Wednesday, April 30, 2008

How to Make-Your-Own Macro Light Tents and Do the Laundry at the Same Time

Okay. So I've become fairly obsessed with finding the cheapest, best way to make a portable light tent for macro photography. There are some pretty clever ideas out there but I still haven't found one that is able be compacted down very easily (for attaching to a backpack) and then quickly able to be reassembled in the field. Haven't not tried any of these out I'm only speculating though. However I did find these three: 1, 2, 3. My favorite, which made me laugh –and which I've posted above– is of a light tent made out of a laundry basket. Those of us who happen to be poor, cheap and nature photographers (or all of the above) will go to great lengths to make a nice image in the cheapest way possible! :)

Please send me other links. I know that there is a better solution out there!

Monday, April 28, 2008

What Matters Most

When I began my adventure into the world of nature photography my wife and I had only been married for a couple of years. Life was much simpler then and I could pretty much go out and make images whenever I wanted to. Today, I have two sons and it isn't always as easy to get out and shoot when the urge strikes me. Sometimes a couple of weeks may pass before I can have a "one-man expedition" into a wild place to shoot a few frames.

Fortunately, I can go out and make photos fairly regularly in the woods, field and pond area that surround our home. The downside is that (bear with me here) I am usually accompanied by my four-year old, my one-year on my back, a dog and a couple of cats. In other words, it isn't so easy to concentrate and get into that zone that I crave more than a tub of apple pie ice cream; which for me, says a lot. This past Sunday, we had a nice rain shower and a mist settled down over the wet woods. The light was perfect and I still hadn't had a chance to get out and photograph the wild Pinxter flowers (native azaleas) that are blooming profusely this year. As I looked through my viewfinder I found myself being asked every five minutes, "Daddy look at this!" "Daddy look what I found." Grrrrrr......and then I realized what a fool I was being – as I usually do. I walked down to the creek and there was my oldest son holding up a crayfish claw that he had found in the creek. Was I too dense and wrapped up in my own selfish world to realize that he was trying to gain my approval and impress me with his knowledge of the woods? Boy, I can be a real blockhead sometimes.

As parents, we often try to hold on so tightly to the things that define us as individuals that we miss the really important opportunities to make a difference. Will I not end up with as many images as I once did in a given year? Probably. Does this mean that there is some other guy or gal out there gaining more exposure in the marketplace than me? Sure. Will I ever, ever regret the time spent with my boys?

Absolutely. Positively. Never.

Museum Award and Workshop

Last Saturday was an eventful day. At 8:00 a.m. I conducted a workshop at Table Rock State Park which focused on the "Wildflowers of the Blue Ridge." We were fortunate to have really beautiful weather and instead of arriving at the site to the sound of thunder I was greeted with the songs of wood thrushes and black-throated green warblers. I was honored to have photographer and all-around nice guy, Ben Keys in my workshop and he certainly added a lot with his years of experience. The wildflowers around our meeting spot at the hemlock shelter were really showy and I anticipated many more on the trail. However, I brought the group to a spot on the Carrick Creek Trail that was covered with bell-flowers a few days before but turned out to be pretty much barren on Saturday. Fortunately, the group was very happy to photograph other general macro shots to finish out the class. I'm looking foward to my next workshop on June 28 entitled "The Impressionistic Landscape" which will be modeled after the work of such greats as Freeman Patterson, William Neill and Claude Monet.

On Saturday evening I went to the opening of the 29th annual Pickens Co. Museum of Art Juried Show (Press Release) which was jurored by Savannah College of Art and Design Professor, Josh Yu. I was honored to receive a purchase award for my print of a Green Salamander and have it accepted into the gallery's permanent collection. This is a huge honor for me and I must say that it feels really good to see the positive reaction to the sepia series (see post "Serendipity") that I'm currently working on. This is an image that I shot as a color RAW file but converted into sepia to emphasize the ancient lineage of the species. It was quite a day for certain.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Portable Macro Light Tent

They say that necessity is the 'mother of invention.' However, in my case being cheap is enough motivation to send me rummaging around for spare parts and duct tape . It also has something to do with my unwillingness to drag an overpriced piece of gear into the woods that I will ultimately end up destroying anyway. So, I've set out on a mission to create an easy-to-set-up, collapsible, effective macro light tent. I'm going to use it for photographing wildflowers, insects and other small creatures in the field.

