Friday, April 18, 2014

Tiny Delicacies

As a follow-up to last week's post on macro photography, I've decided to dedicate this post to flowers. Not sunflowers, or over-enthusiastic roses, but tiny, delicate flowers, wildflowers, weeds. In other words, flowers that are great subjects for macro photography.

These are the sorts of flowers, just centimeters across, that are trampled by hikers, unnoticed in the great outdoors. In last week's post, I talked about the wonder of macro photography stemming from the artist's ability to expose an unseen world to the viewer. In many cases, these flowers appear strange or unusual simply because we never look at them.

Here are my tips for macro flower photography:

1. Angle

Many of these little flowers hang downward. Unassuming from above, their petals often hide intricate structures or patterns that make for appealing visual subjects. Don't be afraid to sit in the dirt to get these kinds of shots - it's okay. No one's looking, right?
Additionally, you can use the angle at which you approach your subject to either emphasize or downplay their tininess. 

 2. Appreciate Detail
As mentioned above, these flowers often hide complexities that we otherwise do not appreciate. Don't be afraid to get as close as you can, even taking extreme macros if you have the equipment to do so.
Even familiar flowers, like this Texas bluebonnet above, can become exotic and unusual when captured with a macro lens. Notice how the detail in the varying flower structures keeps the image interesting, balancing the vibrant blue tones.

3. Stability

Macro flower photography suffers from the same difficulties that any other macro photography does - namely, the magnification of unwanted motion in the frame. Particularly for flower photography, the wind can be a frustrating enemy to battle. 

The best advice I can give you, short of buying this device, a clamp designed to hold plants still in the wind, is to shoot in the early morning. You are probably doing that anyway - look at you! The morning tends to be the calmest time of day, in terms of wind. However, some days the weather just won't cooperate with you, and you'll have to find something else to shoot.
Of course, you could always play with artistic effects using a slow shutter speed and wind, but that discussion is for another post.

4. Accept Surprises

One of - in my opinion, anyway - the best things about macro photography is that you sometimes discover one thing while looking for another. Incorporating other wildlife always adds interest to a static shot.

Reduviid bug on Foxglove

So, are you going to try miniature flower photography this weekend? Or is this style of macro not for you? I'd love to hear your thoughts, and thanks for reading!

You can also check out this post I wrote about composition in flower photography.

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Friday, April 11, 2014

Very Small Rocks: Macro Photography Basics

Macro Photography Basics

Baby reduviid 

You may have noticed that I kinda have a thing for arthropods. Okay, maybe not "kind of", but definitely certainly. Quite frankly, I love bugs. And while I believe that insects are amazing photography subjects, I realize that macro photography is not as intuitive as other forms of nature photography. Firstly, you need specialized equipment (should I do a post on this? Let me know). Secondly, you need to understand the technical hang-ups with macro work. Finally, you need to really like small things.

So what even is macro photography?

There is actually a technical definition of a "macro" lens - it must render the subject with a 1:2 or 1:1 reproduction ratio. In other words, the subject must be at least half as large on the film as it is in real life. Make sense? (Note: Some sources only consider 1:1 ratios to be true 'macro', but I believe that this is nitpicking).

Dew-laden flowers

Okay, so besides being small, what's the difference?

The main technical difficulty of macro photography is learning how to handle the magnification power of the lens. In short, the extreme magnification creates problems for the photographer.

1. Focusing Problems

At very high magnifications, the depth of field becomes very shallow. Thus it is imperative to focus your images carefully. A few millimeters' change in the focal plane can create entirely different images. Pay close attention that your desired subject is actually the point in the frame you are focusing on. I would recommend using manual focus. As a corollary to this tip, a tripod is helpful in ensuring that you don't accidentally twitch and move your subject out of focus.

Hornet Clearwing Moth
You can see in the image above how shallow the depth of field is. Unless this is the look you are going for, I would suggest stopping down to a very small f-stop to maximize your available depth. 
(If the above discussion about depth of field is confusing you, you may want to head over here to read my article about f-stops.)

2. Choosing the Right Subject

I've spoken (and written) before about how I believe there are 3 main components of a good photograph: lighting, subject, and composition. Depending on the type of photography, these individual elements attain greater or lesser importance. For macro photography, I believe that choosing an appropriate subject is paramount.

