I look for backlight opportunities. Backlit flowers and leaves glow like they’ve been plugged in, and their brilliance allows faster shutter speeds that will compensate for a small aperture and quell a flower-waving breeze.
A frustrating downside of backlight is that the sun is more or less in the direction of your backlit subject, risking lens flare (scattered light that manifests as a contrast-robbing haze or distracting artifacts). If the sun isn’t in your frame, shading your lens will eliminate the lens flare. A lens hood helps, but I find lens hoods more trouble than they’re worth. Instead, when I encounter lens flare, I shade my lenses with my hand, a hat, or an umbrella (no camera bag should be without one). Or better yet, I do my best to position my lens in the shadow of a nearby tree.
But when the sun is in the frame, no amount of shading will work. In these situations I make the best of a bad thing by looking for sunstar opportunities. On last week’s visit to Columbia Hills State Park in southern Washington, I found a hillside awash with wildflowers—mostly yellow balsam root and violet lupine—in brilliant sunlight.
While waiting for the shade to arrive, I decided to take advantage of the backlight and look for a sunstar opportunity. The lupine were in better shape than most of the balsam root, and soon my eyes landed on a colorful group I could balance with Mt. Hood and the setting sun. I stopped down to f20, pulled out my Singh-Ray 2-stop graduated neutral density filter, and waited for the sun to drop to the horizon.
To salvage as much of my highlights as possible, I gave the scene as little exposure as I thought I could get away with. The foreground was pretty dark on my LCD, but the histogram looked okay (not perfect, but manageable)—in Lightroom I was able to pull up the shadows and subdue the highlights enough to work with. Photoshop’s Content Aware Fill tool helped me clean up the worst lens flare, but I still ended up with a little more than I like. (Oh well.)
Here’s my sunstar recipe (excerpted from a previous post):
Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.
Posted on April 17, 2014
In this day of ubiquitous cameras, automatic exposure, and free information, a creative photographer’s surest path to unique images is achieved by managing a scene’s depth. Anyone with a camera can compose the left/right/up/down aspect of a scene. But the front/back plane, a scene’s depth, that we human’s take for granted, is missing from a two-dimensional image. Managing depth requires abstract vision and camera control beyond the skill of most casual photographers.
While skilled photographers frequently go to great lengths to maximize depth of field (DOF), many forget the ability of limited DOF to:
They call it “bokeh”
We call an image’s out of focus area its “bokeh.” While it’s true that bokeh generally improves with the quality of the lens, as with most things in photography, more important than the lens is the photographer behind it. More than anything, achieving compelling bokeh starts with understanding how your camera sees the world, and how to translate that vision. The image’s focus point, its depth of field (a function of the f-stop, sensor size, focal length, and subject distance), and the characteristics of the blurred background (color, shapes, lines) are all under the photographer’s control.
No special equipment required
Compelling bokeh doesn’t require special or expensive equipment—chances are you have everything you need in your bag already. Most macro lenses are fast enough to limit DOF, have excellent optics (that provide pleasing bokeh), and allow for extremely close focus (which shrinks DOF). A telephoto lens near its longest focal length has a very shallow DOF when focused close.
Another great way to limit your DOF without breaking the bank is with an extension tube (or tubes). Extension tubes are hollow (no optics) cylinders that attach between your camera and lens. The best ones communicate with the camera so you can still meter and autofocus. Not only are extension tubes relatively inexpensive, with them I can focus just about as close as I could have with a macro. They can also be stacked—the more extension, the closer you can focus (and the shallower your DOF). And with no optics, there’s nothing compromise the quality of my lens (unlike a teleconverter or diopter). But there’s no such thing as a free lunch in photography—the downside of extension tubes is that they reduce the amount of amount light reaching the sensor—the more extension, the less light. On the other hand, since I’m using them to reduce my DOF, I’m always shooting wide open. And the high ISO capability of today’s cameras more than makes up for the loss of light.
Many of my selective focus images are accomplished without a macro or even a particularly fast lens. Instead, preferring the compositional flexibility of a zoom, I opt for my 70-200 f4 (especially) and 100-400 lenses. While my 100 macro is an amazingly sharp lens with beautiful bokeh, I often prefer the ability to isolate my subject, in a narrow focus range, without having to get right on top of it. On the other hand, if I have a subject I want to get incredibly close to, there’s no better way than my macro and an extension tube (or two, or three).
Managing depth of field
When using creative soft focus, it’s important that your background be soft enough that it doesn’t simply look like a focus error. In other words, you usually want your background really soft. On the other hand, the amount of softness you choose creates a continuum that starts with an indistinguishable blur of color, includes unrecognizable but complementary shapes, and ends with easily recognizable objects. Where your background falls on this continuum is up to you.
