Wednesday, May 27, 2009


In March of 2008, scientists from Georgetown University released the findings of a study offering proof that moths retain memories gained as caterpillars throughout the transformation of metamorphosis into adulthood. You can read more about this here, here and here. This amazing process has always intrigued mankind and has been the subject of much speculation. The fact that memories are retained throughout this period of extreme morphological change is simply incredible.

I bring this up because I was thinking about how we as photographers, and artists, are continually required to change in order to grow and stay current in the marketplace. For many people, this can be a terrifying aspect of the business because we often fear that the connection to where we’ve come from will be lost; our artistic history so-to-speak. It is easy to find a comfortable place, where things are moving along very steadily (kind of like a caterpillar chewing leaves), and suddenly feel 'the pull' toward a different direction, which threatens to change everything. What do we do? Do we choose to ignore the little voice, or do we jump into the rabbit-hole with both feet and hope for the best? Personally, I believe that a caterpillar that refuses to grow up becomes bird food.

As each year goes by, I feel more and more comfortable following those little voices. I’ve basically given myself just a couple of loose guidelines to go by: 1.) I want to continue to focus on nature and conservation related topics. This could be wildlife or man’s involvement in nature. 2.) Look for new directions to experiment which will force me to grow. Even if things don't work out, such attempts will only make me a better problem-solver/photographer in the end so the fear of failure should be denied.

Ultimately, it is this fear of failure that keeps so many of us from going through our own personal metamorphoses. However, we should always remember that regardless of what direction our careers take us in, we’ll continue to retain the memories of where we’ve come from. These experiences will always be there to serve as a guide, regardless of whether or not a new direction takes to the wing.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

A whole new way to 'Shoot' Macro

The on-line design magazine, Core77, recently posted these awesome photos of vintage, rifle-stock camera mounts. I wonder how these would work for macro photography?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

In-Your-Face Macro Photography

With a new wide-angle lens (Nikkor 18-35mm zoom), and a couple of new flashes (Nikon SB-900 and SB-600), I’ve been having a great time refining my wide-angle macro photography technique. Until now, I had been relying on ambient light and very long exposures to make wide-angle shots in this ein. Although there are a few pioneering macro photographers who have used this technique very well –Mark Moffett, Piotr Naskrecki, for example– the implementation takes some time to refine and the settings really vary based on what gear you choose to use. There are a few different ways to make this style of macro work and personal preferences vary.

Although it is common to use a ring-flash for macro-photography, I prefer to use the more flexible Nikon speedlights (just about any variable setting off-camera flashes will do) because they allow me to be more creative in terms of how I light each scene. I have also found that, because of the reflective nature of some species, it is nice to be able to pull the light source further back to reduce highlights. One of the downsides to using the larger ‘strobes’ is that they can be heavy. Because I hand hold the camera gear, this weight can make it somewhat difficult to remain steady and keep within the very limited area of sharp focus that is inherent in macro-photography. However, this isn’t that big of a deal because the flash is firing at such a rapid rate (and set at rear-curtain) that the image usually comes out sharp. The question is: Which part of the subject is sharp? Sharp grasshopper eyes are usually preferred to sharp grasshopper knees!

The minimal working distance can be threatening to more timid species so field-craft and an understanding of animal behavior is really required. Some species feel more comfortable if approached slowly, while others are best approached in a rapid fashion followed up with sudden stillness. This is where experimentation and research come into play. Once you get close to subject, you then have to throw composition into the whole juggling act. I don’t believe that the image above is exactly an amazing photograph but I like the direction that it is going in. This theatrical, in your face, and well-lit approach to macro photography is really appealing to me in a storybook kind of way and I’m having a great time exploring the possibilities.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Book Review: The Hot Shoe Diaries

It is quite possible that I'm the last person on Earth to review National Geographic Photographer Joe McNally's amazing new book, The Hot Shoe Diaries: Big Light From Small Flashes. However, since I'm currently enamored with this incredibly informative book, I thought that I would take a risk and say my part in case there are those of you out there who also find yourself behind the curve on the latest literary releases. Surely, I can't be the only one, can I???

With the exception of some of my macro photography work, I have traditionally relied on natural light for exposure. However, after reading The Hot Shoe Diaries, my eyes have been opened to a wide array of techniques that I can't wait to try out. I initially purchased the book because I had become interested in learning more about ways to create strong environmental portraits of scientists, researchers, and every day folks who were an integral part of the stories that I covered. I really didn't have much of an understanding about what the latest flashes were capable of. By reading Mr. McNally's informative –and often very funny– work, I've gained much more than just knowing how to make a pleasing photo of a person.

