About the photos
I've gotten some nice compliments on the photos in this series. Of course, the pictures you see in these web pages don't do full justice to the magnificent Colorado scenery. (For that, they'd have to be in 3D on an IMAX screen!) But considering my self-imposed limitations, I did all right. I thought you might be interested in some behind-the scenes details of how I got the photos you've seen here, using modest non-professional-grade equipment.
It was an interesting contrast in photographic methods this summer. My friends Jan & James are both award-winning professional wildlife photographers using high-end equipment. They wouldn't think of going on a shoot without a carload of stuff, nor of hiking into the hills without a thirty-pound backpack full of gear and a large, heavy tripod. They almost never shoot anything hand-held. They're shooting for publication, so they need the highest possible quality.
I'm shooting mainly for the web, so I can get away with less. In fact, almost every photo you've seen in this "Colorado Summer" series was taken with equipment that fits in a fanny pack that I bought at Walmart for $6.97 about ten years ago. I can count on my thumbs the number of times I used a tripod this summer. A few photos I even took with my iPhone 4.
Photo © 2012, Jan Forseth, ImagesOfTheWild.com
You see, long ago I was a freelance photographer with a bulky case full of SLR camera bodies, lenses (everything from 7.5mm to 400mm) and accessories... and I had the sore arms to prove it. But I sold my SLR outfit years ago, and made a deliberate decision to go "light and agile." Everything I carry now fits in that Walmart fanny pack. In fact, that's my deciding criterion when choosing a camera: if it won't fit in the fanny pack, I won't buy it. Wearing the pack on my waist leaves both my hands free, and I almost never carry a tripod.
Understand, I'm not saying this is the way to go for everyone. I'm just saying that I've tried a number of ways, and this is what I chose. Here are the advantages and drawbacks, and here's how I work around the drawbacks.
So how did I get such good photos this summer? Well, there were four main factors.
- Being in the right place at the right time. I was extremely fortunate to have friends who knew the state of Colorado, and knew where to find good nature photos—and equally important, when. Jan & James knew at what hours the mountain goats were going to be feeding, where to look for moose, and when the autumn colors would be at their peak. And their 4WD Jeeps took us to remote, beautiful locations where my little Honda Fit would never have dared to venture. First and foremost, I owe this summer's best photos to them.
- Being prepared. I had a versatile camera, and (most important) I had it with me most of the time, so I was able to take advantage of unexpected opportunities—"grab shots"—to get photos that I'd probably have missed if I'd had bulkier professional equipment.
- Ruthless editing. I shoot a lot of frames (one of the wonderful things about digital photography is that it costs nothing to do this), and then throw away at least nine out ten when I get back home. I'm ruthless about dumping shots that don't quite make it. And of the pictures I save, only about half make it to my website—I only post the ones that help support the story I'm telling. Mark of an amateur: show everything you've got. Mark of a professional: only show your very best.
- Software skills. Modern digital cameras are remarkably good, but no camera sees things exactly the way you do. Every photo I keep gets a once-over in Photoshop to make sure it looks the way I remember seeing the scene, not just the way the camera saw it.
Let's talk about those four factors in more detail.
Right place, right time
The place is up to you. It can be anywhere—you don't have to be shooting spectacular scenic vistas. It can be a couple of leaves floating in a still pond. You just have to use your eyes.
But as for the time... well, some times are better than others. If you're photographing animals, you'll want to find out about their feeding habits from a book or a park ranger. But in general, early morning and late afternoon—the "golden hours"—are the times when the light will work to your advantage. First, the color is warmer... but even more important, the sun is coming in at a low angle, accentuating shapes and making everything look more three-dimensional.
High noon, when the sun is shining straight down, is usually the worst time to shoot, because everything will look flat and boring. Exception: when shooting in slot canyons, your best hours are usually from 11:00 to 1:00, because that's the only time a deep, narrow canyon gets significant sunlight. But in general, early and late are your best bets for dramatic lighting.
If you have an iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad, there are apps that can help you with this. Darkness - Sun, Moon is one. It tells you the sunrise and sunset times, in what compass direction the sun and moon will appear, and so on—locally or for any place on any date. If you're really serious, The Photographer's Ephemeris will not only give you sunrise and sunset times, but show the tracks of the sun and moon across the landscape on a photo map, allowing you to figure where the afternoon shadows will fall and when the crescent moon will be nestled in that notch in the mountains.
