Category Archives: Landscape

Light Ever Changing

St. Mary's Lake and Wild Goose Island @ 5:41 AM

St. Mary’s Lake and Wild Goose Island @ 5:41 AM

St. Mary's Lake and Wild Goose Island @ 5:53 AM

St. Mary’s Lake and Wild Goose Island @ 5:53 AM

St. Mary's Lake and Wild Goose Island @ 6:01 AM

St. Mary’s Lake and Wild Goose Island @ 6:01 AM

St. Mary's Lake and Wild Goose Island @ 6:13 AM.

St. Mary’s Lake and Wild Goose Island @ 6:13 AM.

I’ve said this before… “Nature photography is 98% patience…” Photography is all about the light and the light never stays the same.

The images above were all taken on the same morning between 5:40 AM and 6:15 AM. A short period of time, really. The weather was warm, though a bit breezy, pushing the clouds at a quick rate which caused the shadows and light shafts to continuously create new patterns.

These conditions need to be taken advantage of by photographers! However, you need to be prepared with your tripod, graduated neutral density filters (a 0.6 soft-edge ND was used on each of these images), and a remote release.

Of course… bring a big bag full of patience, too, then be ready for when nature provides!

–Kevin Loughlin

98% Patience for Great Nature Photos

Snow Geese 'blast off' at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. Patience is key as the wait can be hours before they take off!

Snow Geese ‘blast off’ at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. Patience is key as the wait can be hours before they take off!

Snow Geese pre-blast-off

Snow Geese still coming in… about an hour before the ‘blast off’ at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico.

Anyone who has joined me on one of my nature photography workshops or has read my book knows this formula… 98% patience, 1% luck ands 1% skill is required to be successful at nature photography.

Waiting for hours in a blind for wildlife to appear or for the light to be ‘just right’ can tax even the most patient soul! It is very easy to get distracted while waiting, especially if the weather is less than desirable! Keeping your task at hand in focus, however, is required to take advantage of the 1% luck, when your subject appears or the light has peaked. Then you can use your 1% skill to get the shot!

Long-billed Hermits typical return to the same flower about every 40 minutes.

Long-billed Hermits typical return to the same flower about every 40 minutes.

The waiting can be minimized in some cases by ‘knowing’ your subject. Understanding the natural history of the wildlife you are photographing is key to creating opportunities and getting the best images. Some hummingbirds, for example, are known as ‘trapliners’ because they feed on a circuit of flowers rather than staking out a territory. In other words, they return to the same flowers time and again, on a schedule. Depending on the species, the time will vary from 10 minutes to as much as 40 minutes. Observing your subject until you  know the timing will help keep you alert for when the action will begin.

Many big (and small) mammals have circuits as well and create ‘game trails’ that can be staked out for placement of blinds. Look for woodpeckers, bluebirds and other cavity nesting birds in spring as they fly back and forth to their nest to feed young. Don’t get too close to the nest as this can alert predators to it’s presence. Stay back to get a better angle, or build a platform blind a safe distance away for minimal disturbance.

 

A young Social Flycatcher in Honduras caught my eye with fluttering wings. As I waited patiently, mom came in to feed it and offered a fun composition on approach.

A young Social Flycatcher in Honduras caught my eye with fluttering wings. As I waited patiently, mom came in to feed it and offered a fun composition on approach.

Once you understand your subject and have your tools in place, the luck factor comes into play. Having your subject ‘perform’ as you had hoped, or better yet, with an unexpected behavior, is up to luck. Enjoying a woodpecker flying into and out of its nest hole may get monotonous… but be ready for when the male and female connect for that brief moment before they change places, or for a chick’s head to appear in the opening before mom returns with a meal. It’s those extra opportunities outside the repeated behavior that you hope to capture. Something ‘different’ from what others have seen and captured!

This is where the 1% skill comes into play… understanding your camera’s controls to be sure you have all the proper settings for the light and action when the ‘unique behavior’ happens is your key to success! Practice, practice, practice! Getting outside and playing with the settings to see how everything works in different levels of light and speed of action will help prepare you for when the moment presents itself and you have a split second to react!

— Kevin

Pack Up or Keep Shooting?

Galapagos lava flow after post processing in Lightroom 4

Galapagos lava flow, original RAW file

Not every photo opportunity is perfect. Sometimes we are in the right place at the wrong time of day or in bad light for the subject. In some circumstances we may just pack up our gear and choose to come back at different time of day, or a different day, to get the image we want.

However, we don’t always have the luxury of returning to a location exactly when we want, like when traveling to some far off land. Instead we learn some tricks to help compensate for the lighting to get the best images possible for the conditions.

Case in point, the Galapagos Islands. An extraordinary place that everyone should visit. With cooperative wildlife and stunning scenery, there is so much to see that each day is packed with discovery–throughout the whole day. And therein lies the issue. Since the best light is morning and evening we can’t pack everything in to those few hours! And due to the strict rules, all the boats must abide by the scheduling set forth by the National Park

So in mid-day when the light is harsh, or a cloudy day when the light is flat, we still shoot away at our charismatic subjects. We create the best exposure we can in-camera, then in post processing we make our adjustments.

The image of the pahoehoe lava floe above was taken late morning on an overcast day with very flat light. As you can see by the RAW ‘before’ file there is very little contrast and the lava is actually a rust color due to the high iron content. We typically think of cold lava as black, so in Lightroom 4 I converted the image to black-and-white. Then playing with the sliders I adjusted contrast and detail to give me the image I saw in my mind.

Some would say, “that’s cheating.” However, even though we are doing this on a computer now, we used to do the same thing with with black-and-white film. Using a red filter we could add contrast, then in in the darkroom use additional filters with certain papers, or a specific paper to add a bit more contrast as needed. With our hands we would dodge and burn certain regions of the image until it was just right. As Ansel Adams once said, “90% of my image is created in the darkroom.” It is a lot easier with the computer!

SIDE NOTE: This exact scene was used in the movie “Master and Commander“… grab your DVD and see if you can find it!

–Images and Text © Kevin Loughlin

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.

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!