Parasitized Tobacco Hornworm Caterpillar
You should seek out subjects with interesting patterns, textures, or behaviors. Okay, you say, I'm supposed to be doing that anyway. And that's true -  but the key here is to discover subjects that are not easily appreciated with the naked eye. With the magic of your macro lens, you are transporting the viewer to place she cannot otherwise go. In short, your camera becomes a tool with which to expose a hidden world. In my obvious opinion, insects make wonderful macro subjects, as their bodies are etched with color and detail we rarely notice at our native scale.

Hover fly
3. Lighting Difficulties

Because of the issues discussed in tip #1, macro photographers often stop down very far. This results in little available light to shoot with, and thus blurry images. To combat this problem, many photographers choose to use flash to illuminate their macro images. Personally, I prefer the appearance of natural light in photographs. However, if you like flash - go for it! But don't let anyone try to convince you that you "need" expensive lighting gear to undertake macro photography. None of my images are shot with flash.

Parting words:

So there are a few technical challenges posed by macro photography, but they are not insurmountable, even for beginning photographers. Overall, the same basics of light, subject, composition hold true with this, and any, genre of photography. While equipment can be expensive, there are entry-level devices that can help elevate your images to the realm of small (macro lenses are even available for smart phones now). Would you like me to write a post about macro equipment? Let me know in the comments.
In the meantime, it's insect season again! Get out there, and get CLOSE.

If you're interested, in this article, I talk briefly about finding great insect subjects.

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Friday, April 4, 2014

My Favorite Places: Vol 1: Anastasia State Park

My Favorite Places for Nature Photography: Anastasia State Park, St Augustine, FL

One of the most common questions I get asked is, "where do you take those photos?" so I decided it was high time for a post addressing that topic.

A very brief introduction about me:
I currently live in Texas for school, but I grew up in Florida, and my parents still live there. Thus I am traveling back and forth from Florida to Texas a lot to visit them.

OK, on to the actual subject: Anastasia State Park

Anastasia State Park is probably my most favorite locale for bird photography. It's less crowded than "famous" sites like Ding Darling or the Alligator Farm, but it is no less spectacular for birding. Anastasia State Park is located in St. Augustine, on the East (Atlantic) coast of Florida. The state park website is here.

What sort of habitats does the park encompass?

One of the best things about Anastasia State Park, in my opinion, is that you can visit a variety of habitats within the park borders. This varied landscape is also part of what makes the park so attractive to wildlife (and people!). 
Areas I would definitely recommend scouting out for birds are: the salt marsh and the beach. There are also a few small trails into woodland scrub habitats, if you want to look for songbirds. But I like water birds, so you can usually find me by the salt marsh.

What sort of animals should I expect to find?

Anastasia State Park is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail, so it's an excellent location for birding and bird photography. Of course, insects, small mammals and small reptiles also make the park their home. A list of the bird species that have been recorded in the park can be found here. 

Wood Stork
Favorite species include: roseate spoonbills, the american oystercatcher, osprey, and the wood stork. I have found that this park is one of the best places for seeing wood storks in north Florida. They particularly like it when people have been fishing!

Tips for Visiting the Park

If possible, I would recommend visiting the park at low tide. A quick google search will easily bring up the times for the tides. During low tide, all the little inhabitants of the salt marsh are exposed, attracting flocks of avian visitors looking for an easy meal. I generally see the largest numbers of species when I visit at low tide. However, I find that the wood storks, herons, osprey, and egrets are present even in high tide - so do not despair if you are unable to visit during the low tide.

Roseate Spoonbills


Of course, there is more to the park than the salt marsh. Anastasia State Park boasts a lovely, clean, beach that is full of wildlife. I have found this an excellent place to photograph gulls, terns, and other shorebirds. In fact, I have an entire post on shorebirds here, most of which I photographed at Anastasia.

Royal Terns
Particularly in the winter, you may be able to catch groups of migrating ocean birds stopping to rest in the park. You can generally find me sprawled out on the sand, in jeans and a t shirt, camera resting close to the ground, lens trained on an unassuming cluster of birds. Yes, that is how I visit the beach when I go to Florida.

Immature Tricolored Heron
In short, Anastasia State Park is worth the drive over if you are in the area. It boasts a wide array of wildlife inhabitants, along with recreational opportunities for fishing, hiking, and lounging on the beach. Yes, I do believe you should support your local state parks!

