Planning an African photo safari

Africa - the dream of a lifetime but how do you plan for an extended photo safari? [caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="944"]Kruger-3715-Edit African lion in Kruger National Park[/caption] Kruger-3715-EditBig cats of South Africa   I recently returned from a two month photo safari in South Africa, truly a trip of a lifetime and want to share many of the things I learned in the planning, execution, and photography of this adventure. This is part one of a multi-part series of posts about South Africa and its photographic treasures. Continue reading "Planning an African photo safari"

Wyoming Total Eclipse Guide

wyoming total eclipse guideSastrugi Press is super excited for our new book to come out this month: Wyoming Total Eclipse Guide, the Commemorative Official Keepsake Guidebook. It’s loaded with eclipse photography specifics, safety info, and locations to shoot from.
If you want to photograph the eclipse over Wyoming, this book has specific locations to shoot from. It has specific locations to be in on August 21, 2017.
This book is a keepsake. Get a copy for each of your family members.
Each can write down their emotions and remember this unique and once-in-a-lifetime event in Wyoming. The back of the book has prompts for notes. Write down your personal experience with the total solar eclipse, the first in the US since 1979.
Continue reading "Wyoming Total Eclipse Guide"

Our Public Lands

There is no question that my favorite spots for nature photography are in our abundant public lands. I thought it would be worthwhile to take time and think for a few minutes about what our public lands are and why they are so important. Everyone knows that many parks are public lands - city parks, county parks, state parks, and, of course, national parks. America was the first country to create a national park - Yellowstone in 1872. The first national park was created to preserve the amazing beauty of the geo-thermal features, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, the other rivers and lakes, and the abundant and diverse wildlife. Yellowstone became a model for the world. Yellowstone 2016-3-8601-EditYellowstone 2016-3-8601-Edit Continue reading "Our Public Lands"

The Reality of a Photo Shoot

Have you ever dreamed about a lovely vacation shooting photos in an exotic location? What is it really like on assignment for a focused, extended photo shoot? I was fortunate to be able to take a multi-week photography assignment in the beautiful spring desert of southern Utah. During the shoot I tried to record activity, conditions, and details of the shooting.  I was on the road for 39 days - 3 for logistics and 36 for travel and shooting. I visited 5 National Parks, 5 National Monuments, 5 National Forests, 4 state parks, 2 scenic byways, 3 scenic back ways, and several undesignated public lands. The total travel was over 4,000 miles - 1,520 in the RV and 2610 in the Jeep - or about 106 miles per day.  I camped in 9 different locations and based the shooting time out of these campgrounds.

Arches-9089Arches-9089 Sounds like a lot of fun, right? I was up every day between 4 and 6 AM with the exception of three travel days when I slept-in until about 6:30. While there were good night sky conditions on 9 nights (25%) I had only three night shoots lasting until 11 PM or midnight but this was partially because of the weather. On most days I tried to shoot between around 5 or 6 AM and 10 AM and, often, again between 4 and 9 PM for the best lighting conditions.


Conditions are variable, at best, in the spring desert. On 23 of the nights (64%) the temperature dropped below 35 degrees but that was easy to handle with proper clothing.  The big problem was late afternoon and evening overcast and wind. On 21 of the days (58%) the wind was consistently above 20 mph. On 18 of the days (50%) gusts were above 30 mph. During one dawn shoot the wind in Dead Horse Point State Park was gusting to 57 mph and the temperature at the dawn shoot was 28 degrees - the joys of photography. With gusts to over 50 mph, I could barely keep my tripod upright, much less stable for long-exposure shots.

Good weather is also a problem for a photographer. The skies were gray and overcast during all of the day on 7 days (19%) but actually stormy on only one day (3%.) The sky was a boring, robin egg blue on 23 days (64%) making mid-day photography unproductive. There were "good" clouds on only 5 days (14%.)

