Nature Photography   Ed Frank
  Apr 11, 2004 17:09 PDT 


A friend of mine recently asked me to critique some of his photographs.
That is a hard job. You are unsure if he really wants a critique or just
compliments. Fortunately the photographs are good and I do not need to
face Occam’s Razor. There are a many people on this list who are
serious photographers, and many others who take photographs for their
own enjoyment. I decided to post some general comments about
photography and see where it leads.

With modern 35 mm and digital cameras there is no good reason not to
have a technically good photograph. Many of the cameras are auto-focus
and auto-exposure and generally take acceptable photographs. I see two
main problems in many of the pictures people show me. In spite of using
have fast film and a good camera many photos are still blurry from
camera shake. In dim light the shutter speed is often still too low to
be able to consistently take hand held pictures without blurring. If
you want sharp photographs even in moderate lighting conditions use a
tripod. In my video work I never shoot without using a tripod. I drag
one with me everywhere. Even a mini-pod is better than nothing. In
lieu of a tripod brace the camera on a solid surface (such as a tree) to
help prevent camera shake. A beanbag is small, relatively light, and
easy to carry and works well in the field. You can use the plastic bag
straight from the store or put it inside a more rugged cloth bag. At
least practice hand holding the camera. Stand with your feet slightly
spread. Place one hand under the camera and rest your elbow on your
chest and stomach. Take a deep breath and slowly squeeze the shutter.
A blurry picture can’t be fixed with computer processing.

The second problem is poor lighting. With auto-exposure people do not
tend to worry about lighting. However when the subject is backlit, the
exposure always turn out wrong with the main subject underexposed. If
you are using film, bracket your exposures, using the same shutter speed
open up the f-stop to let more light reach the film. Some cameras don’t
let you operate them manually. Many can be tricked by simply changing
the ASA setting for the film. If you have a digital camera read your
manual and find out how to deal with back lighting. Exposure problems
to some extent can be helped with digital processing. The darker
pictures often have the picture information in the poorly lit areas that
can be brought out with proper processing. Overexposed pictures
generally have lost all detail in the overexposed areas and can’t be
fixed. In any case the overall quality is better if the exposure is
corrected when the picture is taken.

If the pictures are in focus and properly exposed, the major
consideration is aesthetics. Ask yourself why you are taking this
picture? That will determine how it should be composed. The are three
broad reasons for taking pictures: 1) Artistry, the attempt to produce a
photograph that aesthetically beautiful; 2) Personal History, pictures
taken to document some event in your life or someone else’s life; 3)
Documentation, pictures taken to document some specific object or event,
generally for scientific purposes. Each category has its own criteria.

If the goal is artistry, then care must be taken with each aspect of the
picture in order to bring all of the details together into one image.
Is the lighting perfect? If not you may need to come back again and
again, or wait until the light is just right. What elements do you want
to include in the image? What of the color palette? The framing? The
pattern and texture? The choices are myriad. Remember that generally
an artistic photograph must stand on its own merits.

If the goal is personal history the criteria are different. Of course
you want the pictures to be good, but the overriding goal is to document
events as they are happening. Most photographs fall into this category.
If someone is graduating high school, you want pictures of the event
even if the lighting is not perfect, even if there is someone dressed in
a hideous hat off to the side, you simply want the pictures to document
this moment in your life. You need to take the best pictures you can
given the circumstances, but... Pictures showing some sort of action
are always good. Take an establishing shot showing an overview of the
area. Take pictures of the people involved. Keep a record of their
names. Try to tell a story with a series of images.

If the goal is documentation there is third set of criteria. You want
the object being photographed to be the center of attention. Scale is
important. I have pictures of a group of trilobites on a piece of
shale. I used a plastic ruler to provide scale for the image. Across
the middle of the ruler I wrote in felt tip pen the name of the geologic
formation, and age of the rock. This provided the critical information
needed by anyone viewing the photo. A second consideration in
documentary photography is how the images are going to be presented.
Often the photos are viewed as part of a series rather than
individually. When taking them plan on telling a story and make sure you
have all of the images needed to tell that story. Like was suggested
above, take an establishing shot. Let the viewers know what they are
seeing. If you are shooting a tree climb, for example, take a broad
picture showing an overview of the tree. The close-ups are important,
but viewers want to place what they seeing is some sort of context.
Show the climbers. Take a picture of their equipment. Action images
and details are both important. Make sure you get all of the pictures
you need to fully document feature you are photographing. Many times
you will not be able to go back and reshoot later...either the
circumstances will have changed, the feature will be gone, or simply the
press of time will prevent it. Don’t pass up serendipitous
opportunities for a great photo, chance is always in play. But most
importantly plan what pictures you are going to take and make sure you
get the pictures you need.

Book Recommendations:

John Shaw, “Focus on Nature, The Creative Process Behind Making Great
Photographs In The Field.”

John Shaw, “The Nature Photographer’s Complete Guide To Professional
Filed Techniques.”

Boyd Norton, “The Art of Outdoor Photography, Techniques for the
Advanced Amateur and Professional.”

Jim Bradenburg, “Chased by the Light, A Ninety Day Journey.”

Ed Frank
Re: Nature Photography   Phil LaBranche
  Apr 11, 2004 18:52 PDT 

    That all sounds good to me. I started out doing nature photography, and
ended up opening my own studio. I figured the studio would give me more
time and money to do what I loved-nature photography. However, I had less
of both. Quality cameras aren't that expensive, or difficult to use. I
used strictly 35mm, and had no problems at all. I can't stress how
important a tripod is, even though it can be a nuisance to carry. I think a
lot of people would be surprised how easy great photographs can be, with a
little work and know how. A great photo relies more on the technique of the
photographer, than the glitz of the camera or film.

Phil LaBranche

RE: Nature Photography   Joseph Zorzin
  Apr 12, 2004 04:39 PDT 

  The second problem is poor lighting.

Use of a flash, even on a very bright day, can fix lighting problems,
especially on a modern camera which can determine the lighting on the
main subject and offer up just the right amount of light to properly
expose that subject. In the woods, you almost always need a flash to
avoid sharp shadows- unless of course it's a bright cloudy day.

My friend Dave Gafney, sells a CD called "50 Tips to Outdoor
Photography"- he has a web site on the subject at