I am sure many of you have been told "Great photo! You must have an awesome camera!" or "Wow, you sure were lucky to get that shot!" While a "good camera" and "luck" are small ingredients when creating a visual feast, we photographers would like to remind everyone that technical competency, determination, patience, and creative vision are the real meat and potatoes of any tasty photo.
"Was it luck that I happened to wake up at 3am five days in a row, hike two miles through a snow covered forest with a flashlight and freeze my butt off waiting for the moose to arrive at the lake just as dawn broke over the mountains? I don't think so!"
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Starry Night by Meowgli
Camera: Canon 40D
Shutter: 112/1 second
Focal Length: 11mm
There are only a few days each month when attempting this shot is possible. To get good star visibility, it's best to shoot around a new moon. Of course, a clear night is also a must and several months this past year the two never coincided. Other times I was simply too busy with other engagements or afflicted by an uncharacteristic apathy and laziness (call it seasonal affective disorder or something!).
Anyway, last night ticked all the right boxes and I was psyched to go give it a try. Probably a little too excited cos I rushed out the door not long after sunset, drove the 15 miles there and realized immediately upon getting out of the car that I didn't have my tripod. Muppet! I played around with a makeshift support on my bag and coat for the best part of an hour before deciding it was hopeless. Dejected and mad at myself, I got back in the car and drove home under starry skies. Damn. Can't be having this...gotta go back...
So I packed a sandwich, mini bottle of whiskey, whacked a load of tunes on my phone and headed back out about 11:30, determined to have something to show for my efforts. After about an hour of experimenting with points of view, camera settings, and lighting methods, I had formulated a game plan.
The shot went something like this:
Open the shutter on bulb mode, paint the windmill with a powerful handtorch, fire an external flash into the foreground on 1/64 power, leg it up to the mill, fire two flash bursts into the ceiling on 1/8 power, search for the red light of my camera in the field so I could find my way back to it, wait about half a minute, close the shutter...all the while with my playlist blaring on full volume in my pocket. I must have looked a right nutter having my little one-man rave and shining lights everywhere! Fortunately I was alone with nobody to witness my madness
Eventually got home just before 3...
To me (and these are purely my opinions) there are three critical factors to a good nature photograph. The first, and maybe the most important, is light...
Light transforms objects, especially natural objects. Ever watch a time lapse video and see the shadows of an object spin a 180 or more? It's the position of the sun that draws us to certain locations at certain times of the day. As most photographers will say, shooting in the early morning hours and late evening hours will provide the most dramatic lighting conditions. This is true for the most part. Only on rare occasions I have seen incredible light mid-day due to atmospheric conditions and intense storms. The image above was shot about a half hour before the sun set behind the horizon. Typically, I find this to be some of the harshest light to deal with and, of course, some of the most appealing when you know how to handle it. This was shot at the tail end of an early winter storm. It may be odd to hear, but the best thing a photographer can ask for is inclement weather. Storms provide the most dramatic lighting conditions, especially when there are gaps in the clouds. For the serious nature photographer, being out when its raining, snowing, hailing, or even a dust storm, are usually the happiest moments, especially when you have captured something out of the ordinary. It isn't easy trying to photograph in pouring rain or around extremely close lightning. In fact, a lot of nature photographers have put their lives on the line to get that one shot. Weather has limits, so don't push those limits. I can count the number of times on one hand where I knew I had some special light, and this was one of them. As it's always hard to incorporate the feelings and actual view of a scene on the web, one might not think this light is anything to get happy about. It's the glow on the foreground cacti that really drew me to this scene. As the sun peeked through the clouds it also illuminated much of the desert in different shades and created a very nice contrast to the scene. Knowing how to expose for the light was critical. The use of graduated neutral density filters was also very helpful.
The second important aspect of any photograph is the composition...
I always head out to areas I know I will photograph either at the time or in the future much earlier in the day to scout out compositions. However, referring back to the first aspect, you never know how the light is going to look over a specific area. I frequent the area shown in the photo for hiking and, of course, photography, and one thing I always look for are groupings of cacti and a clear view of the mountains. Here, the mountains create a nice backdrop and almost make you wonder what is on the other side. As mentioned with the light, those foreground cacti were vital to the scene. They act almost as sentinels of the desert watching the dramatic light drift over the mountain. With the inclusion of the cholla and saguaro cactus, one can easily pinpoint that this is the Sonoran Desert, hence the title "Sonoran glow".
The last and final aspect to a good image is patience...
This is almost a two way road, because sometimes you get lucky, and sometimes you have to wait and wait for that moment. All too often nature photographers are told they are so lucky to have photographed a scene or an animal. However, luck has little to do with the time and effort one puts into the image. Although it does happen...luck that is. Being at the right place at the right time and knowing the subject will help you get the most out of your time in the field. There have been times that I have gone to the location only to be shut out by clouds or an animal never showing their face. On the other hand, I have showed up at a random location and shot some of my favorite images. The shot above did not require a lot of patience. This specific outing was mere chance of getting anything decent. Once I saw the heavy clouds and some clearing towards the sun, I hit the road. This evening I felt I took some of my best photos including this. I will spend countless hours in the field maybe just in one little spot waiting for something to happen. And when it does, it usually pays off big. To be a good photographer and see things others might not see, you must be patient. Spending days and days at a location will help you visualize something someone had missed or, perhaps, never thought of photographing, and fuel your creative airwaves. I've learned to be patient with almost anything these days because of photography. Don't get frustrated because you can and will miss the shot of your life. Believe me, it's happened to me.
