In the August 2011 issue of the Artisan Notebook ™ we take a look at how to scrap your nature photographs. In a previous issue of the Artisan Notebook ™ Debb Cozzi wrote the following primer providing information and inspiration for capturing the beauty of nature with your photographs. We share this article with you here and hope you might use these ideas in your photography. Once you have some great nature photos in hand be sure and pick up this month’s issue of the Artisan Notebook ™ for ideas about how best to scrap them.
Our family loves to hike the Sierra Nevada mountains. We are blessed to be able to spend several weeks most summers in the Lake Tahoe basin. Over the years I have made it my goal to take these opportunities to improve my photographic skills. I have to say that the single most beneficial step toward achieving that goal was when I switched from a film camera to a DSLR. The improvement had less to do with the quality of the equipment and much more to do with the benefits that are inherent in digital photography. Namely the ability to take an unlimited number of photos without concern for development costs and the opportunity to get immediate feedback by viewing the photos on my LCD screen moments after the shot has been taken.
Learning to become a competent nature photographer requires a couple of things; first-get outside in nature and start taking photos-LOTS of photos, experiment, play and don’t hesitate to take a shot. The more you study nature and the resultant photos that you take of nature the better your photos will become. Second, remember that nature photography, like all types of photography depends on some basic fundamentals. Namely, subject, lighting, composition, color and focus..
Subject is the most basic of all photographic fundamentals. It is, simply put, the objects you choose to photograph. Choose subjects that interest you when taking nature photographs. Zero in on those things within a setting that speak to you on an emotional level. Often, when I am hiking I can be overwhelmed by the overall scene. Trying to take panoramas of everything I’m seeing as I scan a vista usually results in uninteresting, flat photos. It is only when I zero in on some aspect of a scene that my photos generally become more interesting to the viewer.
Other things to remind yourself of when taking nature photos is to move in close to your subject, either physically or with a telephoto lens. Don’t always stay at eye level; get down on your knees or even your belly. Try looking at things from unexpected angles. Not only will you find yourself taking some interesting shots you will also give your hiking companions something to tease you about. If they are not photographers themselves they can at least join in the fun as they watch you try to get into position to get that perfect shot.
Lighting is perhaps the most critical of all photographic principles . Finding, “the right light” and using it effectively can mean the difference between a good photo and a great one. It is often said that the quality of light is of far more importance than the quality of the equipment you use. There are three important aspects of light to keep in mind; contrast, direction and color.
Have you ever taken a photo and been disappointed with the outcome because the scene you photographed is not as vivid as the scene you see before you? The main reason for this is the difference in the dynamic range between what the human eye can see and what film or a digital sensor can record. Currently the dynamic range of color film is about 1/4 of what the human eye can see and the dynamic range of digital sensors is about 1/3 that of the human eye.
To compensate for this difference in dynamic range it is important that you understand the idea of controlling contrast. Some of the ways for you to control contrast include selecting scenes or subjects with moderate contrast. Avoid taking photos in high intensity light such as at high-noon. Look for scenes and subjects where the shadowing is even (shoot in the shade, morning twilight, evening dusk and in overcast weather.) Create a diffuser using a hat, umbrella, reflective rocks or other reflective elements you might find in the environment. Use a fill-flash.
The more you train your eye to recognize contrast the easier it is to exploit it to your benefit. Often you can use the limited dynamic range to create some interesting graphic effects. You can use it to darken intrusive backgrounds and create pleasing chiaroscuro effects and haunting silhouettes.
You will also want to pay attention to the direction of the light. Sidelight is defined as light striking the side of a subject relative to the camera position. This is an excellent way of generating fine shadow details and is especially effective at low angles when the heavy shadows are cast away from the subject.
Backlight is defined as light striking the back of the subject relative to the camera position. This is a tricky type of lighting to work with because of the problems of flaring, ghosting, color de-saturation and other exposure complications. However, it is also capable of producing some dramatic photo effects. It can add a corona to fur, hair or feathers, make colors “jump” in translucent subjects and can be especially effective with subjects that have fine, feathery silhouettes.
Front and top lighting (light that shines directly on the subject as they are facing toward the camera and light that shines directly above the subject) should be avoided when possible. The reason for this is because photos taken with this type of lighting tend to lack fine detail shadows. The one exception to this might be when you find yourself in deep forest with a top light streaming through the trees to illuminate something on the forest floor.
Diffuse lighting is omni-directional coming from all directions and is characterized by little or no shadow. Because it has the most even contrast diffuse lighting is fantastic for capturing colors with maximum saturation. Diffuse lighting most often occurs when it is overcast, foggy or shady. It also occurs in the early morning hours and at evening twilight.