The techniques in the book are in the Strobist school of thought which relies on using several small flashes (in this case Nikon Speedlights) to light a particular scene verses a larger studio style light kit. Books on lighting can often be so cumbersome and dull but this one is really enjoyable and easy to comprehend. I really appreciate the author's willingness to be so open with details about how he makes an image.

I have no doubt that this book will make me a better, more capable photographer. This is a pretty bold statement but I believe it to be true. I really do enjoy shooting in available, natural light but there are sometimes when that can be limiting (and detrimental); especially when dealing with tight deadlines and poor ambient light!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Don't Forget to Breathe

When I was fifteen, I really became interested in guitar and spent the next several years performing with various bands. Although I had a great time during this period, without fail, I would always begin each show with a terrible case of the jitters. Somewhere along the way, a fellow musician once gave me a great bit of advice: “Don’t forget to breathe!” Sounds simple, right? Well, yes, the breathing part maybe, but the remembering...not so much.

There are moments, after spending too much time indoors, so many hours being sucked into the computer screen, that I literally have a physical craving to escape into the woods. When I’m able to break free and actually get out to Where the Wild Things Are, I can be so overly-excited that I often run from place-to-place like some sort of hyper-active toy dog. In the process, I am surely sending any living subject matter into fight-or-flight (or hide) mode.

Most recently, I have been referring back to that great little tidbit of respiratory wisdom that I received so many years ago now. I can see a noticeable difference between the photos that I make when I am in a calm, relaxed state and those that I’ve made during one of my mad dashes. Images that are made while in the latter state are not only less intriguing, but also less intimate because they are conceived during moments of extreme self-centeredness. So take this little bit of advice from me, compose yourself and then compose the frame. Your photographs will most likely profit as a result.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Great (Glowing) Flowers Photo Technique

If you want to learn how to make stylistically fresh images of plants on a white background then visit Niall Benvie’s blog and check out this really informative post. Niall is very generous and shares the entire overview of his process and includes equipment specs as well. This technique takes white-sweep studio portraits of flowers to the next level by creating translucent impressions of each subject through the use of backlight.

By the way, if you didn’t catch my earlier post on the subject, Niall’s brand new blog is a fantastic resource for anyone interesting in photographing wild nature. His site, entitled ‘Images from the Edge’, includes some of the best insight into the ethics of nature and conservation photography on the Web. Give it a read, why don’t you?

Monday, May 11, 2009

White-Balance Mood Lighting

A digital camera's white balance feature is a valuable tool that allows you to capture the quality of light in a given moment as accurately as possible. Most SLRs come with a variety of different settings which you can choose from including: automatic, cloudy, sunny and even the option to create your own custom white balance. Another setting that is commonly included is Tungsten. This filter is intended to be used indoors when the main light source is light from tungsten bulbs. To counteract (or balance) the very warm light from these bulbs, the tungsten setting pumps a high amount of blue into the image to give the impression of a neutral cast. However, if you use this setting outdoors, the world suddenly takes on a cool, icy tone that can really add to certain compositions.

I recently made this photo (above) of a damselfly that had just emerged from a pond. I liked the stark contrast and simplicity of the photo but wanted to create an image with more of a primordial feel.
By slightly underexposing the scene and setting my white balance to tungsten I was able to easily change the mood in mere seconds. I now have two very different images of the same moment that both stand on their own.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Embrace your Photographic Niche and Thrive

Fact Number 1: It takes hard work to make a living as a professional photographer.

Fact Number 2: Contrary to what you may read, most art directors still value good imagery.

Fact Number 3: If I hear one more ‘professional photographer’ wax poetic about the good ole’ days –you know, when there weren’t so many darn amateurs taking all of their business– I’m going to write a ranting blog post about the subject.

Fact Number 4: I'm about to go into a rant…(see Fact Number 3...too late)

Is it just me, or does anyone else find it shocking that so many working pros these days seem to seize any opportunity to separate themselves from the ‘evil amateurs’ who are stealing away their business and diluting the market with crummy photography? At least once a week I listen to a pod-cast or read a blog post in which an established photographer is complaining that sales are down because there are too many hobby-photographers out there selling their work for next-to-nothing and stealing all of their market-share.

In the spirit of fairness, why don’t I just go ahead and acknowledge a few things right off of the bat: 1.) Yes, there are a lot of photographers literally giving away their work willy-nilly 2.) This does hurt the business of established photographers from time-to-time (or possibly quite, often). 3.) This isn’t going to change as far as I can tell so I recommend for others to get over it, move on, be creative, make good images and learn how to market yourself in a changing economy. In other words, stop whining and get on with your lives for goodness sake!