Equipment information:
Nikon D70 + 70-300mm Nikkor zoom lens +/- manfrotto tripod

What's your favorite spot for nature photography? Let me know!

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Friday, March 28, 2014

Spring Medly: Spring Nature Photography Tips

Spring Nature Photography

So, depending on where you live, it is either already Spring or just about to become Spring. The photographer's year restarts, flowers bloom, and suddenly even people who aren't nature photographers want to be outside. The calendar turns.

The return of warmer temperatures means that there is a flurry of animal activity happening, providing ample opportunity for even the off-season photographer to snag a few nature pics. But, let's be honest with each other - you probably aren't excited about producing the same trite images of daisies you captured when you first picked up a camera at age 12. Indeed, there is more to Spring nature photography than flower buds.

Think about the changing season.

Spring hasn't begun in earnest yet where you live? Good! A world in flux makes for interesting photographic opportunities. Here, dried winter leaves are rendered against a background of soft spring green. Strong golden backlighting brings more interest to the picture, evoking in the viewer a sense of sunrise, of the beginnings of spring.

Remember that with spring blooms come the animals that rely on them.

You didn't really think I was going to publish a post about spring without including photos of insects, right? While I love detailed macros of insect life (see my post here), spring gives an abundance of opportunity to capture insects interacting with their environments. 
Here you can see a bee sneaking nectar from the base of a flower.
There is a strong tendency in nature and macro photography to get as close as is physically possible to your subject. While this technique also produces stunning images, don't forget to add variety to your work by stepping back one in a while.
I particularly love the metallic blue of the insect against the pink flowers.
Try to incorporate contrasting colors into your photographs.

Spring is full of so many colors, it can become a bleary visual racket. If possible, make use of your color wheel and try to compose images with colors that belong to the same family. Or, be even more daring (ooh!) and combine contrasting colors to add spark to your images.

White-Lined Sphinx Moth
Here you can see how the rich purple of the flowers plays against the orange-red warning markings on the moth. This contrast makes both colors appear more vibrant to the viewer.

Ok- that's all I've got; it's your turn now! Is it spring where you live yet? What is your favorite thing to photograph in springtime?

You can read last year's post about Spring photography here.

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Friday, March 21, 2014

Let's Go to the ZOO!

Zoo Photography Tips & Tricks

As I've mentioned before on this blog, I'm a big proponent of "accessible" nature photography. I don't believe it is necessary (or sufficient) to take exotic trips to Africa or the Galapagos to produce excellent images. However, staying at home in the US means that many of us never get the chance to see impressive big mammals or fantastical birds - except, of course, when we go to the zoo.
Jacksonville Zoo, FL

I believe that zoos are important for many reasons. Firstly, they do extensive conservation and breeding work, allowing threatened and endangered species to maintain viable wild populations. For example, zoo breeding programs are responsible for saving the red wolf, a species that was driven to extinction in the wild by 1980. Captive breeding programs allowed for the species' continued existence, and the wolf is now being reintroduced today.
Additionally, zoos allow for conservation issues to be made large and tangible to the public, encouraging public support for wildlife conservation.

Okay, on to the photography.

Is it possible to get "natural" looking photographs in a zoo?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Different zoo setups will either help or hinder your quest if you are intent on acquiring "natural" looking images. Here are some tips:

1. Bring your telephoto lens - having a long focal length will allow you to take close portraits of the animals, excluding distracting, man-made backdrops. This is a unique opportunity to take close-up images of animals you would not likely be able to get close to in the wild.

African Stork - Jacksonville Zoo, FL

2. Arrive early - this serves two purposes. One, you will be able to catch any remaining "good" lighting (the downside of a zoo is that many of them do not open early enough for photographers!). Two, you will be able to avoid crowds and thus have access to prime shooting spots.

3. Scout your location - if you intend to visit a zoo for photography purposes, look for one with open enclosures, free-flight aviaries (where there will be no mesh between you and the birds), and enclosures with natural mixes of animals. If you only have access to one zoo, look around for the best vantage points before you start shooting.

Sloth Bear - Fort Worth Zoo, TX

So far, you are making this sound difficult. Why should I bother?

Zoos allow unparalleled access to exotic species, baby animals, and interesting behaviors. It is worth braving the crowds and sticky popcorn for! Also, there are interesting photojournalistic opportunities to be had, as zoos are one of the best places to view animals interacting with people.
Baby bongo - Jacksonville Zoo, FL
How do you feel about photographing in zoos?