Capitol Reef-1087Capitol Reef-1087

As far as photography goes, I shot a total of 4,569 shots during the 36 days of shooting or about 152 shots per day. I had no quota and tried to be relatively selective but yet capture multiple shots of each compelling subject. While I brought my usual cascade of gear including 3 camera bodies, 7 lenses from 17 to 600mm, 2 tripods, 3 light sources (strobe, ring, and LED), multiple filters, plus the usual spare batteries, memory cards, laptop, external hard drive, and endless connectors, I didn't shoot a single shot with the crop-sensor cameras or the lenses from 300-600mm. This is strange because in my usual wildlife photography around Jackson, I shoot about two-thirds of my shots with a crop sensor body and the 400-600mm lenses. What a difference for landscape work. I shot 3696 shots (81%) using a 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom, 275 shots (6%) with a 17-40mm f/4 wide-angle zoom, 270 shots (6%) with a 70-200mm f/2.8 short telephoto zoom, and the final 328 shots (7%) with the 70-200mm and a 1.4x teleconverter.


On the trip I visited Arches, Canyonlands (Island in the Sky and the Needles districts), Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Grand Canyon (north rim) National Parks. The national monuments visited included Natural Bridges, Grand Staircase Escalante, Vermilion Cliffs, Cedar Breaks, and Pipe Springs. The Utah state parks included Dead Horse Point, Newspaper Rock, Coral Pink Sand Dunes, and Kodachrome Basin.  The scenic drives between locations could be destinations in themselves.  I will be placing images of each of the locations in the Galleries under the National Parks and Public Lands tab on this website.

Despite the high winds and cold conditions, it was an experience of a lifetime.  Southern Utah and northern Arizona have together the largest concentration of National Parks, Monuments, and other public lands of any place in the world. While conditions are unbearable for much of the summer and variable during other months, the panoramic vistas, amazing rock formations and bewildering array of flora will provide a desert experience second to none.


Looking back at 2013

2013 was, by every regard, a banner year for Natural Photography. It was the first full operational year, it was a time for acquiring new, and needed, equipment, gear, and editing software, and it was a year of learning about the region, fellow photographers, and important techniques that will serve me in the future. It was a year of networking with the Teton Photography Group and helping the group mature as an organization. It was a year of monumental wildlife observation and photographic opportunities.

Many people like to look back at the previous year to help plan for the next year. I have observed other photographers posting their "year in review" and decided to look back at 2013 and share a single photograph from each month that had personal meaning to me. These are not necessarily the 'best' shots, or the most successful shots in terms of sales, but rather are those that touched me because of where or how they were made.  I hope you enjoy them.


GrosVentre-1263-EditGrosVentre-1263-Edit2013 Photo of the month A crisp, sub-zero January afternoon shot looking across Grand Teton National Park taken on the way back home from a day of shooting.


Jackson-2763Jackson-27632013 Photo of the month

A rather angry Trumpeter Swan scooting across Flat Creek on the north side of Jackson.


Kelly-4888Kelly-48882013 Photo of the month

I was walking through the woods along the Gros Ventre River in Grand Teton National Park waiting for a herd of elk to cross the river on their migration north when I was surprised by this touching scene of mom and two calf moose.


GTNP-6161GTNP-61612013 Photo of the month

My first view of the famous grizzly bear #610 only a couple of days after she came out of hibernation with her 3 two year-old cubs and headed for the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park.


Yellowstone 5D-2326Yellowstone 5D-23262013 Photo of the month

Our second trip of the season to Yellowstone National Park and we were treated to a private showing of the spectacular 309 foot, Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River.


GTNP-7D-8759GTNP-7D-87592013 Photo of the month

 Spring arrives in the back country of Grand Teton National Park and the yellow-belly marmots are out to celebrate the warm sunshine and make me laugh at their antics.


Devil's Tower-5D-5168Devil's Tower-5D-51682013 Photo of the month

On a summer trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota, we took a side trip to Wyoming's Devil's Tower National Monument and shot the monolith at night with the help of some "light painting" provided by a group of other photographers about 1/2 mile away.


