Author Archives: Jared

Shooting in Extremes

Nature is always going to throw you a curve ball from time to time. For me last week, this curve ball took the shape of a massive snowstorm that barreled across the western mountains of Wyoming dumping loads of powder and dipping temperatures into the single digits. Add to this the howling winds that came rushing down out of the Wind River Mountains, and you have a recipe for negative 20 degree wind chill factors that feels more like burning that freezing.

These are the conditions that send many people packing. Who in the right mind would actually want to venture out into this sort of stuff before dawn – battling arctic temperatures, icy roads, and deep snow drifts? Though some may argue my sanity some times, I’m here to tell you that shooting on the edge of extreme weather like this often gives you the most dramatic opportunities to photograph.

When it comes to nature photography, weather equates to drama – simple as that. Be it snow, clouds, or the insane sort of light that only comes at the edge of a major storm, these are the situations that often creates the most memorable photographs.

These past couple of weeks I have been in the middle of filming two new episodes of the PBS series Wild Photo Adventures. One of these shows was on the Wind River Basin of Wyoming. Big horn sheep, monster mule deer, the kaleidoscopic colors of the Wyoming badlands, and Shoshone petroglyphs all featured prominently in our “to do list.” All of which we knew would make for far more interesting subjects and situations with the incoming forecast from the National Weather Service of this November snowstorm. 

First and foremost we knew the heavy snows would push wildlife down out of the steeper and often inaccessible high country of the Wind River Range down to levels reachable without a helicopter or snowmobile. Second, the snow would really add a dramatic touch to any wildlife image or landscape that I had in store for the show. Third, I knew that this snow was simply going to make the Triassic red sandstone and clays of the badlands simply scream at dawn!

The storm and cold did not disappoint. Yes, it was bone chilling (thank God for coffee!). Yes it was windy – so much so that we had a production camera take sail in the wind and explode upon impact with the ground. But, the images that we were able to create because of these extremes were absolutely incredible and allowed us to move beyond the cliché into the realms of something unique.

Some key things to remember when photographing in these sort of conditions. . .

  1. Bring extra batteries! The cold can and will devour batteries with a quickness. Many a photographer has found themselves shut out of a great day of shooting because they didn’t bring spare batteries for their camera.
  2. Tripod placement. Shoot with a tripod. Your hands will get cold. You will get fatigued quickly. Just remember that when the wind is howling you need to keep a hand on that tripod and camera when set up (as one of the camera men from the show learned the hard way). Also, ice and snow make things slippery, and snow can conceal hidden obstacles and holes. So make sure you have a solid footing with your tripod.
  3. Polarizing Filter. Snow creates a lot of glare once the sun begins to shine down. A circular polarizing filter is an absolutely critical piece of equipment for controlling light.
  4. Exposure. Remember that your cameras light meter will give you an exposure that will render the snow somewhat gray in color. You will need to over expose by anywhere from 2/3 of a stop to 1.3 stops. This of course can be done either by shooting manually, or by using your exposure compensation (the +/- button).
  5. Good gloves. Your hands will suffer in these conditions. I have yet to find “the perfect” glove for shooting in the cold. Every pair I have is a compromise in some way. I prefer gloves with cut out fingers, but with a mitten hood that can be folded over your fingers when not shooting. Occasional I will wear thin fleece like glove liners along with these gloves for extra added warmth. When filming and photographing for the show, one of the crew members left their gloves back in the truck thinking he would only be exposed for a couple of minutes. Those couple of minutes cost him frostbite on his hands and a lot of pain and suffering the rest of the trip.

Photographing Shorebirds in Cape May NJ

Growing up along the beaches of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, I have always had a fascination with shorebirds. Maybe it’s the difficulty that most birders have in identifying these little guys. It could of course be the hilarious behavior of some species like the sanderling that scurries up and down the beach with the ebb and flow of each wave. The biogeek inside of me is definitely fascinated with the migration of these little birds and how that so many nest along the Arctic plain only to winter as far south as Argentina. Then of course there is the amazing biomechanics of these little guys that allows them to nearly double their body weight in a matter of a couple weeks of hard feeding, jump into the wind, and fly nearly non-stop for a few thousand miles before needing to lay over and refuel again for a couple of weeks as they hop scotch their way along the lengths of entire continents. Whatever it is that draws me to these little puff balls of feathers and pure kinetic energy, also makes this race of birds one of my favorite to photograph.