First and foremost, this means having your camera with you. The best camera in the world is worthless if it's sitting in a cupboard. This is where my style differs from that of my professional friends: I use a lightweight camera and carry it everywhere, rather than using heavy "pro" gear that only gets taken out on planned photographic outings.
I've already mentioned how I switched from toting a case-full of SLR bodies and lenses to fitting everything in one fanny pack. One reason I'm able to do that is that my Panasonic FZ150 camera is superbly versatile, thanks to a zoom lens with a very wide (24x) range of focal lengths: from 25mm ultrawide to 600mm telephoto, in 35mm terms. Who needs interchangeable lenses when you have a 25–600 macro lens permanently mounted? The FZ150 can shoot 12 frames per second at its full 12 megapixel resolution, it can produce excellent HD video, and even high-speed video at 220 fps for slow-motion effects. About the only thing it's not good for is astrophotography—it doesn't do exposures longer than 30 seconds, and images get "noisy" (grainy) in very low light.
These kinds of features aren't unusual nowadays; many compact cameras have long zooms. I like the FZ150 because in addition to the usual LCD panel on the back, it has an eyepiece viewfinder. That has two major advantages: it doesn't wash out in direct sunlight; and holding the camera up against your face is much more stable than holding it at arm's length in front of you, so you can shoot in poor light with less fear of camera shake. Its successor, the Panasonic FZ200, is even better: its lens holds an f/2.8 maximum aperture all the way to 600mm. That means it transmits a lot of light, so it can work better in low-light conditions. Try shopping for a 600mm f/2.8 SLR lens sometime. You're looking at a twelve-pound lens that's almost two feet long and costs upward of $10,000... and it isn't even a zoom!
But I'm getting too technical here. My point is this: if your camera has a long zoom range (at least 10x, and 20x is better), you can feel confident that it'll handle almost any situation you come up against. If it's compact, you can carry it with you wherever you go. That's a great recipe for good photos.
Now, the kinds of consumer-grade cameras I'm talking about here have one drawback: they have small image sensors, so they're prone to noisy images in low light. Jan & James, shooting for publication with full-frame DSLRs, get better-quality images, especially in low light. But because they're shooting from tripods, and they have to swap lenses instead of just zooming from wide to tele as I can, it takes them five minutes to unpack their gear and set up, so they miss some shots that I get.
For example, take the pictures of the mule deer and the chipmunk that I shot from the car window. There's no way Jan or James would have been able to get those. By the time they unpacked their cameras and mounted their tele lenses, those animals would have been long gone. And the "Kids at play" stills and video? Same thing: by the time Jan or James got set up, that brief episode would have been over. I just leaned on the hood of James's Jeep and fired away at 12 frames per second, then shot HD video for as long as the play session lasted. And the whole "Lunch with a bear" series would not have been possible if I hadn't had my fanny pack with me when Jan and I went to lunch. She hadn't brought her 30-pound backpack full of gear to the restaurant, because it wasn't a planned photo outing. I had to lend her my camera so she could get a few shots.
As I said, it's all about tradeoffs. Because I'm shooting mainly for the web (I don't make prints any more—where would I put them?), I can get away with lower resolution. And after decades of lugging heavy SLRs and lenses around, I've made a choice to travel light, so I can be ready for grab shots that would not be possible with an interchangeable-lens camera outfit. My FZ150 weighs only 19 ounces, complete with 25mm–600mm Leica lens.
But I don't want to make it sound as if you need to buy the same camera I have in order to take good photos. In fact, if you look at the past few years of pages on this Skylarking website, 90% of the pictures were taken with a Canon SD1100IS camera—a tiny, inexpensive point-and-shoot no bigger than an Altoids tin! It was only a year ago that I got the FZ150. The SD1100 only had a 3x zoom, and there were no fancy features, but I got plenty of good pictures with it.
So what's in my fanny pack besides the camera?
- The Panasonic FZ150, of course... it just fits.
- A couple of spare SD storage cards, each of which holds about 3,000 full-resolution images. In old-fashioned terms, I'm carrying the equivalent of 250 rolls of Kodachrome!