Jackson-7227-EditJackson-7227-Edit2013 Photo of the month

Shopping at the Saturday morning Farmer's Market in Jackson, we came upon a rare Eurasian owl being shown by a representative of the Teton Raptor Center. I paused for a "selfie" in the reflection in the great bird's pupil.


yellowstone-6 5D-9576-Edityellowstone-6 5D-9576-Edit2013 Photo of the month

A chance of a lifetime came up in the fall when we were asked to help in the Yellowstone Association Bookstore at the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center. We spent almost 7 weeks in the park and found a new viewpoint to enjoy the famous Grand Prismatic Spring in the Midway Geyser Basin.


Yellowstone-7 7D-2990Yellowstone-7 7D-29902013 Photo of the month

On one of our many visits to Yellowstone this year we found a pack of gray wolves near Soda Butte and while watching for nearly an hour, this young black wandered practically up to our Jeep, laid down, and gave his blood-curdling howl to the rest of the pack.


Jackson-3445Jackson-34452013 Photo of the month

Wonders of nature never cease in Jackson, Wyoming. I was in my office editing photos when this poor little Northern Pygmy Owl, chased by a couple of Magpies, crashed into my door. The poor thing was knocked out and on its back and I went out to try to warm it from the cold. It stood up, pupils unequal, and shook its head. Fortunately after about 15 minutes it regained its equilibrium and flew into an Aspen where after about an hour, seemed to recover and flew away.


Alpine-4463Alpine-44632013 Photo of the month

The mountain goats of Alpine, Wyoming came down early this year due to heavy October snow and frigid temperatures. More than 30 play along the road and on the cliffs of the Snake River Canyon south of Jackson.


More than 25,000 shots taken and almost 20,000 added to my archives in 2013, more than 1,000 new images available on this site and now on Flickr, and these were the 12 with special meaning to me.  Please join us on Facebook for more frequent updates. I hope you enjoyed viewing these images as much as I did making them. Happy 2014.



Getting started in wildlife photography – Part 2

In Part 1 of this post, I discussed basic styles of wildlife photography, camera and lens options, and two elements of exposure. In this section I want to complete exposure considerations and address composition in wildlife photography.

We know when photographing animals, a high shutter speed is usually necessary to avoid motion blur due to movement of the subject or camera shake. We also know that to obtain a high shutter speed we need to open the aperture to allow more light to reach the sensor. But what do we do in the early morning and late afternoon when there is less available light and we are unable to get an adequate exposure at a high shutter speed?  The last element of the exposure triangle is ISO or the sensitivity of the sensor to light.  ISO is similar to the ASA rating of film - the higher the ASA, the more sensitive to light. The downside of higher ASA film is graininess of the image; the downside of higher ISO is the induction of digital noise into the image.  

Digital camera sensors create an image in response to light turning on photo-sensitive pixels in the sensor.  A small number of the millions of pixels in the modern sensor can 'discharge' spontaneously. Normally, these spontaneous pixel activations go un-noticed but when the image is under-exposed many more of the spontaneous activations are present for every intended light-activation of pixels. These spontaneous activations create small spots on the image that we call digital noise. There are two common types of digital noise chrominance (color) noise and luminance (monochromatic) noise.  Chrominance noise results in random speckles of color seen in black or dark areas of the image.  Luminance noise results in random speckles of gray throughout the image. The higher the set ISO, the more digital noise is introduced into the image.  Fortunately, all digital cameras have noise suppression programs built into the software. Furthermore, when images are shot in a JPEG mode, additional noise reduction is applied in the JPEG conversion. RAW images do not have this second noise suppression algorithm applied and typically have much more noise than JPEG images.  Post-production editing software has very sophisticated noise reduction algorithms than can reduce both the color and luminance noise at the cost of losing some image sharpness. Part of the post-production workflow for RAW images is to sharpen and apply noise reduction.  There must be a balance between these two processes because sharpening causes noise to be more prominent and noise reduction causes a lack of sharpness.