Season's First Flake by FramedByNature
Camera: Canon Rebel XSi
Shutter: 1/332 second
Aperture: f/inf (reverse mounted lens)
Focal Length: mm (reverse mounted lens)
Macro images are perhaps the most underestimated and overlooked sub-category of the Animals, Plants & Nature gallery. The common viewer may think "Oh, they saw a sweet insect, pulled out their camera, and took a photo of it. Cool." But this couldn't be farther from the reality of what a macro photographer goes through while taking their images. Insects can be extremely skittish and can find a million ways to escape. Jumping spiders are absolute escape masters! Even if your subject isn't a living thing, that doesn't make it any easier to photograph. Snowflakes, one of my favorite things to shoot during the winter, last only a few seconds before being destroyed. They are such delicate objects. One degree too warm, and they melt in an instant. The slightest breeze picks up and they completely disappear from your viewfinder. This shot was taken during an early season snowstorm back in 2009. This meant that the flakes were particularly wet and only held their crystalline structure for a couple moments. Since I don't have a macro lens, I used the reverse macro technique to capture my subject. I steadied my camera on my wrist, waiting for a snowflake to grace my glove. I dialed in my settings, using a moderately high ISO in order to counteract any shaking caused by my shivering hands. The moment a snowflake fell on my glove, I quickly tweaked the camera into position and took the shot. The first few attempts didn't turn out so well (the depth of field associated with the reverse macro technique is very shallow). I was about to give up but I finally managed to get this shot after about half an hour of standing out in the snow. My gloves were soaked and hands frozen, but I didn't care. I got the shot I was hoping for!
Suspended in Light by justeline
Camera: Nikon D300
Lens: Nikkor 18-200mm
Shutter: 1/2 second
Focal Length: 150mm
Filters: Lee 2 stops soft grad ND (0.6), Hoya ND8
The Metéora (Greek: Μετέωρα, "suspended rocks", "suspended in the air" or "in the heavens above") is one of the largest and most important complexes of Eastern Orthodox monasteries in Greece, second only to Mount Athos. The six monasteries are built on natural sandstone rock pillars, at the northwestern edge of the Plain of Thessaly near the Pineios river and Pindus Mountains, in central Greece."
a low mist was the kind of weather I had hoped for even before we set off for that surreal place. But after having spent 4 afternoons and 4 mornings at the same chosen spot, having to deal with light but annoying showers for the most part, after witnessing rainbows materialize in all the wrong spots (over my companions head), after watching a wonderful cloud formation changing colors over the wrong spot (the road), I went to bed on our last night there having already put this place in my "to re-visit" list and I would have gladly stayed in bed on the following morning, dreaming about this shot rather than be mocked by the weather once again. Fortunately KirlianCamera wasn't ready to give up and it was on that fifth morning that the rising sun worked its magic and created the low mist I was hoping for.
Location: Meteora, Greece
Autumn Aquarel by DimensionSeven
Camera: Nikon D80
Lens: Nikkor 16-85mm
Shutter: 1/2 second
Focal Length: 85mm
Filters: Soligor CPL
2010.11.04, Árpádtető, Mecsek, Hungary.
I know, it's been done before a lot, but I always wanted to have my take as well. The trick in shots like this is to get the shutter speed and the panning angle together so that they fit the subject. Easier to be said than done!
The first problem I encountered was the tripod: a ballhead won't do. It's nearly impossible to get a perfectly linear pan with the camera being either perfectly horizontal or vertical during the pan on a head that allows free movements in all 3 dimensions. Lucky enough, I could find a way around this with my ballhead: my tripod can have it's center column taken out and attached horizontally. I loosened the screw between the base of the head and the horizontal central column, and voilá, there you have your one dimension rotation. However, I still had to pay attention that the ballhead gets the camera level so that vertical trees are vertical in the picture.
The second problem is the perspective distortion. Unless you use a tilt-shift or PC-E lens for the pan, you'll end up with bent trees on both sides. The trick to work around this problem (it's not perfect, though), is to use longer focal lengths with small panning angle to minimize this effect.
After this, there's the shutter speed problem. If it's too long, you land on the overly abstract side with lines only. If it's too short (or you start the exposure with the camera being steady), the scene becomes too recognizable. It's a tough decision, and it's also subjective, depending on the result you want to achieve. The shot that I picked to upload is neither too abstract, nor too recognizable.
As for the composition, it's always a trial-error thing. The camera had to keep moving as the exposure started and ended, therefore, I never really knew what was gonna be on the final picture.
Oh, and one last thing: DON'T forget to blow dust off your sensor/front lens/filters before the shooting, as small apertures tend to reveal a small Sahara inside your gear!