- A spare battery, good for about 450 shots
- A mini-tripod (more on that later)
- A microfiber cleaning cloth
- A tube of lip balm (I make my own, 'cause it's cheaper)
- A filter case, containing:
- A variable neutral density filter, for times when I want to use a really slow shutter speed (as when shooting waterfalls)
- A circular polarizer, for darkening skies and getting rid of or emphasizing reflections... it can also serve as a two-stop ND filter
In addition, because I occasionally use my iPhone (which rides in my shirt pocket) or my iPad for photography, I have a few other accessories:
- An SD card reader for the iPhone and iPad
- A tiny strap-on macro lens for the phone—you can read more about it on this page
- A Glif tripod adapter for the iPhone
It all fits in one little case that goes around my waist. Sure, it makes me look like a marsupial, but so what? I have everything I need.
My friends always use a tripod. I almost never do. Why? Because I hate carrying one around. It hampers my mobility, and by the time I get it set up, all too often the shot I wanted is gone. Instead, I'm very good at holding my breath, pulling in my elbows, and bracing myself or the camera against rocks, trees, fences or other available supports. (I do carry a 6" mini-tripod in the fanny pack, which sometimes gets me a better angle from whatever I'm bracing against.)
This summer, I only used a full-sized tripod on a couple of the waterfall photos, where I was experimenting with exposures in the 2–4 second range. (I ended up deciding that one second or less worked best for me.) The rest of the shots, including many with longish exposures, were taken handheld or braced against a tree or rock. In a few cases I used the mini-tripod to help get the angle I wanted. Although it weighs less than two ounces, it holds my largest camera securely. (I also tried a Joby Gorillapod, but found it didn't support my camera well—the legs tended to buckle.)
I do have a "real" tripod. It's an all-aluminum Vivitar model that I bought at Walmart for $29.99. It weighs 2.3 pounds.
Why does it say "Aluminum fiber"? Oh, that's just a little joke. I got tired of reading about the super-expensive carbon-fiber tripods that are all the rage with high-end photographers. I even looked into buying one... but search as I might, I couldn't find a "lightweight" carbon-fiber tripod (at any price!) that matched my cheapie's 2.3-pound weight and all its useful features: bubble level, geared elevator, flip-lock legs, hook for ballasting, and so on. So I labeled mine "Aluminum fiber," and when somebody asks me about it, I say "Oh, carbon fiber is so last-century! The new standard is aluminum fiber."
I did make one change to the Vivitar tripod: I removed its pan-and-tilt head and replaced it with an old $15 Hama ballhead that I had lying around. The panhead's handle just got in my way, and I hated the quick-release plate that came with it, because it made my cameras so much bulkier to have this thing attached to their tripod sockets all the time. The good old 1/4-20 tripod screw works just fine for me.
Now, if you have a two-pound DSLR body with a 600mm telephoto lens that weighs ten or twelve pounds and looks like a piece of field artillery, my tripod isn't going to work for you. You'll need a big pro tripod, and you can expect to pay hundreds of bucks for it—and hundreds of bucks more for a good pan- or ballhead. It's going to weigh a lot more than a couple of pounds, too. But for my Panasonic FZ150, which weighs 1.2 pounds including its 25–600mm lens, my cheap Vivitar tripod is plenty stable... and a lot easier on my arms and back.
But again, 99% of my photography is done handheld or with improvised support. One exception: video. If you're shooting video, please use a tripod! It isn't just that shaky video is the hallmark of the clueless amateur... it's a question of indigestion. I remember when a friend of mine took a cruise to Alaska and brought back hours of video. We sat down in my living room to watch it on my 53" TV. After about fifteen minutes, we turned to each other. I said, "I'm going to need some Dramamine," and she said "Me too." We watched the rest on a small screen.
If you have any doubts on this score, take a look at this video of a female moose I shot at Deer Lakes. I was standing up, with nothing to brace myself against, and shooting at maximum telephoto. The result is almost unwatchable, because even my breathing made the camera wander all over the place. If I'd had my tripod, this could've been great footage. As it was, I did my best to stand still and hold the camera still, but it wasn't good enough. You can't win 'em all.