For a while now, I've been wanting to create a box that I can attach to my camera backpack without worrying about it getting snagged on tree-branches, etc. So, I went out on the web and found a few examples created by others who share my desire for inexpensive photography supplies. I found these: 1, 2 and 3. Although these are pretty neat and surely effective ideas, I still need something even easier and still more portable. Enter, the E-Z Macro Light-Hood, Dum-Dum-Dum-Da! Actually, I have no idea what it should be called but I've sketched out an idea for a very portable, roll-up light tent made up of dowel rods, a painter's drop-cloth, clips and velcro. If this works (and I believe that it will) I'll post a photo here on the blog. In the meantime, I would love to hear from anyone on their ideas for a better solution as I'm sure that one must already exist.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year Podcast

For many aspiring photographers, a placement in the Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, which is sponsored by the BBC and the London Museum of Natural History, is a high vindication of their artistic pursuits. In 2006 and 2007 I was fortunate enough to be listed as a semi-finalist but still haven't made onto the gallery walls. The competition is fierce and any entrants find themselves going head-to-head with the absolute best that the industry offers. However, perseverance can pay off and many photographer's (see Robert Amoruso) careers take off after a big win in the competition.

For those of you are interested in learning more about the competition and the kind of images that are being accepted, download this podcast regarding this year's competition. You can also see the winning images here.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Dewitt Speaks...Freely

A friend of mine sent me a link to this site which features several free, full-length previews of instructional/inspirational videos by National Geographic photographer, Dewitt Jones. In general, the site is geared towards corporations looking for training materials but these video previews by Mr. Jones are really good and (once you create a log-in/password for yourself) you can watch them as many times as you like.

I have personally viewed / listened to the videos several times and have personally found Mr. Jones' words and work to be very inspirational. His years of experience in the field and on-assignment have certainly given him a wealth of tricks and techniques that can be employed on any photo-shoot.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Removing the Labels

I recently heard an interview with Freeman Patterson in which he referenced the importance of "Removing the Labels" when making an image. This simple, yet powerfully insightful statement has become a bit of a mantra in my photo-making lately.

Over the last couple of years I have spent a great deal of time creating documentary images for a few different conservation organizations. These images have/and are being used to promote and spread the word about various properties and preserves. I had been (and must admit that I still am) spending heaps of time pouring over natural history texts; trying to learn as much as I could about the species in my area. As I hiked any given trail each bird sound, each tree, each rock that I knew of would almost shout out its name to me. It became a little too much and I found that my obsessive studying had diminished my passion for the getting out there a little bit. So, I backed off of the research for a while and tried to re-discover what attracted me to nature and nature photography in the first place. After a lot of soul searching I realized that it was that it was the raw, child-like wonder that I used to experience when I would go exploring had been replaced by a type of cataloging mentality that was much more left-brained than right brained. In other words, I was becoming much less of the artist that I inspired to be and was drifting more towards (although a long way off from) the biologist that I had always wished that I could've been.

Now, obviously there is nothing at all wrong with wanting to know as much as possible about the world around you. Too many people drift around in a sort of blissful fog in totally oblivion in regards to their surroundings. I just happened to go the other side of the spectrum which can be just as mentally crippling if not kept under control.

So, right now I am really enjoying getting out and working hard to "remove the labels" for the natural world and enjoying just "seeing" and "being" while I'm out and about. Although I cannot say that my images have vastly improved –the public can be the judge of that– I have come a long way back towards and the point where looking through the camera makes me gasp in excitement at my subject instead trying to grapple with where it happens to fall in spectrum of natural history.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Become a Photo-Lobbyist

Over the last few years I've really come to admire Scottish photographer Niall Benvie for his prolific output of essays and fine portfolio of images. One of the concepts that he has pioneered is something called "Photo-Lobbying" which is a powerful way to tell your elected officials about your concern for natural areas that are under threat. The following information is from Niall's website, "Images from the Edge," and is reproduced with his permission.

"The long cherished belief amongst nature photographers that we can bring about positive environmental policy change merely by showing the public the beauty of nature is now largely discredited. The accelerating rate of biodiversity loss highlights our failure in the public arena and the need instead to target our efforts directly at the people in positions of power (pipop) - those responsible for formulating policy. New technology means that this is no longer the preserve of the professional lobbyist. Now, if you own a digital camera and have internet access, you can effectively lobby on behalf of the environmental issues that affect you in your neighbourhood.