Two factors that can ruin a great photo even more than improper exposure are lack of focus or blurring of the subject.  Most of today's dSLR cameras have great auto-focusing systems that are reliable in good lighting conditions. In low light conditions or when the subject is partially obscured by bushes or trees, manual focusing can be needed. Even with proper focus on the subject there can be blur or loss of sharpness if the subject or the camera moves during the exposure. It is important to keep your shutter speed high when photographing wildlife. A good rule of thumb is the shutter speed should be faster than 1 / effective focal length of the lens. The effective focal length is the actual focal length times the crop factor of the camera. This helps to prevent camera shake that will blur or soften your image.  Image stabilization in the lens or camera may allow slower shutter speeds when shooting hand-held images.

Even with high shutter speeds and image stabilization longer focal length lenses usually need mechanical stabilization in the form of a tripod or other support mechanism.  A sturdy tripod is usually the best way to get sharp images. Other tools that can reduce camera shake are to use a cable or electronic shutter release mechanism to avoid contact with the camera during the exposure. With super-telephoto lenses (greater than 400mm actual focal length) it is often helpful to use the mirror lock-up function of your dSLR to reduce the vibration of the mirror movement during exposure. This can be done by switching to the 'live view' mode on the camera LCD display or a dedicated two step mirror lock-up followed by the actual shutter release.

Finally, we move to the most difficult part of good wildlife photography, composition.  Good composition takes time and experience to learn. Two 'rules' often applied to wildlife photography are 1) fill the frame with the subject and, 2) the rule of thirds - placing the subject at the intersection of horizontal and vertical lines dividing the image into thirds. Another 'high value' rule to to have the subject looking into the frame rather than to the outer edge of the image.  Framing the primary subject with grass, bushes, rocks, trees or the landscape often creates a pleasing image. Lastly, patterns and leading lines help to focus the viewer's attention on the subject. I will post more thoughts about composition in wildlife and nature photography in another post.

Wildlife photography requires the perfect mix of subject, location, lighting, gear, technique, and composition. It also requires that the photographer be ready to shoot on a moment's notice and, more often than not, a little luck.  Good shooting.

Getting started in wildlife photography – Part 1

It has been a while since I have written about the technical aspects of photography and I thought it would be good to dive into a discussion about the broad field of wildlife photography. It is a big subject so I'll cover it in two separate postings.

I moved to Jackson, Wyoming last year primarily to be closer to nature and to the amazing wildlife in this part of the country. As a 'nature photographer,' I enjoy all aspects of outdoor photography from landscapes to wildlife to macro-photography, but it is wildlife that really gets me excited. When I write about wildlife photography I really mean WILD-life - not pets, zoo animals, or critters in cages of any sort, but real wildlife out in the open, fending for themselves. I like all sorts of wildlife from large carnivores to birds, grazers, cute little rodents, insects and other invertebrates and each of these families of critters bring different challenges to the photographer.

There are really three 'styles' of wildlife photography and each has its individual rewards. First, and most common, are wildlife portraits. You find a great animal out in a natural setting and are close enough to capture its image close up. Second, there are the beautiful scenic shots (below) with a magnificent animal in the foreground. Third, are the behavioral shots (see blog cover photo)when the critter you have found is doing its thing in an animated and interesting manner.  The preparation and gear required to capture each of these styles of images is modified by the physical size of the animal you are shooting. 

GTNP-5D-4011GTNP-5D-4011Bison - the American Buffalo It goes without saying that a quality digital single-lens reflex (dSLR) camera body is the choice of most wildlife photographers but that doesn't mean that you can't capture great images with a super-zoom or even a point and shoot camera. I remember a few months ago staking out a black bear in Yellowstone for over two hours. I had a 600mm super-telephoto lens mounted on a sturdy tripod ready to go but the bear stayed in the bushes always partially concealed from my view. I packed up ready to move on when the bear took off across the road in front of a car giving the woman in the car a better shot with her phone camera in 20 seconds than I had in hours that cold Yellowstone morning. But good photography requires more than luck - you want to be able to capture good images, reliably, under many conditions. The dSLR is the best choice.