Check out my photography basics guide: You can read Part 1 here.

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Thanks for reading!

Friday, March 14, 2014

Compose Yourself - Photography Basics, Part 3

Photography Basics Part 3: Composition and the Rule of Thirds

Read Part 1 and Part 2

In the previous installments of this series, we've talked about shutter speed and aperture - the foundations of a technically good photograph. However, we both know that there is more to an excellent image than high technical skill. This week, we will talk a little bit about the art of photography.

What does composition even mean?
"Composition" refers to the way elements are arranged in the frame. One of the difficulties of photography is learning to actively "see" all of the items in the frame. The brain naturally has a tendency to filter out superfluous or distracting items in the field, while you are acutely focused on your subject. It may not be until after you get home and are reviewing your shots that you realize your cousin Bob's red hat is glaringly present in the corner of each image. Learn to critically evaluate the scene as you are shooting to avoid these types of errors.

What is that "rule of thirds" thing you mentioned in the title?
The Rule of Thirds is a classic rule of art that helps organize and define what makes a particular composition pleasing, or not. The Rule is simple: divide the frame into thirds both ways, so that you have a grid. Your subject ideally should sit at any of the intersection points in the grid. Make sense?

Here is an example.

You can see that I am close but not exact in aligning the top right flower with the grid.
Here is another example:

The idea is not necessarily to be perfectly aligned with the grid (although if you are that good at geometry, more power to you), but rather to avoid plopping the subject dead center.

Why is a centered shot bad?
A "centered" composition can deaden an image, as it leaves no room for the viewer's eye to wander about the frame. The eye is automatically drawn to the center of the image, where it stays. In an off-center, or rule of thirds obliging image, the eye starts at the center and then is engaged to move around the frame by the off-center subject.

So, what you are telling me is, I should never use a centered composition?
Well, no. There are some instances in which a centered composition can produce a very dynamic image.
Fort Worth Zoo
In this example, the heads of the rhinos are centered, while their bodies act as "interest points" spanning away from the main subject. The viewer's eye fixes initially at the central point, then is drawn out to the edges of the frame, and back again into the center. The central placement of their heads visually "draws" the image together.
A center-heavy composition also emphasizes balance, symmetry, and peace. In short, there are no hard rules, although the rule of thirds is an excellent guideline, particularly for beginners.

Don't forget to read Part 1 and Part 2 of Photography Basics.
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Friday, March 7, 2014

Under a Somber Sky: Lighting Tips

The morning greeted me with a chill silence, grey and damp. Clouds blanketed the sun and the heavy humidity stuck to my skin. I shivered and zipped up my sweater.
Today would be a great day for macros.

As photographers, we worship the light, chase it, cater to it, long for it. However we must not forget the utility of cloud cover. Clouds allow for soft, diffused light that coaxes the vibrancy from flower petals and greenery. In harsh daytime light, many of the subtle colors of flowers get washed out or overwhelmed by the sheer intensity of the light. Heavy cloud cover prevents this problem, allowing for brilliant portraits. 
Of course, with the heavy clouds overhead the problem of darkness follows - it may be too dim to get the fast shutter speeds needed for sharp images of quick-moving insects or birds. Thus, I mostly stick to shooting flowers in these circumstances - but that doesn't mean you have to.
Diffused lighting allows for the delicate color palette of this flower to be captured without the "bleaching" of the white petals produced by bright overhead sunshine
A morning with heavy cloud cover provides other opportunities as well. The lack of sunshine means that morning delicacies such as dew hang around longer, as the light needed to evaporate them is missing.
Here you can see not only the dewdrops, but how vibrantly the blue and yellow tones have been rendered.

Dew drops are always a treat to discover because they add another layer of detail to macro subjects. The layered textures in the above photograph create new interest in an image that otherwise would rely on color and composition only.

Finally, soft morning light allows for more detail to be rendered in textured subjects, versus harsh, overhead midday light. Strong noontime lighting will destroy the subtle shadows of fine textures, such as the veining on this leaf above. Note also the richness of the color tones afforded by the overcast lighting.

What do you think about photographing under cloud cover? What is your favorite kind of lighting? I talk about evening lighting in this post.
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Thanks for reading!