The concept of photo-lobbying is simple, its message delivered directly. Document those natural places and things in your area that enrich your life, that you would feel disappointed to see disappear - or whose destruction has angered you. We’re not talking about wilderness here, just the ordinary places where most of us actually engage with nature on a daily basis. Then e-mail these images on a regular basis to your elected representatives - from parish councillor up to Senator or MEP. Once you’ve set up a mailing list it is easy and quick to repeat with fresh images. The message that accompanies the pictures is short and to the point:

This matters to me,
You are my elected representative,
What are you going to do about it?

A visual statement is inherently more powerful - and quicker to prepare and assimilate - than a written one. Few of us actually bother to sit down and write protest letters - but many more of us enjoying taking a photograph. Central to the philosophy of photo-lobbying is the construction in the recipient’s mind of the natural fabric of their constituency and what matters to a vocal, networked sector of their electorate. The photography need not necessarily be issues-led. Photo lobbyists are effectively advertising agents for nature in their area, with incessant repetition being the key to getting the message heard. Lazy (or overwhelmed) pipop can either delete or forward the e-mails to someone higher up the political food-chain to deal with. But the flow will keep coming. Indeed, sometimes politicians will find that they can advance their own prospects by championing a cause.

Photo-lobbying can work on a local level because residence lends authority and election obliges a response. No response, no vote.

Photo-lobbying is all about making elected representatives aware of what you value in your environment and calling them to account. But don’t be a pain:

  • Edit your pictures rigorously. Bad photos just give a bad impression.
  • Keep the picture size fairly small (500 pixels along the long axis is adequate) and save the files as .JPG so that the final size is under 100 Kb. to speed up download times.
  • Maintain an up-to-date list of democratic representatives whose e-mail addresses are in the public domain and send your images and comments to them using the Blind Carbon Copy (BCC) function of your e-mail programme.In your subject line, use something to suggest that your correspondence isn’t spam. Try, “A message from one of your constituents”
  • Don’t attach any more than a couple of images per e-mail; this will speed up sending and download times
  • If you have you own website, post your pictures on it and send the link to the pictures instead; many people are justifiably wary of attachments
  • Get your facts right; identify species correctly and don’t make statements that can’t be verified. Be a credible witness for the wild.
  • Working with like-minded people in your area for a co-ordinated effort is sensible but mail your pictures in an individual capacity; votes are held by individuals, not groups.
  • Do not invoke the name of any organisation without its express permission.
  • And remember, as in advertising, persistence and repetition are crucial."

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Candid Frame

I just discovered a great blog today called "The Candid Frame." This is a great resource for photographers and includes some very informative –and more importantly, free– podcasts of interviews with photographers such as William Neill and Freeman Patterson. Check it out if you have a minute. You'll become addicted, trust me.


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

"The Impressionstic Landscape"

On June 28th, 2008 I am partnering with the Pickens County (SC) Museum of Art to lead a photo workshop to be called "The Impressionistic Landscape." The purpose of this workshop will be to guide students towards a better understanding of artistic nature photography techniques and non-traditional approaches to making images such as pan-blurs & selective focusing. The workshop will be help at beautiful Keowee-Toxaway State park in Pickens, South Carolina.

For more information please contact the Pickens Co. Museum of art at 864-898-5963. The workshop will be limited to 10 participants at a cost of $50.00 per student.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

An Excellent Surprise

I spent Saturday a.m. working on wildflower images and testing out some of the techniques that I will be using at my "Wildflowers of the Blue Ridge" workshop which is being held on April 26th at Table Rock State park. I arrived fairly early and had a lot of fun trying out different compositions that might work for my sepia series (see owl on post 'Serendipity). After a period of rain I packed up and left for some shooting at home.

My first good discovery at home was a very large "slimy salamander" (Plethodon glutinosus) which wasn't very interested in having its photo made! So, after a couple of poor attempts I let it return to log that I found it hiding beneath. However, the most exciting discovery was just a couple of feet a way. After I rolled the log back over, I looked up just in time to see a large bird spring from the ground and quickly fly a few feet away only to suddenly disappear in the leaf litter. I knew right away that it was some type of night-jar. I hoped that it was a Chuck-will's widow (Caprimulgus carolinensis) –which I had been dreaming of photographing since moving into our place two years ago– but I couldn't say for certain. I quickly threw on the 300mm lens and 2x teleconverter which were in my bag and slowly moved forward hoping to have a chance at photographing the elusive bird. However, just as I got close to spot it suddenly sprang up again and moved about 10 more feet away. This time, I saw exactly where it landed and was able to make a few nice shots before it moved into some undergrowth. I was also able to confirm its identity as a Chuck-Will's Widow. I cannot tell you how excited I am to have finally made an image of this species. It may not be the most dynamic photograph in my file but it will certainly be one of the most memorable ones for me. What a day!