Recently Kevin, Gabriel, Adrian, and I (Jared) were up at the Cape May Autumn Birding Festival. Though we were here to work the show, like everyone else we were also looking to get out into the field as much as possible to catch the epic number of birds that can be found here this time of year. As it would turn out, much of our time was spent working one of the jetties where Lapland longspurs and purple sandpipers were held up. Along with these unique species, there were of course a number of shorebirds (other than the sandpiper) here as well such as ruddy turnstones, semipalmated plovers, and sanderlings. Naturally, I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to photograph these highly habituated shorebirds while I was here!

When photographing shorebirds, the first thing you need to keep in mind is that you absolutely must get low. This is a crucial part to photographing little birds like this. Sure, the same argument can be made for photographing any species of wildlife. However, the basic concept behind this is that you want to be at least eye level with your subject. Considering how small these shorebirds are then, that means that you will create your most pleasing photographs while lying flat on your belly.

This is a huge obstacle for many people. Most folks don’t want to get sandy. Most people don’t want to just plop down in the sand or on the rocks with the face inches away from the cold ground. I’m here to tell you though that as long as you are physically able to do it, get over your inhibition right now. Its only holding you back in many ways.

Now photographing from this position with a big lens means that you need a way to support your equipment while down low. Some photographers opt for laying their tripod in the sand and resting their lens on the legs. Others, such as myself, use tripods without a center column which therefore allows you to spread your tripod legs out and drop the entire tripod right down to the ground. Others prefer to use special ground pods – both purchased and homemade.

Like I mentioned above, I use a tripod without a center column specifically so I can use it to get really low to the ground. With that said though, I also use ground pods in certain situations – especially those that I can plan for. Ground pods are great because you can literally slide the entire contraption around on the ground to stay in place with your subject.

I use a homemade ground pod that is nothing more than a Frisbee with a 2×4 cut to fit laying inside of it with a bolt for my tripod head to screw onto. You can obviously make this yourself pretty easily. Or of course you can pay $200 for one also. Regardless of what you do, these are a great tool to have in this situation. This particular morning, I just simply dropped my tripod to the ground.

Getting low like this of course does put you right at eye level with your subject. It also allows you to control the background with these little guys. Background is key in wildlife photography and is just as important as light and subject matter. Getting low like this allows you to include, exclude, completely blur out, or keep your background in focus. Its your choice when you get down low like this and that’s what its all about: CONTROL.

The other thing you want to keep in mind when working shorebirds is simply patience. Shorebirds flitter around. They will jump with a wave, fly 50 feet away, and then often come back again. They move around. They are about as frenetic of a species as there is. The key is to find an area that several different species are all working. This usually means that there is a large and diverse food source here – which of course is a good thing since all animals in the world are driven by just two things: food and sex.

Once this location is located, which with this bird was a section of the jetty that wasn’t being consistently bombarded with waves, I set up my camera, lay down, and wait. As the birds acclimate to you, they will go about their feeding seemingly oblivious to you. You will know it when you have been accepted as you might have birds just 3 feet from your lens. This happened several times while photographing on the jetty this morning. Sometimes it is of course necessary to move with the birds. But more often than not, you will find that if you chose an appropriate location, the birds will consistently come right back to you.

The image I chose to accompany this post about photographing shorebirds is of a ruddy turnstone practicing its morning yoga on the Second Avenue Jetty in Cape May, New Jeresey. You can see from this image just how effective getting low like this can be in terms of how you portray, and therefore how your audience views your subject.

 

Bring on the Stars!

Humans have always been fascinated by the stars. As far back as we are able to see into the anthropological past, humans have told stories, created myths, and interwoven their beliefs of heaven and religion with the stars. We have used the stars to track time, the changing of the seasons, and have used them to guide ourselves across the seemingly endless expanses of the oceans.

As an artist, I have always been fascinated with stars as well. From a photographic standpoint, not only do they stand as a captivating and beautiful subject matter in their own right, but they also make for an incredible way to breathe new life into oft photographed scenes of iconic landscapes and landmarks.

The image that I chose to accompany this article is of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse located in Corolla, North Carolina. This lighthouse stands watch over the northern most stretch of barrier islands known as the Outer Banks and is one of five lighthouses that stand sentinel along these world famous islands known by many a poor sailor as the Graveyard of the Atlantic.