Light also can have color qualities. One of the best ways to enhance the quality of a photo is to look for those instances where light is especially colorful. This type of light often occurs early in the morning and late in the afternoon when the Earth’s atmosphere filters out cooler wavelengths of light and passes through warmer wavelengths like reds and oranges. One of my favorite things to do is to set the alarm clock and get up before the sun rises and head out to a favorite nature spot that you have visited previously. As the sun rises it will produce some sublime colors that are not visible at any other time of the day. Moisture, mist, fog, smoke and other air-borne particles can also generate some unusual colors. Look for opportunities to take advantage of the magic color of light.
The next photographic fundamental we want to take a look at is composition. Composition is the craft of arranging your subject in the most graphically compelling manner possible. Perhaps because it involves the most artistry composition is one of the hardest fundamentals to learn and master. There are however some things that can help you with your composition. For instance, always keep your basic message in mind when composing a photo. Ask yourself, why am I taking this photo? What is it about this scene that compels me? What exactly do I want the viewer to see and to feel?
As we have discussed previously part of your composition will be determined by the direction of the lighting. Always try to compose your shot for optimal lighting.
Also, when composing your photograph; keep things simple! Don’t try to include too much in your photo. A good composition is about selectively choosing the important things you want the viewer to focus on.
Here is a suggestion that might sound simplistic but when you are composing a shot go with what looks good to you. Sometimes we can get ourselves so tangled up in following compositional rules and worrying about what might look good to others that we loose the enjoyment of simply capturing a moment. There are some common rules and guidelines you can follow when composing a photo but never let those rules get in the way of spontaneity and instinct.
When composing a shot it is a good general rule of thumb to off-center your subject. The idea behind composition is that you as the photographer takes control of the viewers eye and lead them through the photo in a way that you desire. Good composition should act like a “guided tour” through your photo taking the viewer from one point of interest to the next.
When you compose a shot you want to pay attention to the background. What is going on behind your subject? You don’t want the background to be distracting or have disconcerting juxtapositions (like a pole seeming to come out of someone’s head.) Likewise you want to pay attention to the foreground of your photos. Camera optics can disproportionately magnify foreground objects so that a blade of grass, an errant leaf of a small pebble can becoming a distracting nuisance to your focal point.
When you are out in the field taking photos, especially when you are taking photos of a stationary object take full advantage of the opportunity digital cameras allow you to take multiple photos. Take several different shots of the same subject from different angles, using different compositions. Use the feedback feature of your digital camera to get a sense of what compositions are working best with the particular scene you are shooting and then hone in on the ones that are working best.
Finally, don’t forget that, “Photoshop is your friend!” I can’t begin to tell you how often I use cropping, rotating, enlarging and straightening to refine and perfect my photographic compositions.
With the advent of digital photography the ability to control the fundamental of color has exploded. This is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because digital photography allows you an unprecedented ability to control color but it also places the responsibility for accurately reproducing color squarely on your shoulders. When thinking about color in your photos you should ask yourself what your goal is. Do you want to manipulate colors beyond all semblance of reality to create an invented fantasy scene? Do you want to reproduce a scientifically acute reflection of the actual colors or do you want to strike some balance between the two? Obviously each person is free to choose whatever options they desire. In my own photos I try to follow a basic set of guidelines as follows: As much as possible I rely on natural light and photographic fundamentals to produce vibrant, realistic, credible colors. I aim for fairness and color accuracy as much as possible. When adjusting photos in Photoshop I use simple curves adjustment layers and I try to go easy on hue and saturation functions.
Focus is one of the most elementary functions in all of photography. For those who have taken a photography class it is probably the very first thing that was covered. While basic focusing is not a difficult thing to achieve, learning to use your focusing in creative ways can take trial and error, time, patience and practice. Many nature photographers always try to achieve sharp focus, front to back throughout the entire frame. However, there are many times when you can enhance the impact of your photos by applying various degrees of blur in prescribed ways.
Unless you are deliberately trying to make an artistic statement your photos should have at least one area that is in super sharp focus. The key is to carefully select the area of the photo that you want to be the initial focal point. That area should always be in sharp focus.
Photographic focus occurs in planes parallel to the lens. The most important of these planes is the one in which everything falls into sharp focus. This is called the depth of field plane. The depth of field (DOF) can be extremely shallow or extremely deep. To a large degree the photographer controls how shallow or deep the field is based on the choice of lens, lens focal length, aperture settings and focus point. Other focus planes exist in front of or behind the DOF plane.
I hope that this brief tour through some of my favorite nature photos combined with the tips I have shared will inspire you in your nature photography. The key to it all is to get out in the “great outdoors” and soak up the beauty that is to be found. Then, use your camera as a way to capture the unique and wonderful things you find in order to share them with others. We would love to see how you have been inspired in your nature photography and we invite you to share them with us by posting them in the Guild gallery. Until next month, may your days be filled with many wonderful sights to behold and may your camera capture them in artistic ways.
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