An Image Critique at NatureVisions

One of the new features at NatureVisions this year is that you can sign up for an “image review”—a chance to meet with one of the photographers on the faculty and have him or her critique a dozen of your photos. I’m always interested in hearing feedback from photographers who are a few notches (or, more often, more than a few!) above me, so I happily paid the $60 fee to spend 20 minutes getting feedback from Steve Gettle.

This evening I finished figuring out which 12 images to take to the review, and I thought I’d share a few here. One is a macro, or close-up, photo of a katydid from a trip to the Tambopata region of Peru in August 2016:

I have all kinds of things I wonder about it: Do the eyes pop enough? Is enough of it in focus? Is it artsy enough to enter into a competition, or is it too plain, too monochromatic? But I think the important thing when I’m meeting with Steve next weekend is to just keep my mouth shut as each image comes up on the screen, and see what he says, unprompted. And if he says, “It just doesn’t work, and here’s why,” my job is to listen and learn.

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Getting Better as a Photographer

When I think about all of the different ways I’ve learned about photography over the years, it’s a long list. I’ve read free how-to articles online at places like Digital Photography School, Photography Life, and the Adorama Learning Center. I’ve gone to one-day seminars in Philadelphia and D.C. that were sponsored by National Geographic Traveler, KelbyOne, and others. I’ve watched YouTube and videos (I’m lucky that as a Penn State employee I have free access to on everything from how to assemble my tripod to how to use the Radial filter in Adobe Camera Raw. And I’ve gone on week-long—and longer—photo workshops in various exotic locations. More on those another time.

A few years ago, my friend Elaine told me about an annual three-day photography expo called NatureVisions, in Manassas, Va., and last year I went with her to the event. We’re headed back there next week.

I learned so much at NatureVisions last year. I attended sessions on travel photography, wildlife photography, macro photography, even iPhone photography. A session that especially appealed to me, given my job as a magazine editor, was Jennifer King‘s presentation on using design principles to create more effective images. King went to school to be a designer and worked in the advertising industry, then moved into art direction, becoming a creative director at an agency. Only later in her career did she leave that work and become a nature photographer—and she made a good case for the way the principles of design, i.e., the techniques you use to draw the reader or viewer in, apply in photography as well. She’s an amazing landscape photographer, and I hope to sign up for one of her trips sometime.

In one session at last year’s NatureVisions, you could experiment with macro photography. I took this close-up of a bunch of plastic drinking straws.(Click to see bigger.)

This year I’ve signed up for sessions by Nikhil Bahl on wildlife photography and Corey Hilz on macro photography, as well as two hands-on sessions, one where we get to photograph parrots and another where we photograph birds of prey. I’ve also signed up for a 20-minute “portfolio review,” in which I’ll show Steve Gettle 12 to 15 of my own images and get some quick feedback on what I could be doing better.

I’m sure I’ll post here about some of the things I learn at NatureVisions, so check back for that.

Meanwhile, Elaine and I are both big Penn State football fans, so we’re a little disappointed to hear that the Penn State/Michigan State game that Saturday is likely to air at either noon or 3:30 p.m. (Last year the game that weekend was at night, so we watched it on a TV at the hotel.) I might have to figure out a way to listen to the game in one ear while learning about photography with the other.

Stunning Photos from the Windland Smith Rice Award Winners

Whether you’re a photographer or just a fan of nature, you should take a few minutes and treat yourself to a gallery of some of the world’s best nature photos. Nature’s Best Photography magazine last week announced this year’s winners of the Windland Smith Rice International Awards, and it goes without saying that there are some stunning images in the collection.

Categories include Wildlife, Ocean Views, Birds, and Landscapes, among others. There are spectacular underwater creatures, a close-up of a leopard draped over a tree branch, a gorgeous image of the Aurora Borealis … just one amazing photo after another.

I was pleased to see that Greg Basco, who runs Foto Verde tours in Costa Rica, was honored for a macro shot of a bullet ant. I’ve gone on two photography-workshop trips that Greg led, and I’ve learned a lot from him, not only on the trips but also from his e-books. Piper MacKay, who offers well-regarded photography trips in Africa, won the African Wildlife category with an image of a pair of reticulated giraffes.

You can see all of the images that were honored here. You might also take a minute to read about Windland Smith Rice (here and here), the nature photographer who died at age 35; the awards are named for her.

The winning photos and many of the “highly honored” images will be on exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., from Oct. 24, 2017, through September of. 2018. Looking at them online is such a treat; I can’t imagine how great it would be to see them in person.

A Couple of St. Paul Island Birds

I’ve been looking through my photos from my trip to St. Paul Island this past July and picking out a few to work on. Here are two that I processed the other night.

First is a cute little seabird called a parakeet auklet:

I love his adorable blue webbed feet and the white streamer (“plume” is the more accurate term among birders). The thing at the back of his beak is thought to be part of the bird’s desalination system—seabirds drink seawater, but can’t tolerate the salt any better than you or I can, so they have internal mechanisms for removing and excreting it.

Auklets, like their cousins the puffins, are pelagic, meaning they spend most of their life at sea. They come back to land only in the summertime to mate, lay an egg or two, and raise their chicks. And the only place they’re found in the world is in the northern Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea. We saw three kinds of auklets on St. Paul Island: parakeet, least, and crested. There’s a fourth kind, called the rhinoceros auklet, which is larger and is sometimes considered a kind of puffin.

The other photo I worked on is of a shorebird called a ruddy turnstone, picking its way through the tundra vegetation on St. Paul:

This one is a female, I’m told; the male has more exaggerated color. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology—an excellent site for bird information—says “it almost looks like a calico cat.”

I had just seen ruddy turnstones on the New Jersey shore in May, so I was a little confused about what they were doing up in the Bering Sea in July. It turns out that they breed in the summer in the northern reaches of North America and come south to the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of the U.S. in the winter—but, according to Cornell, “many nonbreeding birds also hang around the coastal shores in the lower 48 even in the summer.”

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A Dispatch of Sorts from the Bering Sea

I’m pretty pumped to see my name on the home page of NatureScapes, a really respected business that caters to nature photographers. I wrote an article for them about a little-known wildlife hotspot—St. Paul Island, Alaska—and the piece was published on Friday.

NatureScapes offers photography workshops, sells photography gear, and offers articles, discussion forums, and other resources for photographers. I first took a NatureScapes trip about a year and a half ago, a workshop in Costa Rica. (The trip apparently has become enormously popular; it’s sold out for 2018 and 2019, but I see that they have openings in 2020, for those of you who plan way far ahead….) I loved the experience, and I met several photographers I still keep in touch with. One of them is Lee Anne Haynes Russell, who lives in Tennessee, and who talked me into signing up for another NatureScapes trip: the one to St. Paul Island, in the Bering Sea.

The trip took place this past July. I went into it with a little skepticism, and ended up having a terrific time. And that’s in spite of chilly temperatures, fog, dorm-like accommodations, cafeteria food three times a day, delayed luggage, and delayed flights. Anyway, I write about it in the article that you can see here.

By the way, I kept a pretty detailed journal on the St. Paul Island trip, and I’m thinking about posting an abbreviated version of that journal here on my blog over the next couple of weeks. I realize that not everyone may find it interesting, but it might be a good reference for anyone who’s planning a trip to St. Paul and wants to get a feel for what the experience will be like.