The next issue is the selection of lenses that will give your camera the best image. Wildlife photographers are always looking for the "big glass" but there are two types of 'big' that you must consider. Many times when photographing wildlife you cannot get as close as you would like to be - either because the subject will leave your field of view or the subject is bigger than the photographer and, therefore, demands space. So big lenses are usually part of every wildlife photographer's arsenal but how big is necessary? The answer is, it depends.

Many (most?) times you will want to 'fill the frame' with your subject. So the smaller the subject the closer you must be or the larger your lens must be. Generally, most start with a moderate telephoto lens in the 200-300 mm focal length range. These lenses are small enough and light enough to carry for a significant distance and yet will give a significant 'reach' to your subject. If you are using a crop sensor, rather than a full frame sensor, camera you will see even a smaller angle of view giving the appearance of more magnification. Typically, most APS-C size sensors have a 'crop factor' of 1.5x or 1.6x thus increasing the effective focal length of your lens by the crop factor. Effectively, you get more bang for your buck using a telephoto lens on a crop sensor camera body.

Another way to extend the reach of your lens is by adding a tele-converter (sometimes called a tele-extender) between the lens and camera. These converters increase the effective focal length of the telephoto lens that is attached by a factor of 1.4x or 2x. Doing the math, you can see that a 200 mm telephoto lens on a 1.6x crop sensor and a 1.4x teleconverter give you an effective focal length of 448 mm (200 x 1.6 x 1.4). A 2x tele-converter would increase the effective focal length even more to 640 mm. The increased effective focal length with a converter comes with a significant cost - reduced light to the sensor. A 1.4x converter reduces the maximum aperture of the lens by 1 stop and the 2x converter reduces it by 2 stops. This raises the second requirement for wildlife lenses - they must be 'fast.'

Generally, the best shooting of wildlife is in early morning and late afternoon as the sun is rising or setting. This means a high likelihood of shooting in low light situations. Low light means you will need a large aperture, long shutter speed, or high ISO  for proper exposure.  (See the Exposure Triangle, 2/21/13, and Where to Start with Exposure, 2/27/13 blog posts.)  A long shutter speed is almost never a good option using a telephoto lens because of the chance of image blur due to 'camera shake' or movement of the subject.  The rule of thumb is that the shutter speed should equal or be faster than 1 / effective focal length. So your 200mm lens on a crop sensor camera with a 1.4x converter means your slowest shutter speed should be 1/640 seconds or more practically, 1/1000th second. That is fast enough to eliminate blur from camera shake and to freeze (slow) movement of your subject but how do you get enough light to the sensor? The answer is a large aperture.  So the second 'big' in wildlife lenses is a large diameter aperture - ideally f/4 or larger. The large aperture allows more light to reach the sensor in the time the shutter is open. Unfortunately, a large aperture is the major cost of a lens - more glass equals more money.

We will address the last of the exposure issues and other ways to improve your wildlife photography in the next posting. Until then happy shooting.

Six months old – and going (fairly) strong

It is hard to believe that it's been more than 6 weeks since my last posting but it is even harder to believe that Natural Photography is 6 months old!

It has been a very busy summer shooting and traveling to unique sites and more of our public lands. (That's my excuse and I'm stickin' to it - for the long delay since the last posting.) On the other hand, the website has been extensively updated with a dozen new photo galleries and many additional photos added to previously existing galleries. The revisions add galleries for new national parks and public lands visits but also add many more specific species and settings in which to locate wildlife photos that may be most interesting to you. Specifically, there are new galleries in the Fauna section for mountain goats, bison, and pronghorn and new galleries for waterfowl, wild canines, small mammals, and, a sure favorite, babies and young-in's.