Not using a tripod most of the time does limit me occasionally. But as I said in the beginning, it's all a game of tradeoffs. If I were shooting more video, I'd grit my teeth and carry one. But since I'm mostly shooting stills, I get by without its encumbrance.
Shoot freely, edit ruthlessly
This is easy to say and hard to do: throw away everything but your best shots. Hard to do, because we photographers naturally fall in love with our images, and tend to overlook their little (and big) flaws. Look at this adorable fawn, for example...
Adorable, yes, but out of focus... and with a very distracting background that's all too sharply in focus. Out it goes.
Or take this photo of aspens...
They looked gorgeous when I was standing there, but somehow the photo just isn't all that interesting. And I have lots of other "colorful aspen" photos to choose from. Dump it.
Remember I said that I throw away 90% of the photos I shoot? Well, I lied. It's more like 98%. Pros I've talked with say the same. Right now there are nearly three thousand discarded photos in my iMac's trash can:
Photos that just weren't quite good enough, or didn't tell the story I was trying to tell, or show the scene the way I saw it. I told you—I'm ruthless!
If you want to make yourself look like a better photographer, weed out your mediocre shots. The more you throw away, the better you'll look. And when your friends ask you "How did you get that amazing photo?", you don't have to tell them that you got it by shooting thirty images and then throwing away twenty nine of them.
Which brings up the corollary to editing ruthlessly: don't be afraid to take risks. If you see a moose, go ahead and photograph it, even if you're not sure you can hold the camera steady enough. Think it's too dark? Take the shot anyway; you might get lucky. If your camera allows "bracketing" (over- and underexposing), by all means bracket—it increases your chances of getting lucky. Shoot freely... but edit ruthlessly.
Some photographers look down on what they call "manipulation." I actually saw a letter to the editor of a photography magazine recently from someone who wrote, "What would Ansel Adams have thought about all this digital manipulation?" I had to laugh, because Ansel Adams spent hours in the darkroom manipulating his prints—dodging, burning, rubbing in, bleaching out—he would have loved Photoshop.
I said this before, and I'll say it again: cameras don't see things the way we do. The image from a camera is no more "true reality" than a painting. My job as a photographer is to make my images end up looking the way I saw the scene, not the way the camera photographed it. For example, here's an image the way the camera saw it: washed out...
...and here it is the way I saw it.
Just a little contrast adjustment, and the image "snaps." My rule of thumb is to adjust until it looks the way I want, then back off just a bit, so it's not too blatant.
Sometimes an "almost" shot can be saved with a little retouching. For example, on this photo, I was shooting almost straight into the early morning sun, and I had to shield the lens with my hand to prevent flare...
But I didn't quite manage to keep my hand out of the frame. No problem—with that misty gray background, it was easy to retouch out the offending fingers.
I'm no purist. As I said, my aim is to show you the scene the way I saw it. I'll even go further: if there's an ugly street sign or some distracting telephone wires, I may just take them out. Call it artistic license, if you like.
You don't have to have Photoshop to do simple enhancements. I use it because I've been using it for twenty years, but Photoshop Elements will do just as well for this sort of thing. Even iPhoto is pretty good nowadays, and Windows PC users also have plenty of inexpensive choices. Whatever your choice of software, just about any photo you take can be improved by a few adjustments to its contrast, brightness or color balance. Just remember to keep it subtle, so you don't end up with something fake-looking like this:
I actually had to tone down some of the photos I took in Colorado, because the colors were so saturated, they didn't look real!
So there you have it: shoot early or late, not at midday; carry your camera with you all the time (and if it's too bulky to do that, then get one that isn't!); don't be afraid to experiment, but be ruthless about discarding so-so shots; and know your photo software well enough to make your images look the way you saw them, instead of accepting whatever the camera throws at you. Keeping these tips in mind may not make you a pro... but you'll get better photos, I promise you.
Let me close with a word from Ansel Adams. Somebody once asked him, "What kind of equipment do you use?"... to which he replied "My eyes." Truer words were never spoken. And one of the best ways to improve your photographic eyesight, so to speak, is Bryan Peterson's book "Learning to See Creatively". It's the only photography book I regularly reread, because it's not about equipment or techniques—it's about using your eyes.