This particular image is the product of a month long personal project that I undertook last winter to photograph the Currituck Beach Light in a completely new and intriguing way. Like most iconic scenes, they have been photographed countless times by countless photographers. However, lighthouses like this are typically photographed from the same hand full of locations time and time again. A little fact that was unacceptable for me when I began to approach this project.

After realizing that I wanted to photograph this particular lighthouse at night, and there were a number of reasons that I made this decision, I spent many days scouting out the right location. I kayaked into narrow marsh creeks, I donned 5mm neoprene waders and pulled myself through frigid water and thigh high mud. I burned countless gallons of gas navigating my skiff through the Currituck Sound in search of that perfect composition. Once I found what I was looking for, it then became a matter of waiting for the right time to shoot this scene.

Shooting for Stars

When stars are going to factor heavily into your composition, you will find your best opportunities if you wait for a very clear night with little to no moonlight. Clouds of course can add a unique dimension to the night sky, however if you want maximum impact, a cloudless night is your best bet.

Similar to the watching for clouds and how that they might impact your night sky, you will also want to consider the moon as well. The larger the moon is in the sky, or the closer it is to your specific composition, the less stars that you will have to work with. Timing can be everything here if the moon is rising or setting in the same region as where you want to photograph. If this is the case, you will find that sometimes the ideal times to photograph are just one hour after the sun has set, or you may need to come back in at 3am for instance, once the moon has left the scene. For this reason, new moons are a great time to work.

Much like the light from the moon, you will also need to keep in mind the concept of light pollution. Our industrial civilization does a great job at blotting out the beauty of the night sky with our array of artificial lights. Even a distant town can produce a distinct glow to the night sky  – especially when shutter speeds begin to approach 30 seconds or more in length.

Now once you have all of the logistical details worked out before hand, you will then have to decide upon a proper exposure for given scene and conditions. When photographing stars like this you basically have two choices. You can either decide to render them as tiny pin pricks of light in the sky, or to really drag your shutter speed down to very long exposures of several minutes or more and create star trails. With this composition I decided that to include star trails would create an image that was far too busy for what I was looking for. Remember, simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication.

Deciding how and what you will set your exposure to in this situation is really quite simple despite some pretty in depth physics that go into it all. At first glance it can seem pretty confusing. Basically you have to take into consideration the speed of the Earth’s rotation, which is roughly 1070 mph, how exactly such speeds are recorded by the focal length of the lens, and given all of this information, exactly what shutter speed can you push your camera to before the stars begin to trail.

Seem like a lot to swallow? Luckily someone far smarter than I already figured out the basic physics at work here and translated it all into what we call the rule of 600. The rule of 600 basically states that if you divide the focal length of your lens into the number 600 than the quotient will equal the slowest shutter speed possible that you can capture stars without trials with that particular lens and / or focal length.

So in this photograph I used a Nikon 12-24mm lens at the 24mm range. In order to figure out what my slowest shutter speed could be then, I simply divided 24 into 600 which gave me an answer of 25. Well since cameras do not have a 25 second option, but they do have shutter speeds of 30 seconds, I opted to shoot this at 30 seconds and accept the very minute amount of star trailing that occurred instead of breaking out the cable release, photographing on “bulb,” and timing the exposure at 25 seconds exactly.  And that is really the idea behind all of this mathematical stuff. The rule of 600, although it can be used with precision, can also be used to get you close enough to what you will need to know.

For another example of how that shutter speed changes with different focal lengths, lets look at a completely different lens such as the popular 70-200. At the short end of the spectrum if I divide 70 into 600 I find that I can get away with an exposure of 8 seconds before trails begin to occur. Likewise, at the long end of the lens, if I divide 200 into 600 than I see that only 3 seconds of exposure is possible before I lose those pin pricks of light.

Personally I shy away from anything to do with math. However, when composing and creating this photograph, remembering this simple formula allowed me to create one of my most popular and best selling images to date. It’s a classic landmark – the Currituck Beach Lighthouse – and one that has been photographed by countless photographers before me. However, what I was able to do by including the brilliance and mystique of the night sky was to move beyond creating a cliché and trite photograph of this lighthouse, and instead create something truly unique and distinctly mine. This notion of thinking creatively and outside of the box is something I challenge all of my workshop participants to do with their photography. And learning to incorporate the night sky into your composition is an incredible tool for doing just that!