Besides many more photos from Yellowstone, I have added seasonal sections for our Jackson Hole neighbor, Grand Teton National Park. A recent trip to South Dakota allowed shooting at Devil's Tower National Monument, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Crazy Horse Memorial, Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, Badlands National Park, and the wonderful Custer State Park, South Dakota.

On the business side, I have added password-protected areas for individual clients to view pending orders and requested focused photo catalog previews for easier item selection. I have added a similar feature for commercial clients who want to view specific photos and other products. This area is also password-protected for each commercial client. I am hopeful that these customized folders will help you more efficiently select items that will best meet your specific needs. Both areas allow direct electronic communication to answer your questions and expedite your orders.

Finally, while I have been delinquent in posting to this blog, I have been more diligent in posting to Facebook. (  While the Facebook page is more intended for fun and frequent updates on activities, some of the Facebook photos are also available for view or purchase on the website. If you have a specific interest in any of the Facebook photos, they can be made available in a full-size, high-resolution format for any of the products listed on this site.

I hope you are able to get away this summer and enjoy nature close-up in your favorite location but if your travels are limited you can always vicariously join our travel on this site or Facebook. Have a GREAT summer and thanks for visiting Natural Photography.


Yellowstone – a nature and wildlife photographer’s paradise

I get a lot of comments and questions about my many photos from Yellowstone National Park (YNP) so I thought I would give a very quick overview of the park and some of its best known treasures.

Current road status map

Yellowstone is the world's first national park dedicated to preserving the uniqueness of the natural beauty of our country for future generations. It was established as a model for all national parks in 1872 and its history has been colorful and controversial.  Most of YNP lies withing the state of Wyoming but it extends into Montana and Idaho.

There are 5 major highway entrances to the park. The Grand Highway of Yellowstone is a giant figure of eight, paved highway connecting most of the park's main attractions.  Gardiner, MT is the north entrance to the park headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs and is the only entrance that is open to automobiles year round. The northeast entrance is near Cooke City, MT and leads to Tower Falls on the north part of the figure eight. It is closed to autos in the winter months when the Bear Tooth highway is closed.  Access to the east entrance is from Cody, WY  to the Lake Village / Fishing Bridge area and this entrance is closed in the winter. The south entrance is one of the most popular routes into the park from Jackson, WY through Grand Teton National Park and the Rockefeller Parkway. The south entrance is closed to autos in the winter but Flag Ranch (near the south entrance) is a popular entrance for snow coach tours and snowmobiles. Finally, West Yellowstone, MT is a popular tourist town and center for winter activities near the west entrance to YNP.  The road leads to Madison Junction and then south to Old Faithful or north to Norris Geyser Basin. 

There are literally thousands of attractions to YNP but the "big five" are probably Old Faithful Geyser, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Mammoth Hot Springs, Lake Yellowstone, and the large animal populations of the Hayden and Lamar valleys.  Old Faithful at sunsetYellowstone-5D-3765 Old Faithful geyser, on the west side of the south loop, is one of more than ten thousand thermal features in the park that include geysers, fumaroles and steam vents, hot pools, and boiling mud pots. There are about four times as many active thermal features in Yellowstone as the rest of the world total.  Old Faithful is named such because of its regularity of eruption - about every 70-90 minutes. Other geysers are larger and more spectacular but the predictability of Old Faithful and its closeness to parking and lodging make it a crowd favorite.  The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River Yellowstone 5D-2326 is at the east junction of the north and south loop roads.  This is where Yellowstone got its name and is the home of the two largest waterfalls in the park.  The canyon carved by the Yellowstone River is up to 1200 feet deep, three-quarters of a mile wide, and 24 miles long. The Upper Falls is 109 feet and the lower Falls is 308 feet in height and both are readily view-able with short walks from the many parking areas.  Mammoth Hot Springs in summerYellowstone_2009-537

