It All Started With My Dad

Dad and me at some national park—Petrified Forest, perhaps?—in 1963.

I recently was asked to speak to a group of local photographers about “getting to the next level”—more specifically, about my lifelong experience with photography and how I’ve grown and learned as a photographer. The idea was to pass along some wisdom I’ve acquired over the years that other photographers might find useful. It was an interesting challenge, and a fun one.

I won’t subject you to the entire presentation here, but anytime I talk about my photographic roots, one person comes to mind immediately: my dad.

Dad was a photography enthusiast for a very long time. There was a cupboard in the TV room at our house that was stuffed with his various cameras, not only still cameras but movie cameras and projectors as well.

My favorite in the cupboard was a tiny spy-camera-looking-thing called a Minox—it was called a subminiature camera, maybe the size of a pencil case, and its negatives were unbelievably small. I was fascinated by it. At left is a photo I found on Flickr of a 1963 or 1964 Minox that looks identical to the one Dad had. I also remember his Polaroid camera, which would spit out the photo instantly, but you had to give it a certain amount of time to develop before peeling off the paper to reveal the photo. And with the early models, you had to Read more

10 Online Resources for Nature Photographers

If you’re looking to get better at nature photography, there’s an amazing universe of internet resources available—many of them free. Case in point: I subscribe to a weekly e-newsletter from the respected photographer Art Wolfe, and about a week ago, the email carried an announcement of an upcoming online critique session he’s offering. Next Monday, Nov. 27, from 9 a.m. to noon Pacific time, he’ll be looking at user-submitted images and talking about what he thinks works in each one, what doesn’t, and how the image might be tweaked in Lightroom or Photoshop to maximize its potential. Anyone is welcome to watch, and he’s doing this for free.

(I won’t be able to watch it live, as I do have a day job! But I paid 19 bucks—very reasonable, in my mind—in order to watch it later on my own time. From the website, I can’t quite tell if that $19 “watch it later” option is still being offered, but you should take a look.)

I don’t know if I’ll submit an image in hopes that Art will critique it. It’s not required. And to me it doesn’t matter—I know I’ll get a lot out of it just by listening to him critique other people’s images. It’s a great way to learn.

It got me thinking about how many other internet resources are available for photographers who want to learn. Below are 10 of my favorites: Read more

Beautiful Birds of Prey

I want to share with you six images of six gorgeous birds of prey that I was lucky to photograph up close at the NatureVisions photography expo a few weekends ago.

The expo is a nicely organized collection of opportunities for people who want to learn about photography: There’s an all-day lecture on Friday by a respected nature photographer, followed by a large array of choices for shorter seminars on Saturday and Sunday, mixed in with chances to do some actual shooting. This year they offered a session where you could do flower photography, a chance to photograph macaws and other parrots (I wrote about that last week), and a session featuring birds of prey brought in for us to practice on.

There’s a wooded area right outside the performing-arts center where the expo took place, so the guy who provided the raptors, Deron Meador—more on him in a moment—would just bring a bird out of one of the cages and position it on a tree branch at the edge of the woods, giving us a nice natural backdrop for our images. (The birds were tethered, so they weren’t going anywhere.)

Deron had a whole bunch of cages with him, an incredible variety of raptors. Below are the ones I was able to photograph before I had to scoot off to an image-critique session I’d signed up for. First, an American kestrel, a small, colorful predator that you sometimes see on power lines along Pennsylvania roads:

Next, a barn owl, which impressed me with its big round face: Read more

Photography Wisdom from NatureVisions

I learned so much at the NatureVisions photography expo in Virginia last weekend that I can’t imagine how I would summarize it here. But I thought it might be helpful to share just a sampling of the wisdom I heard from the photography pros who spoke. Some of the items on the list below represent a theme that I heard over and over throughout the weekend; others are just random interesting bits of information that jumped out at me.

Action is the holy grail. Nikhil Bahl talked about three kinds of wildlife images: portraits, the animal in its environment, and action shots. In some ways that represents a common progression in a photographer’s learning, and it’s certainly true for me: I’ve gotten to be pretty good at still portraits of birds sitting on branches (what Nikhil and other photographers refer to as “a bird on a stick”), but I have far fewer images that show the bird or other animal doing something.

Nikhil wasn’t dissing portraits: “Everyone should take these, and every time I have a chance to take a portrait, I do,” he said. “But I’m always looking for something else.” A hawk with a little bit of blood on its face, suggesting that it’s just eaten. A fox licking its chops. Those tell a story, and are more engaging than a simple portrait.

My pal Lee Anne, whom I met on a Costa Rica photography trip, has lots and lots of action photos of birds. And by “action photos,” I just mean that she’s good at capturing them doing something, whether it’s singing or jumping or eating or whatever. Here’s just one example of what I mean, an image she took of a brown thrasher in mid-hop:

By the way, you totally should follow Lee Anne on Instagram (she has 45 thousand followers!).

Good nature photography takes time and devotion. Many of the killer images I’ve seen of birds and other wildlife didn’t happen by chance—more often, the photographer spent a lot of time to get the shot. Joe Subolefsky, for example, Read more

Parrot Portraits

A salmon-crested, or Moluccan, cockatoo.

A good bit of the learning at the annual NatureVisions photo expo in Virginia takes place in a classroom or auditorium, where a talented and respected photographer gives a PowerPoint about, say, photographing landscapes or wildlife, or about Photoshop or Lightroom techniques. But another feature of the weekend that’s especially appealing is the chance to do some actual shooting. Last year I signed up for a session where we photographed birds of prey; this year I signed up for that session plus a new one: a chance to photograph parrots.

The parrots were provided by a rescue operation called Ruffled Feathers Parrot Sanctuary, which is based in Hanover, Pa.—actually in the North Hanover Mall. (Kinda funny to imagine a parrot sanctuary located between, say, a Dick’s Sporting Goods and a Burlington Coat Factory, but that’s where they are.) One of the rescue’s co-founders, Gil Stern, and an assistant brought in a colorful collection of macaws, cockatoos, conures, and other parrots for us. Read more

Geeking Out at NatureVisions

I just finished Day 1 at NatureVisions, a nature photography expo in Manassas, Va., and the photo-nerd in me is very happy. I spent the entire day in an auditorium listening to Matt Kloskowski giving a master class in landscape photography—and between looking at his stunning images and taking notes on all the advice he offered, my head is very full.

We learned about how he approaches any given scene, i.e., the steps he takes when he arrives, from sizing up where the light is coming from to deciding what he’s going to place in the foreground to choosing where he’s going to position the sun to deciding how to deal with the water (ocean, waterfall, whatever) in the photo—does he want to freeze it with a fast shutter speed, or blur it with a longer exposure?

We heard about the different kinds of light—side light, back light, diffused light, etc.—and though I’ve heard about this in photography seminars before, his comments served as a good reminder to stop and take a look at the kind of light you’re working with when you’re photographing a scene. He also introduced me to the idea that you can shoot right at the sun—you just need to position it on the edge of something, like some branches or a mountain or a building. You’ll diffuse the sun that way and get a nice starburst effect.

In the afternoon he showed some Lightroom/Photoshop tricks for improving your photos—he’s unabashed in his enthusiasm for editing photos, saying that he edits “110 percent” of his images. I learned some techniques I want to check into when I get home: some lens corrections, some sort of “guided” correction for making trees and buildings straighter, and an amazing color-correcting tool called Color Lookup Tables, among many others.

Matt is a very funny, engaging teacher, and apparently he’s got a lot of online instructional videos. Check them out sometime, and if you get an opportunity to hear him speak, don’t miss the chance.