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.
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%.)
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.
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.
A crisp, sub-zero January afternoon shot looking across Grand Teton National Park taken on the way back home from a day of shooting.
A rather angry Trumpeter Swan scooting across Flat Creek on the north side of Jackson.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.