Mammoth Hot Springs is near the park headquarters at the north entrance.  Once the center for tourism with its terraced hot springs and colorful stone formations, the springs are seeing less water flow and becoming bleached white as their thermal activity decreases.  Lake Yellowstone is the source of its namesake river and the largest and deepest lake above 7,000 feet altitude in North America. Its cold, deep, blue water has a shoreline of 110 miles and an average depth of 139 feet. Yellowstone 5D-2376-Edit-2  Finally, while nearly all of YNP has abundant wildlife, nowhere are the large animals more visible than the great valleys of Lamar, near the northeast entrance, and Hayden, between Canyon and Lake Village. In these valleys are huge herds of bison numbering in the many hundreds, elk, mule and white-tail deer, pronghorn, black and grizzly bear, wolf, coyote, and many large bird species and small mammals.  Roadside parking and the broad vistas make wildlife viewing as simple as picking up your binoculars.

I could go on for hours about all of the other attractions but remember the 310 miles of paved road (466 miles total) and 1,100 miles of developed trails from 92 trail heads access only a tiny fraction of the park's 2.2 million acres. There is truly an unlimited amount of outdoor  activity throughout Yellowstone. People ask, "How long should I plan to see the park?" The answer is as much time as you have but it takes at least 3 full days and two nights in or near the park just to drive to the major attractions. They also ask, "What month is best to visit?" All of the months are great and offer tremendously different views of the park. The north entrance is open to autos year round but the other entrances vary in opening from around late April to mid-May and start closing in October. Yellowstone is at high elevation, 6,500 to over 8,000 feet, and snow can and does come every month of the year. There is winter snowmobile and snow coach access from both the south and west entrances and great snowmobiling out of the park from the northeast entrance.  There are over 3 million visitors annually with the vast majority coming in July and August. Locals will tell you that May and September are the "best" months because there are fewer visitors.

I hope you enjoy some of the photos of the park and that they will stimulate your interest in visiting this word treasure.

High Dynamic Range (HDR) Photography

High Dynamic Range (HDR), what is it, why should I know about it, and what can it do to broaden my photography? Three simple questions so often raised by those new to digital photography that are often difficult to answer. In this post I will try to give a straight forward overview of HDR that will allow you to experiment with the techniques to determine if HDR has a place in your photographic armamentarium.  

First, what is dynamic range? Dynamic range defines the breadth of luminosities that can be visualized. Luminosity is the term used to define the brightness of an object.  Luminosity along with hue (color) and saturation (intensity of color) determine how we see an object or the image of an object. Our eyes have an incredible ability to detect light simultaneously at low and high luminosity. This range is typically quantified in exposure values (EV) or more often as f-stops.  One EV or one stop is the equivalent of doubling the about of light. The dynamic range of our eyes is about 18-24 stops - a huge range of light intensity from dark shadows to very bright highlights. Cameras don't do so well.  A single image captured with a film camera may retain image detail over about 8 stops; a digital image captured with a very high-end dSLR camera may retain detail over a range of about 10-12 stops.  In other words, our very best cameras cannot process an image with variations in tonality or brightness as well as our eyes.

This was a big problem in the days of film when painstaking dodging and burning were done in the darkroom but with the advent of digital imaging and sophisticated processing software we are able to produce HDR images with a tonal resolution nearly equal to our eyes. The theory of how this is done is simple. By capturing multiple images at different exposures, the processing software can use the low luminosity data from over-exposed images and high luminosity from under-exposed images and combine and process the data to give a greatly expanded dynamic range.  In other word HDR gives you the ability to extract more image detail from both the bright and dark areas of a scene giving the image a feel closer to what you visualized with your eyes. However, overdoing HDR processing can transform a good image into a quirky, over-done, cartoon-ish image that has too much contrast and is too highly saturated. HDR can create a surrealistic feel to an image that may be desirable or not.