Friday, April 11, 2008

Salamander Season

Now that Spring has finally arrived I'm really hoping to make some new images of salamanders. The Blue Ridge Escarpment of South Carolina is one of the world's epi-centers for these amazing amphibians and provides habitat for some very unusual species. One of those is the Green Salamander Aneides aeneus which typically make their homes in small crevices in granitic balds and other types of rock outcrops. This beautiful, cryptically colored species is one of the most uncommon salamanders found in the Eastern U.S. and can be quite difficult to photograph even when you know where a population exists. Some researchers, such as North American Landtrust biologist Christopher R. Wilson proposes that this perceived rarity may be due, in part, to the Chestnut Blight that obliterated the American Chestnut population in the early part of the 20th century. Many propose that this species of tree was an important part of the salamander's habitat and even today it will often spend time in trees.

Of the sites that I know of, one in Pickens Co., SC proved to be the place where I would ultimately find a species to photograph. However, this came after several failed attempts to find one that I could safely reach. I was really thrilled when this day finally arrived and photographed the beautiful specimen in as many ways that I could think of. I knew that I only had a few minutes and wasn't sure when the opportunity might arrive again. In the end, my favorite shots were the ones that captured more of the spirit of the animal than every anatomical detail.

I recently returned to the site this spring and didn't see a single specimen. I only hope that this is due to my bad luck and not a decline in the population there.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


I just finished reading a really great book called "The Tao of Photography: Seeing Beyond Seeing" by Philippe L. Gross and S.I. Shapiro which I found to be very refreshing and inspiring.

After spending several years shooting with magazine publishing in mind, I had reached a point where my images were too formulaic . I found myself shooting each image with a place for copy to drop in and catering my direction towards what a given editor might like. Of course, this isn't a bad thing if your goal is to just get published but I had lost some of the feeling of wonder towards my overriding subject matter –the natural world. I longed to regain some of the magic in my photography and my photo outings.

For me, one of the key pieces of advice in the book concerns letting go of the practice of placing parameters on what kind of images you want to shoot (style, not necessarily subject matter) and instead gravitate towards what moves you most. It explores the idea that in order to be receptive to what nature/life presents you daily, you have to let go of the reins a bit. This is where the "Tao" part comes in.

Although this all seems quite simple, perhaps, it has been very rejuvenating to me and I have regained zeal as a result of reading this text. If you are stuck in a creative rut try this book out. There is no such thing as a miracle cure but this certainly helps.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Pickens County Land to be Preserved

This past Fall I had an opportunity to visit a spectacular piece of land in Pickens Co., SC known as the 'Nine-Times Tract.' Although this piece of land has been enjoyed by residents of Pickens for many years, it is a piece of land that very few people have heard of outside of the county. My role in visiting this special place (and reason for tagging along with more important members of the SC conservation community) was that I had been asked to create a portfolio of images of the landscapes, flora and fauna that best showcased what the region had to offer. The 2200 acre property was (and still is in part) privately owned and the rumors were that it was going to be put up for sale for development by the end of the year. It was critical to save this last large remaining chunk of the Blue Ridge Escarpment because the diversity of plants and animals that it harbors. Among those are the green salamander, faded trillium, sharp lobed hepatica, gorge goldenrod and the list goes on. It is also an important site for umbrella species such as black bears which are increasingly under pressure due to development.

Fortunately, good news came last December when Upstate Forever posted a release on their website stating that the property is going to be preserved with the help of the South Carolina Conservation bank and state and local officials. I am so happy to be a part, however small, of this effort and look forward to continuing to make images this spring.

Saturday, April 5, 2008


I suppose that you never know when inspiration will strike. I was searching back through my image files from last year and I came across a photo that I took of a young barred owl (at Jones Gap State Park, Marietta, SC) that had just fledged. When I captured the moment I was excited to see the owl but didn't think much of the composition. A year later, however, I've really become interested in sepia tone images and saw the subject in a whole different light. I'm glad that I didn't delete this one!