Your DOF will be shallower (and your background softer):
A macro lens and/or extension tube is the best way to get extremely close to your subject for the absolute shallowest DOF. But sometimes you don’t want to be that close. Perhaps you can’t get to your subject, or maybe you want just enough DOF to reveal a little (but still soft) background detail. In this case, a telephoto zoom may be your best bet. And even at the closest focus distances, the f-stop you choose will make a difference in the range of sharpness and the quality of your background blur. All of these choices are somewhat interchangeable and overlapping—you’ll often need to try a variety of focus-point/focal-length/f-stop combinations to achieve your desired effect. Experiment!
Composing a shallow DOF image usually starts with finding a foreground subject on which to focus, then positioning yourself in a way that places your subject against a complementary background. (You can do this in reverse too—if you see a background you think would look great out of focus, find a foreground subject that would look good against that background and go to work.)
Primary subjects are whatever moves you: a single flower, a group of flowers, colorful leaves, textured bark, a clinging water drop—the sky’s the limit. A backlit leaf or flower has a glow that appears to originate from within, creating the illusion it has its own source of illumination—even in shade or overcast, most of a scene’s light comes from the sky and your subject will indeed have a backlit side. And an extremely close focus on a water droplet will reveal a world that’s normally invisible to the unaided eye—both the world within the drop and a reflection of the surrounding world.
My favorite backgrounds include parallel tree trunks, splashes of lit leaves and flowers in a mostly shaded forest, pinpoint jewels of daylight shining through the trees, flowers that blur to color and soft shapes, sunlight sparkling on water. I also like including recognizable landscape features that reveal the location—nothing says Yosemite like a waterfall or Half Dome; nothing says the ocean like crashing surf.
The final piece of the composition puzzle is your focus point. This creative decision can make or break an image because the point of maximum sharpness is where your viewer’s eyes will land. In one case you might want to emphasize a leaf’s serrated edge; or maybe its the leaf’s intricate vein pattern you want to feature. Or maybe you’ll need to decide between the pollen clinging to a poppy’s stamen, or the sensual curve of the poppy’s petals. When I’m not sure, I take multiple frames with different focus points.
Exposing selective focus scenes is primarily a matter of spot-metering on the brightest element, almost always your primary subject, and dialing in an exposure that ensures that it won’t be blown out. Often this approach turns shaded areas quite dark, making your primary subject stand out more if you can align the two. Sometimes I’ll underexpose my subject slightly to saturate its color and further darken the background.
And let’s not overlook the importance of a good tripod. In general, the thinner the area of sharpness in an image, the more essential it is to nail the focus point. Even the unavoidable micro-millimeter shifts possible with hand-holding can make the difference between a brilliant success and an absolute failure.
Virtually all of my blurred background images are achieved in incremental steps. They start with a general concept that includes a subject and background, and evolve in repeating click, evaluate, refine, click, … cycles. In this approach, the only way to ensure consistent evolution from original concept to finished product is a tripod, which holds in place the scene I just clicked and am now evaluating—when I decide what my image needs, I have the scene sitting there atop my tripod, just waiting for my adjustments.
Posted on March 17, 2014
A couple of weeks ago the editors at “Outdoor Photographer” magazine asked me (and a few other pros) to contribute to an upcoming article on photography essentials, and it occurs to me that my blog readers might be interested to read my answers.Here’s my answer to the second of their three questions:
What are your three most important non-photo pieces of gear that you rely on for making your photographs and why do you rely on each of the three?
About this image
My GPS guided me to this remote, wildflower-dotted hillside, discovered the previous spring and now a regular destination on my annual spring foothill forays. The wildflower bloom varies greatly each year, so without the GPS sometimes it’s impossible to know whether I’ve found a spot that thrilled me the year before. In this case I found the bloom everything I dared to hope.
Rather than pull out my macro lens, I twisted an extension tube onto my 100-400 lens and went to work. Since there were virtually no shadows, the dynamic range wasn’t a problem, despite the bright, direct sunlight. Metering on the brightest part of the scene and underexposing by about one stop (about 2/3 stop above a middle tone) prevented the brightest highlights from washing out and saturated the color.
Most of my attention that afternoon went to the poppies, but here I concentrated on a group of small, purple wild onions and let the limited depth of field blur the poppies into the background. Clicking the same composition at a half dozen or so f-stops from f5.6 to f16 allowed me to defer my depth of field selection until I could view my images on my large monitor.