What subjects make the best HRD images? First, static subjects are usually much more appropriate for HDR processing than moving subjects. Subjects with texture and a wide range of tonality (variations between bright and dark) are often best for HDR. Often subjects with bright and highly saturated colors can be dramatic in HDR. People or wildlife that are stationary may be imaged using HDR processing but moving people or objects create problems with the processing and often do not work well.

You can imagine that the way to expand dynamic range of an image is to capture the bright and dark areas of a scene by intentionally over and under exposing the subject and that is exactly what we do. The shooting technique is to capture three or more identical images at different exposures. Always shoot in RAW format because you heed a large bit-depth to process the final image and JPEGs will always disappoint you when shooting HDR.  To be certain that the images are identical it is desirable to use a tripod and capture the multiple images as rapidly as possible using the high-speed burst exposure mode of your dSLR.  Most dSLRs allow you to use a mode called auto-bracket exposure - in other words, the camera rapidly captures 3 or more images at the exposure you have set and at an exposure that is intentionally over and under exposing the image.  The exact way you do this is important. Your camera should be on a tripod and the mode set to aperture priority (Av on Canon and A on Nikon.) The reason for using aperture priority is that you want to change the exposure by changing shutter speed not aperture. If aperture were to change, you would create images with different depths-of-field and so focus/sharpness would be different between the highlights and the shadows.  You can see why you want a static, non-moving subject because the variation of shutter speed and the timing of the multiple exposures would cause variation in the sharpness and position of the subject. This produces an artifact in the processed image called ghosting (more later.) Finally, you want your exposure bracketing to be at least 3-6 total stops.  That is, if you are shooting 3 bracketed exposures, the shutter speeds should be a minimum of one to two stops higher and lower that the ideal metered shutter speed resulting in images that are significantly over and under exposed. I typically set my HDR bracketing on my 7D at 1 1/3 stops for three shots in a moderately well lighted scene. If there is large variation between the shadows and highlights I will increase the bracketing to 1 2/3 or 2 stops.  The 7D like many dSLRs will only shoot 3 bracketed shots. On my 5DIII I set the bracketing at one stop and shoot 5 to seven bracketed shots.  I generally shoot two sets of images for each composition and I try to remember to shoot each set in both horizontal and vertical formats.

Now that you have captured the images it is time to look at HDR processing. Some of today's newest cameras allow HDR processing in the camera. That said, most photographers want the control of post-production software to refine and tune their images to meet their exact needs. There are many dedicated HDR programs that work independently or with Adobe Photoshop to create the processed image. Each program has pros and cons beyond the scope of this introduction. The good news is that most of these programs can be down-loaded for a free trial period so you can choose the one with the features and results that you want. The two most popular stand-alone programs seem to be Photomatrix by HDRSoft and HDR Efex Pro by Nik Software.  Both of these also work as plug-ins with Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. There are also a growing number of free and shareware programs and, of course, Photoshop itself does HDR processing and this was my personal choice.

A highly processed HDR imageNew Hampshire--3 Each HDR program collects, aligns, and processes the 3-9 individual, bracketed images you have shot and down-loaded. The 12 or 14-bit images are converted to a huge 32-bit image for processing so you can imagine that you need some pretty sophisticated processing power in your computer. The images ate 'tone-mapped' to select the highlights and shadows that will have the most detail for the final image. Once the mapping is done you have the ability to select how you want to process the final image in terms of contrast, saturation, exposure, and the 'strength' of the HDR effect. All of the programs have a variety of presets to help you get close to your desired effect.  You also have the ability to eliminate ghosting that may be present if there was movement in the scene during capture or incomplete alignment due to camera movement.  Lastly, the image will be outputted for viewing as a very large PSD or TIFF file or as a compressed JPEG.

The results of HDR processing may surprise you, please you, or enrage you. You will have a new image that is high in contrast, color saturation, and details beyond what you could imagine. Done tastefully (dare I say properly) HDR images are a wonderful addition to your photographic repertoire but, overdone, they are less than pleasing. In all cases, HDR processing will give you new insights to your photography so you should give it a try.