Yes, I know, what does a whipper-snapper like me know about such things, right? Well, as someone who comes from a graphic design and advertising background, I can testify that there are similarities between what is happening right now and what happened during the rise of desktop publishing in the mid-to-late eighties. During that time, everyone and their mother was buying page-layout software so that they could eliminate the need to waste their money on over-controlling designers. Ironically, it turned out that the software was nothing more than a tool intended to be wielded by someone with artistic skill and not some type of magic-genie-design-lamp that would make great brochures on command. In the end many corporations of the world found themselves stuck with a boat-load of poorly executed collateral that did little to serve the purpose that it was created for. It was at this point that many companies started buidling their own in-house design groups with qualified professionals.

So what does that mean? Well, although there are lots of really nice images being made by hobbyists, there are also a ton of very bad ones as well. And guess what? Just because someone has a few images (or several) that would look nice in a brochure doesn’t mean that they are necessarily professional, easy to work with, dependable, able to reproduce the same types of results over and over on command, etc. As a result, I would bet that, even if some of these folks outbid a pro for a particular job, unless they are able to deliver the same level of work as proficient shooters, the clients would bail. Granted, there will always be some companies who simply don’t care how good a photo looks and will accept just about anything. On the flip side, some up-and-coming pros may bid low, get the job and do fantastically. If they are serious about their new career, they will most likely raise their rates and the cycle will continue.

What is affected, and may be affected long-term, is your general, everyday run-of-the-mill stock photography sales. You know, your sunsets, business guys looking serious on a cell-phone, a tight shot of a handshake between to different ethnicities, and so on. However, if a photographer is able to be clever, and find their own unique niche, really focus on it and work very hard, I believe that success is still a huge possiblity. On the very top tier (to take this back around to nature photography), not everyone is going to have a photo of a so-and-so bird of paradise displaying in Papua, New Guinea. Therefore, those that go to the trouble to shoot these types of things are going to have an advantage in the marketplace. Shoot it well, with style, creativity and finesse and the odds get even better. So where does that leave the rest of us who don’t have the funds to go globe-trotting, you ask? Pretty much in the same boat, I say.

Our world is an extraordinary, amazing place absolutely packed to the brim with unique species, habitats and cultures from pole-to-pole. I imagine that I could spend the rest of my life sifting through the leaf-litter of my backyard and not discover absolutely everything that there is to photograph, much of which presents fantastic opportunities for stock.

I guess what I’m saying (ranting on about) is that although times are tough for photographers, in the end, the cream will rise to the top. I really believe this. Some businesses will go under, which is very unfortunate, and new careers will be made. It might sound like a ‘pie-in-the-sky’ type of philosophy but I feel strongly that editors, publishers, art directors and print buyers will ultimately gravitate towards new, fresh approaches to subject matter. As it turns out, everyone isn’t able to produce the same quality of work, just because they happen to have good camera equipment. Ultimately, it is what we bring to our images, as people, artists and observers of the world around us, and in-turn, how we market this work, which will determine the fate of our careers. We are not only selling our photos but ourselves as well. As far as I’m concerned, all of the micro-stock, hobbyists, amateurs in the world can’t change that. Besides, a little competition only stands to make us better if we have what it takes.

What do you all think? I certainly feel better but I'm not so sure that any of you who have waded through this might feel the same way.


Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Country Life, Quiet???

My family and I moved out to the country three years ago. There were lots of reasons that my wife and I wanted to get away from downtown city-life: More room for our children to play, more subjects for my photography, closer to mountains and a little something called, "Peace and Quiet." I am very happy to report that all of these objectives have been realized with one exception: The Quiet. And, just in case anyone who knows where I live is wondering, it is not just because we are about a mile downwind from the local racetrack.

Springtime in the country has to be one of the loudest, initially most unexpected phenomena that I've ever encountered. The first night in our home, we sat in bed and listened to what sounded like Wallstreet for wildlife. Bleeps, screams, echoes, plops, plucks, tremors; you name it, we had it all. And then the Fowler's toads started and it was as if we had been immersed in a scene from 1970s horror-flick (quick pans and running trips not-withheld) . Oh and did I mention the chuck-wills-widow? This bird is like a whip-poor-will on steroids. Get two of them going at once and you really do have something special!
When that first autumn finally arrived, and the last katydid had silenced its mesmerizing tune, the world did go quiet for a bit, and I found it to be too much. So much so, in fact, that these days we all bend our ears for the first spring peepers and check each night for the familiar 'Chuck-Wills-Widow, Chuck-Wills-Widow,' which seems to at first arrive very small and far away; growing a little closer over the following nights. This past week the bird finally materialized and this time, it brought a competitor who can match 'our' little nightjar, note-for-note. We sure are glad. As it turns out, 'the quiet' is very overrated.